Shouts of “Thank you, Sir!” emanated from the crowd of more than 1,000 attendees at the “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal first anniversary gala honoring Adm. Mike Mullen this past Tuesday in New York City. The former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whose Congressional testimony altered the course of the debate on allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly, in turn saluted those gathered at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum for helping the country “to actually put this behind us and get on with much more important things.”
“We live in a great time of change, and change will continue to occur at an incredible pace, and the changes which have occurred, associated with this law, I think represent such a watershed event that I’m sure others will follow,” he told the event organized by Servicemembers Legal Denfese Network, OutServe, and The Interbank Roundtable Committee.
Military regulations prohibit active duty personnel from making partisan political statements, but next to the reception for the admiral, some of the loudest applause in Hangar 3 greeted video footage of President Barack Obama, who signed the repeal legislation in December 2010. The commander-in-chief happened to be in Manhattan that same night, about 20 blocks south and seven avenues to the east of the aircraft carrier based at Pier 86 on the Hudson River.
Obama gave his own nod to repeal in remarks to a $40,000 per ticket fundraiser hosted by Jay-Z and Beyoncé at the 40/40 Club. The president framed repeal as part of his administration’s effort to advance “some of those issues that had been lingering for too long,” beyond the immediate priority of the economic crisis.
“It’s the reason why we ended a policy like ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ that somehow prevented outstanding people in our services to serve the country they love just because of who they love,” he said.
From primetime speeches at the Democratic National Convention, to the campaign trail and fundraising appeals, “don’t ask, don’t tell” repeal plays a consistent and prominent role as a signature achievement of President Obama and his party. While the issue may seem overshadowed by the more contentious topic of marriage equality this election cycle, the end of the military ban provides an opening for Democrats to draw sharp contrasts with Republicans not only on civil rights, but also on treatment of veterans and national security. Veterans and campaign sources interviewed by The Advocate described repeal as a milestone in which the president and Democrats take great pride of ownership, and find political advantage.
“I think that President Obama has been upfront in making it happen and he’s been out front that it’s one of his major accomplishments in the first four years,” said Patrick Murphy, the former Pennsylvania congressman who sponsored repeal legislation and was defeated for reelection in 2010. An Iraq War veteran, he serves as a surrogate for the Obama campaign, and his travel schedule this month includes visits to Virginia and North Carolina, battleground states home to large numbers of military families.
Weeks before the Senate passed repeal legislation with support from eight moderate Republicans in December 2010, polling indicated an overwhelming majority of Americans favored lifting the 17-year-old ban. Support in a Washington Post-ABC News stood at 77% and cut across party lines, including majorities of liberals, independents and conservatives.
A survey from the Palm Center this week on the one-year anniversary of the repeal’s implementation found no overall negative impact on the military’s functioning. Even one-time critics of changing the policy, such as Gen. James F. Amos, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, acknowledge the transition has been successful.
Democrats say the widespread support translates to a popular issue on the campaign trail, particularly among groups such as young people that have shown reduced enthusiasm since 2008, in part because of the challenging economic landscape. Brad Schneider, a candidate for Congress in Illinois’s 10th District, said repeal resonates with young audiences thinking about military careers.
“If I can count on an applause line, this is always an applause line,” he said. “Universally, these young people are saying, we are all the same, we deserve the same opportunities.”