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candidates elaborate on "don't ask, don't tell"

candidates elaborate on "don't ask, don't tell"


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Candidates generally like to tout their differences, but all eight Democratic candidates who participated in the Manchester, N.H., debate Sunday night found rare unanimity in their view that the military should repeal its prohibition of gays and lesbians serving openly.

After the debate, in exclusive remarks to The Advocate, the candidates and their aides remained equally bullish on repeal, though they differed slightly in their approach to getting it done.

The candidates' call to scrap "don't ask, don't tell" may not be an act of unbridled political courage--polls by organizations such as Gallup and The Boston Globe have found that anywhere from 60% to 79% of Americans believe gays and lesbians should be able to serve openly--but the shift was still historic to people who work closely with the issue.

"It's virtually impossible to get eight political candidates to agree on anything," said Steve Ralls, director of communications for the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an LGBT advocacy group. "The fact that they as a party have unified behind an idea that was exceptionally controversial just a decade ago shows how far the movement to repeal this law has come."

Sen. Hillary Clinton fielded the first question on the policy when she was asked if the policy, which became law in 1993 during her husband's presidency, was "a mistake."

Senator Clinton, who has called "don't ask" a "failed policy" on several occasions over the years and noted her opposition to it as early as 2000, said it was a "transition policy" and "an important first step" but acknowledged that it had been implemented in a "discriminatory fashion."

"You know, after the first Gulf War there was a big flood of discharges of gays and lesbians because they let them serve and then after they finished the war, then they discharged them," she said, adding that Arabic-language linguists with critical skills have also been lost to the policy during the Iraq War.

She concluded, "So I believe we could change the policy to let gays and lesbians serve in the military and be covered by the Uniform Code of Military Justice."

When CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, who moderated the debate, noted that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace, said that changing the policy would be demoralizing and hurt troop readiness, Sen. Joseph Biden said, "Peter Pace is flat wrong.... This is ridiculous. And by the way, we got a war on our hands we're trying to end. In the meantime, we're breaking the military. Nine thousand of these people have been kicked out."

Finally, Blitzer asked for a simple show of hands on who believed "don't ask" should be repealed, and all eight candidates raised their hands.

The Advocate got more clarification after the debate in the spin room, where the candidates and their handlers meet a posse of reporters jockeying for position to get their sound bytes.

The big three--Clinton, Obama, and Edwards--sent representatives as did Rep. Christopher Dodd, but Sen. Joe Biden, Gov. Bill Richardson, Sen. Mike Gravel, and Rep. Dennis Kucinich braved the throng.

Here are the unedited responses of the candidates or their aides on what steps the candidates would take to end the discriminatory policy:

Sen. Joseph Biden:

"I would, just as president of the United States, end it. I would issue an executive order saying there will be no discrimination whatsoever in the military and everybody will be held to the uniform military code--so that if two gay people engage in illicit activity on the base, they're gone; just like if two married people engage on the base, they're gone.

"It's simple. And the other thing is, I've talked to these generals in the field--France, Germany, England--they've allowed gays in the military for I don't know how long. And 70% of the [U.S.] veterans--the people who got shot at coming back from Iraq--say they have no problem whatsoever serving with an openly gay person."

Rep. Dennis Kucinich:

"It starts with standing up for marriage equality...the fact is, the underlying issue of marriage equality is what truly establishes rights for our people. When you have marriage equality, issues like 'don't ask, don't tell' disappear. As long as you don't have marriage equality, you have a two-tiered society, one with rights for one group of people and not rights for another. I want full rights for people who happen to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender--full rights, period. We can set a higher tone in our policy--if it's not an issue in our larger society, then it's not an issue in our military."

Gov. Bill Richardson:

"I would pass legislation to end it, but I would also say to my military commanders, 'There is not going to be any discrimination against gays and lesbians in the military.' "

Sen. Mike Gravel:

"When I met with the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, I said, 'I'll do an executive order,' and they said, 'Senator, you can't do that, it's a law.' I said, 'Well, you just watch me.' Let me tell you, I've learned one thing about military people, those stars can come off as easy as they go on when you're commander in chief.... Bill Clinton was nothing but a wimp, and his wife joined him in that. She now says [the policy] was transitional--this was never transitional. They should have taken a page from Harry Truman, who said, 'If I can't get through the Congress the law to integrate the races [in the military], I'm going to do it as president.' Omar Bradley, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the military wouldn't stand still for it. And Truman said, 'Well, if they won't stand still for it, tell them to start bringing in their stars--I've got a drawer that they can put them in.' And that was it.' "

David Bonior, campaign manager for the Edwards campaign:

"[Edwards] has made his position clear that he's opposed to the policy. He believes that sexual orientation should not be a consideration for people who are willing to give their lives to serve the country and risk their lives--that should not happen. Actually, he came out maybe three months ago with his position on that policy. He will do whatever is necessary to get it [repealed], and quickly, once he is in office."

Robert Gibbs, communications director for the Obama campaign:

"[Obama] supports repealing it. I don't think you need a strategy if you support repealing it. I would have to check on what the legislation says, but he has said he supports repealing it."

Ann Lewis, senior adviser to the Clinton campaign:

"I would have to check and see if [Clinton] could do that by executive action. But she has been on record for some time as opposing 'don't ask, don't tell.' She has talked about it and written about it before. She also addressed it in her speech to the Human Rights Campaign. But I would have to go back and see how specifically she could do it."

Ralls said that some degree of confusion over whether an executive order could eliminate the policy is warranted, since "don't ask" was put into place by a congressional vote and a presidential signature.

"There has never been a presidential executive order that attempted to overturn law," he explained. "In general, executive orders create law; they do not repeal or modify the laws. So it's an untested principal for the executive branch to alter a congressional mandate via executive order." (Kerry Eleveld, The Advocate)

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