Democrats Find Advantage in DADT Repeal

The end of the military ban may not create as many sparks as marriage equality, but the change gives President Obama and the Democrats a reliable weapon in their campaign arsenal.



President Obama after signing the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Repeal Act of 2010 into law at the Department of the Interior in Washington, DC, on December 22, 2010.


Schneider is running against first-term incumbent Congressman Robert Dold, among the most moderate of House Republicans. His campaign marked the first anniversary of repeal on Thursday with a conference call for reporters featuring Retired Staff Sergeant Eric Alva, a gay Iraq War veteran. Schneider linked Dold’s vote in May 2011 to delay repeal implementation with opposition for other LGBT rights issues, including marriage equality, the Employment Non-discrimination Act, and repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act.

The conversation showed how Democrats have been using “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal to start broader discussions on their party’s overall record on LGBT equality and motivate voters around unfinished priorities such as ENDA and marriage equality. Even with repeal, military families headed by same-sex partners lack equal rights because of DOMA, and transgender individuals remain barred from service.

“We talk about how with repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’ we now have open service but we don’t have equal service,” said retired U.S. Navy Commander Zoe Dunning of San Francisco, a lesbian surrogate for the Obama campaign. She has appeared before veterans’ groups, women’s groups and LGBT audiences in key states including Colorado and Nevada.

“I think marriage is something that everyone can relate to, so it tends to have a more universal appeal,” she said. “The military is more specific, but I think people see the injustice in both situations.”

Compared to marriage equality, where national polls show voters more evenly split, “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal is far less controversial. It also represents a concrete federal policy achievement, the flip side being that less advanced items, such as DOMA repeal, can appear to dominate the spotlight.

“I think it was a high priority issue when we were fighting for that right, but having won that battle, lots of people’s attention has moved on to other issues,” said Kenneth Sherrill, professor of political science at Hunter College. “It’s that old rule in politics: ‘What have you done for me lately?’ People are more focused on rights that they don’t have than on rights that they do have,” he said.

The quieter conversation around “don’t ask, don’t tell” stems in part from the lack of vocal Republican support for reinstating the policy. Should such calls grow louder as the campaign continues, voters can expect Democrats to amplify the issue. Or, campaigners may push on the issue to activate loyal voters as Election Day approaches.

“It’s a winner for Obama and the Democrats,” said Sherrill. “Now the question is, have they spoken about it enough?”

Democratic advocates for repeal differed in their assessments of whether Mitt Romney, who has expressed various positions, would actually attempt to reinstate “don’t ask, don’t tell” if elected president with a Republican House and Senate. However, the progress still feels recent enough to prompt concerns it could be halted.

“I think there is fear that they will start taking steps backwards,” said Dunning. “It’s hard to repeal the repeal, but there are ways that they can restrict and make it difficult for LGBT servicemembers. The general consensus is that they will start picking away at the edges of the victories we’ve accomplished,” she said.

In addition to civil rights, “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal has also opened a space for Democrats to tout achievements in national security, a traditional Republican strength. Open service has expanded the talent pool available to recruiters, they argue, and made the Armed Services more effective because troops no longer have to hide their identity. Surrogates situate that within a larger narrative of support for increased veterans’ benefits, ending the war in Iraq, and eliminating Osama bin Laden.

“It’s a contrast of Mitt Romney on several fronts,” said Murphy. “He didn’t even mention the word ‘Afghanistan’ in his first 45-minute primetime speech at the Republican National Convention. Contrast that with the president’s record.”

Tags: Military