The Bizarre Politics of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

The politics of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell have been downright bizarre lately.  It’s pitted Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid against gay rights groups, and pitted the Obama Administration against a Republican group in California… and not on the the side you think.

I. Reid v. Gay Rights Groups
As background, the Senate Republicans were filibustering the attempt to repeal DADT.  This is one of those rare times that a filibuster makes sense for reasons unrelated to politics. The Pentagon is currently examining how the issue would affect troop morale and readiness.  Seeing as we’re currently waging two wars, performing social experiments on the military at this point in time seems loony, particularly since we don’t know how things will turn out.  After all, would we rather have a politically correct military, or the most effective military possible?  I know that racial integration was done by Truman through the military, but that was during peacetime – and not by accident.  Truman realized that the social benefit of an integrated military was a benefit which wasn’t as urgent as stopping the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese.  If the Pentagon concludes that there’s a real risk that allowing openly gay servicemen and women in combat zones will decrease unit cohesion and morale, leading to more lost U.S., Afghan, and Iraqi lives, isn’t that something Congress should want to know about before voting?

But the Republicans being against repeal wasn’t surprising.  What was surprising is that Harry Reid seems to have purposely set the bill up to fail, so that he could use the “no” votes to paint Republicans as bigots.  As bad as playing politics with these important issues is, it’s worse, in that this was all part of the National Defense Appropriations Act, meaning that Reid is potentially endangering the well-being of our troops abroad, just so he can make Republicans cast an unpopular vote.  Box Turtle Bulletin, a gay blog which has been following the politics closely, makes the case here

In the days leading up to today’s vote, Reid announced that he would allow a vote on only three amendments to the appropriations bill. One proposed amendment, which would have removed the DADT repeal language from the bill, would almost certainly not have garnered the sixty votes needed pass muster. A second proposed amendment, which would have provided a pathway to citizenship for immigrants who served in the U.S. military or who graduate from college, also likely would have failed due to Republican opposition and discomfort among some Democrats. A third proposed amendment would have placed limits on Senators being able to place holds on nominations.
Those were the only amendments that Reid would allow to come up for a vote, all of which were chosen by Reid for the political advantage they would give the Democrats in tough mid-term election campaigns. His gamble wasn’t really a gamble at all. In fact, his gambit was a win-win for Democrats, at least in how they see their strategy unfolding. If Republicans upheld the filibuster, then Reid could go home and say that it was the Republicans who blocked DADT’s repeal and immigration reform. If the Dems had prevailed on the filibuster, then Reid would have been able to get the Republican caucus on record on these two issues ahead of the November elections. Either way, what Reid actually sought to accomplish was political gamesmanship, not Senatorial statesmanship.
The Republican caucus insisted that they be allowed to bring proposed amendments up for a vote as well, a reasonable demand that in ordinary times would not have raised an eyebrow. But these are not ordinary times. […] The sixty votes needed to break the filibuster had already been lined up, but that was before Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid decided to limit debates and votes on amendments.

So the bill on the Senate floor was the National Defense Appropriations Act, and it had a whole string of political hot-potatoes either within the original bill, or as amendments: repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell; the failed DREAM Act; and legislation that would permit abortions in military hospitals (this last provision shows just how pro-life Senate Dems like Reid and Casey really are).  The Senate Democrats, lead by Harry Reid, pushed to end the filibuster in order to force a vote. Ultimately, the two Democrats from Arkansas voted with every Republican Senator (and Harry Reid) against ending filibuster.  Reid & co. had purposely made both the substance of the bill and the process of debating the bill as noxious as possible for Republicans (and inadvertently, moderate Democrats) to force them to vote in a way that can be labeled “obstructionist” this fall.  It was supposed to make the Senate Republicans look anti-gay and anti-women, but as the coverage above demonstrates, politically observant gays realize they got played by the Dems: the same article quoted the head of one of the anti-DADT groups publicly bemoaning Reid’s tactics.

II. Obama v. Republicans … but Backwards
So the legislative process didn’t produce the liberal outcome desired by gay rights groups.  Time to once again turn the court into a super-legislature, it seems!  And this time, there’s a perhaps unlikely culprit: the Log Cabin Republicans.  If you’re not familiar, LCR is a gay Republican group (presumably, fiscally conservative) who filed suit in California to have DADT declared unconstitutional.  This necessarily presupposes first that there’s a constitutional right within the military to talk about your sexual preferences, a right I’m absolutely not convinced exists (anymore than such a right exists in the workplace), and second, that this never-before-discovered constitutional right trumps whatever military considerations the military may be dealing with. 

The federal District Court judge, when prodded, suddenly discovered this right as well.  This sort of judicial overstepping is irksome anytime, but it’s particularly unseemly in times like this.  Congress was actively considering whether to keep or repeal DADT, and the courts are going to step in and legislate for them?  It’s this sort of thing that makes people distrust the impartiality of the judiciary, and I really think it’s damaging to the idea of a neutral arbiter. It’s all the worse in that this right is, of course, a new-found Constitutional right, so Congress can’t do anything about it short of a Constitutional amendment.  After ruling, she asked the Log Cabin Republicans what they wanted the injunction to say, and they proposed language immediately forbidding the military from enforcing DADT, presumably pending the outcome of whatever appeals are being filed. 

Opposition to this injunction came from an unlikely corner:

The Obama administration objected Thursday to immediately ending the military’s ban on openly gay service members, saying that an injunction to stop the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy might harm military readiness at a time of war. […] The Justice Department, in its response, said any injunction should be limited to members of the Log Cabin Republicans. Noting that Congress and the administration “are actively examining” the issue, it urged the judge to wait until the Pentagon completes a study on how to integrate gay men and lesbians into the ranks. 

I absolutely agree with the logic of their opposition: whatever the merits of DADT may be, this isn’t the time or manner in which to plow ahead.  Of course, this was the exact logic the Senate Republicans relied upon for why the filibuster was important.  The above article gives the last word to “gay rights groups,” by which the mean the group litigating the case:

Gay rights groups expressed dismay at the legal filing. “We are extremely disappointed with the Obama administration,” said Log Cabin Republicans executive director R. Clarke Cooper. “Many times on the campaign trail, President Obama said he would support the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ Now that it’s time to step up to the plate, he isn’t even in the ballpark.” 

The strange combination of gay rights, military policy, midterm politics, legislative political tricks, judicial overstepping (at the request of a Republican group), has produced some bizarre political maneuvering.  It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out over the next six weeks: whether gay groups temper their support for the Democrats, after these two bruisers.


  1. I follow everything that is said in this post and agree with the conclusions that (1) now is not the time for a debate on DADT and (2) there is no constitutional right to bring your sex life into public in a military or civilian workplace setting.

    But what does Bob Casey’s record have to do with any of this? Are you suggesting he is promoting legislation that would allow military hospitals to perform abortions?

  2. Michael,

    I didn’t explain that well:, but you still figured out what I meant.  First, Roland Burris, the notorious Blagojevich appointee, slipped an amendment into the defense appropriations act repealing the ban on military hospital abortions. The direct effect of this amendment is more abortions, and on the federal taxpayer’s dime.

    After this, Senator Casey voted to break the filibuster and force a vote, as can be seen from this voting voting map; basically, it was the GOP (minus one embattled Alaskan Senator, who didn’t vote) along with the two Arkansas Democrats fighting for their political lives.  When the filibuster held, Casey bemoaned to the nearest television station: “It is disappointing that the Senate blocked consideration of the Defense Authorization bill. Our military needs this bill, yet an effort to even debate the bill was blocked.”

    Does that make it clear enough how he was planning on voting?  Not a breath on, “I’d support this, but only if they remove the abortion portions,” or even, “I support this, but I wish they’d remove the abortion portions.” He doesn’t even acknowledge that as a “pro-lifer,” paying for the killing of children on military bases may be somehow incompatible.  Casey, Sr., was a Democratic pro-life hero, and  paid dearly for it.  Casey, Jr., is just coasting off of his father’s merits.


  3. I’m not sure that charity permits us to extrapolate Casey, Jr.’s motivation in simply promoting debate of a flawed bill.

    Bob Casey, Sr. did more practical good for the pro-life position in the United States than any politician in my lifetime – including the multitude of politicians in both parties whose accomplishments were few to nonexistent but who managed to wheedle enormous support (both political and financial) from the organized pro-life movement. [Few people knew that Casey, Sr. effectively put an 8-year moratorium on the death penalty in PA simply by leaving all the death warrants in a pile on his desk unsigned.] In fact, every time he ran for office, the organized pro-life movement supported his opponent. AND, when Casey, Sr. paid the inevitable price within his own party, there were few voices within the organized pro-life movement raised in his support. I know, because I was here in Harrisburg as it all played out.

    I have no reason to believe that Casey, Jr. has any less conviction than his father. My bet is that he will do equally practical things over his tenure as Senator that will produce bigger and better results than his more “flamboyant” pro-life colleagues who promise much and deliver little. Only time will tell.

  4. Michael,

    I appreciate your concern about rushing to judgment. I also share your admiration for Casey, Sr. He’s been a hero of mine for years, and I think it took real courage to stand up to his own party the way he did. It’s a disgrace anytime that the “organized pro-life movement,” as you put it, stops advocating for life and starts playing king-maker. Rand Paul just went through the same mess with Kentucky Right to Life. Both Paul and Grayson had solid pro-life records, but KRL happened to like Grayson better for unrelated reasons, so they used an apparently-accidental omission of one of the questions on their questionnaire to declare that Paul didn’t have a 100% pro-life rating, and that they couldn’t support him. KRL should have simply declared that they’d be happy with either candidate’s pro-life record and let it go.

    But where I disagree is on the younger Casey. There’s a growing track record of his being on the wrong side of the abortion debate. Obamacare is the obvious choice, but more jarring was his vote against the Mexico City policy (the only thing stopping us from paying for third-world abortions with taxpayer money), as well as his vote against the Vitter Amendment (which would have cut off federal funding to abortionists).

    Don’t get me wrong: he’s cast a good number of pro-life votes, and I’m sure he’s taken his lumps for it. But I just think he’s not half the pro-lifer his father was.

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