Democrats' About Face on DADT

Like Bill Clinton, Barack Obama is finding that keeping campaign promises to lift the policy barring open homosexuals from serving in the military is harder than making them.

Almost two years into his presidency, Obama is only now getting around to a repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” With many Democrat legislators in their last days, and testimony from the commandant of the Marine Corps and the Army’s chief of staff supporting the retention of the policy, repeal from the lame-duck Congress is far from a foregone conclusion.

Rather than blaming themselves for inaction, Democrats have been zeroing in on a familiar target: Republicans. Specifically, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid cites a “dizzying” degree of flip-flopping on the issue from Senator John McCain. Alas, Senator McCain’s position is the same as it was seventeen years ago when the “don’t ask, don’t tell” compromise became law. One can’t make the same claim about so many in Reid’s party.

Democrats controlled the White House and Congress when what is called “don’t ask, don’t tell” became policy. Its Senate sponsor was Democrat Sam Nunn; in the House, Democrat Ike Skelton. The president of the United States, Democrat Bill Clinton, signed it into law. Had he opposed “don’t ask, don’t tell,” it wouldn’t have mattered. So popular was the measure that both Democrat-controlled Houses of Congress passed it with veto-proof majorities. The Democrats’ current Senate Whip Dick Durbin, current House Whip James Clyburn, and then House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt were among more than 100 Democrats who voted for the measure.

“I didn’t choose this policy,” former President Clinton now maintains. He blames Colin Powell for selling him “a very different ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ than we got.” But seventeen years ago, he sang a different tune. “From the point of view of homosexuals who wish to serve honorably,” Clinton explained in the summer of 1993, “I think it was a substantial advance.”

Indeed, it was. Gays and lesbians could serve honorably in the military provided they didn’t advertise their sexual practices. And since most people agree that what we do in our bedrooms is a matter neither to ask nor tell about, the compromise overwhelmingly passed. Competing proposals from the Right (asking) and the Left (telling) seeking to publicize private behavior went down to defeat in 1993.

Why is keeping the inquisitionists and the exhibitionists out of the military a matter of such shame to President Clinton, a politician famously beleaguered by both?

Bill Clinton failed to push the military toward full acceptance of openly gay servicemen and women. He couldn’t keep his campaign promise to lift the ban on homosexual behavior in the military because Congress asserted its rights under the Constitution to “make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces” by instituting the Skelton-Nunn legislation. So, he accepted legislation that, although it retained the ban on homosexual conduct, endorsed the suspension of questioning recruits about homosexuality. The policy moved in the direction the president wanted but did not arrive at the desired destination.

If Congress repeals the ban on openly active gays from serving in the military, the next move involves benefits for domestic partners and sensitivity training for officers. If Congress fails to repeal the ban, the Fabian incremental process started by Bill Clinton continues. It never stops.

But the Democrats who instituted the policy hoped for the Republic’s sake that it would. “Enough is enough,” Ike Skelton, the Missouri Congressman who sponsored the compromise in the House of Representatives, explained. “The issue…has been far too divisive, has consumed far too much of the nation’s energy, and has robbed this body of far too much of our legislative agenda. We must put this issue behind us.”

But seventeen years later, we haven’t. The ban on open gays serving in the military still divides, consumes too much energy, and robs Congress of time it could spend on more salient matters. All this over a policy that results in the annual discharge of less than one-tenth of one percent of the armed forces?