By Julie Bolcer
Originally published on Advocate.com September 21 2012 4:00 AM ET
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.”
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.”