“Don’t ask, don’t tell” is on its way to becoming history. And there are two things about history I feel compelled to point out: It’s often unpredictable (I never imagined it would take nearly 18 years for the United States to dump this embarrassing policy) and it’s often revised.
Look no further than false narratives about what the White House, Congress, and leading gay organizations did to make repeal happen. Some say it doesn’t matter now how it happened, that we should sweep it all under the rug, thank the president, and move on. I say not so fast.
There’s no question that this is Barack Obama’s victory, a great one for which he will be credited in the history books. He initiated the task, taking on the entrenched homophobia in the Pentagon. And we should be enormously grateful that he came through in the end. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look deeply at how we achieved the goal and realize the fundamental lesson for the LGBT movement: Only sustained pressure and continued media attention to the cause — which led to outright embarrassment for an administration and a Congress that failed to deliver all they had promised — will ultimately bring success. Remember that, because the revisionists are already trying to obscure it. Without an understanding of what really happened, we’re not going to win future battles.
Revision number 1:The president really did have a plan for repeal.
The administration and Beltway operatives would like you to believe that the White House had some master strategy. But in reality, Obama and congressional Democrats pulled a rabbit out of a hat with DADT repeal.
For Obama, it was a needed win after — and only after — he’d incurred the wrath of progressives when he caved in to Republicans on extending the Bush tax cuts. DADT repeal was a reform that would help to blunt the disappointment among many in Obama’s base after the Democrats lost control of the House in the midterm election. Indeed, a stunning reality set in last fall: The window for passing civil rights legislation was rapidly closing. Suddenly repeal became a valuable political win for the White House.
If there were a plan throughout 2010, it would have been quite an elaborate and risky one. Was part of the “plan” for the Democrats to lose the House? To allow Republicans to filibuster the defense authorization bill twice? To then remove DADT repeal from that bill and have Republican senator Susan Collins of Maine and independent senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut forge a stand-alone bill? And then to vote on repeal in the lame-duck session with precious little time, only after an omnibus spending bill was pulled because Republicans dropped their support for it at the last minute?
Truth is, the White House slow-walked DADT repeal all year and didn’t want it in the defense bill at all. That Defense secretary Robert Gates would not deliver the Pentagon Working Group study on repeal until December cast serious doubt that a vote would happen in 2010; when activists finally succeeded in adding repeal to the defense authorization bill, the fact that the Pentagon study on the policy wasn’t completed was yet another reason for many senators to withhold support.
Right up until the week before the final vote on the stand-alone bill in mid December, Michigan Democratic senator Carl Levin, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, complained that the White House still wasn’t pushing hard enough to influence the senators whose votes were crucial. The repeal saga took on a life of its own, however, and the White House could only embrace it and accept the win, which it surely needed.
Revision number 2: Grassroots activists caused more problems than they solved and were wrong all along.
The thinking here is that the Human Rights Campaign had been working on an inside strategy with the White House all along — the supposed “plan” HRC president Joe Solmonese asserted that the president had. Yes, Obama promised repeal in his 2010 State of the Union address, but it doesn’t appear he wanted it done by year’s end. And after initially criticizing the White House in 2009 on its foot-dragging, HRC fell in line — likely threatened with losing access—and excused the president’s pace from then on. Rather than pushing hard, HRC allowed Obama to stall repeal, often apologizing to the gay community for his actions.
HRC’s ineptitude was further amplified when the direct action group GetEqual came onto the scene last spring. The actions of Robin McGehee, Lt. Dan Choi, Autumn Sandeen, and other GetEqual activists arrested for chaining themselves to the White House gates, among other protests, sent a message to the administration and Congress that patience was no virtue to those demanding an end to “don’t ask, don’t tell.” According to media reports, Obama grew angry at the actions of these activists, who also disrupted his speeches at fund-raisers for Dems facing tough reelection bids. But that was a good thing; the pressure needed to be on him. The same was true of Senate majority leader Harry Reid, whom GetEqual targeted when members shut down the Las Vegas Strip in protest during the annual Netroots Nation convention in July (Reid was also later confronted onstage by Choi).
The claim that these actions were counterproductive is ludicrous. These grassroots players became the very people that the White House and Reid ultimately responded to, and they were later invited to the repeal signing ceremony in December. Had they not engaged in civil disobedience, repeal would have stalled further.
Revision number 3: Putting repeal in the defense authorization bill was wrong. It should have been crafted as stand-alone legislation all along.
This revision plays on all the others, particularly since it was grassroots activists, along with SLDN, who pushed hard early on to get repeal included in the defense authorization bill. While DADT repeal did eventually pass by itself, it would not have been taken seriously had it not originally been included in the defense bill, a must-pass piece of legislation. Attaching repeal to the bill forced senators to grapple with the prospect of voting against funding for the troops in order to pander to religious conservatives and Pentagon hard-liners. In the end Republicans and a handful of Democrats chose to filibuster the bill twice, but not without significant hand-wringing, which only heightened the repeal effort’s relevance. But even more important, as the year dragged on, the inclusion of DADT repeal in the defense bill became the excuse moderate Republican senators used to join the filibuster.
Once DADT repeal was finally removed from the defense bill in mid December and made into a stand-alone bill, moderates no longer had any excuse to vote against it. After all, the Pentagon study had been released and served only to aid the repeal effort. For Collins, it became a face-saving issue after she’d invested so much in it and saw the defense bill blocked by her own party. If repeal had been voted on as a stand-alone bill earlier in the year, it wouldn’t have had much relevance or momentum. And voting on the bill prior to release of the Pentagon study surely would have doomed it.
In the end, if Harry Reid hadn’t pulled the omnibus spending bill from the lame-duck session—clearing the schedule — the vote for repeal likely wouldn’t have happened. That stroke of luck, bolstered by the relentless pressure of grassroots activists, is what made repeal happen. It’s not a coincidence that other promises made by Obama, including the DREAM Act and ending the Bush tax cuts, never came to pass. I could not think of a clearer lesson for the LGBT movement and for all progressives.