For ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ Split on Party Lines
By ROBIN TONER
Published: June 8, 2007
WASHINGTON, June 7 — The presidential candidates are dividing starkly along party lines on one of the signature fights of the 1990s: whether the 14-year-old policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” should be repealed and gay men and lesbians allowed to serve openly in the military.
In back-to-back debates in New Hampshire this week, every Democratic candidate raised his or her hand in support of repealing that policy, while not a single Republican embraced the idea. Democrats argued with striking unanimity that it was time to end the uneasy compromise that President Bill Clinton reached in 1993, after his attempt to lift the ban on gay men and lesbians in the military provoked one of the most wrenching fights of his young administration.
Republicans countered that the policy should not be changed, certainly not in time of war.
It is a dispute that underscores the continuing power of social issues — like gay rights and abortion — in each party’s nominating contest, even as the larger debate revolves around a divisive war. And it shows the Democrats returning to yet another issue that confounded them in the past — like universal health care — with the conviction that the public is more ready for change this time.
Democratic leaders have been moving away from “don’t ask, don’t tell” for some time now; Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York renounced the policy in 1999, when she was first running for the Senate. In the 2000 presidential primary campaign, the two leading Democrats, Vice President Al Gore and Senator Bill Bradley, also called for the policy’s repeal.
The issue flared anew because it came up in this week’s debates, not because of any big new campaign initiative on either side. But aside from policy considerations, there is a political rationale for the Democrats’ stance: Gay men and lesbians make up an important part of the Democratic Party’s political and fund-raising base, and voters in general are increasingly tolerant on gay issues related to employment and discrimination, analysts say. While gay marriage remains deeply divisive, allowing openly gay men and lesbians to serve in time of war has a far more centrist appeal, advocates and analysts say.
Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster who also works for the Human Rights Campaign, a gay rights group, argues, “Iraq and the war on terror have created a whole new narrative around the issue of gays serving in the military.” Advocates of changing the policy increasingly argue that it is costing the military talent and manpower it badly needs.
On the other hand, there are political risks, which Republican candidates hinted at this week. If the Democrats emphasized the issue, even in their primaries, it could seem a distraction from issues that are more important to most Americans, including the war, gasoline prices and health care, said David Winston, a Republican pollster. Beyond that, in the view of some Republicans, the issue feeds into the criticism that surfaced in the early 1990s — that the military should not be a laboratory for social engineering.
“This is not the time to put in place a major change, a social experiment, in the middle of a war going on,” said former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. In the Democratic debate on Sunday night, Mrs. Clinton described her husband’s compromise as “a transition policy” that was no longer “the best way for us as a nation to proceed.” She quoted Barry Goldwater, saying, “You don’t have to be straight to shoot straight.”
Mrs. Clinton argues that the military should regulate misconduct, not orientation; she said that homosexuals, like heterosexuals, would be subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which covers misconduct like assault, sexual harassment and fraternization. “But people would not be judged on who they are,” she added.
In an interview, an adviser to Senator Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat and Mrs. Clinton’s principal rival, outlined a similar approach, adding that any effort to repeal the current policy would begin with a review of how other nations — notably Britain, whose military began allowing homosexuals to serve openly in 2000 — have handled the transition. And former Senator John Edwards argues it is long past time to repeal the policy, a spokesman said.
On the Republican side, not one of the 10 candidates on the stage in Tuesday’s debate expressed support for allowing openly gay men and women to serve in the military. Several said the current policy was working well, and Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, argued that, “at a time of war, you don’t make fundamental changes like this.” Senator John McCain of Arizona declared it would be a “terrific mistake” to “even reopen the issue,” adding that the troops now in the field were “the very best.”
“Let’s not tamper with them,” Mr. McCain said.
In fact, many analysts say that if a Democrat wins the White House in 2008, he (or she) may face much of the same resistance that Mr. Clinton did in 1993, when he sought to deliver on his campaign promise to lift the ban on homosexuals in the military.
Changing the policy would require Congressional approval and while such legislation has 126 co-sponsors in the House, it also has powerful opponents. Representative Ike Skelton, the Missouri Democrat and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, supports the current policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” according to his spokeswoman.
Among senior military officers, there is a widely held view that allowing homosexuals to openly serve in the military would be disruptive to morale and detrimental to discipline. These senior officers say that the bonds of trust required for combat troops to develop life-saving cohesion within frontline units would be more difficult, if not impossible, to build, given the more conservative culture of the American military.
Even so, the public’s attitudes on this question have changed significantly since the fight raged through the first year of Clinton administration. According to the Pew Research Center, 52 percent of Americans favored allowing gay men and lesbians to serve openly in the military in 1994, while 45 percent opposed it. By 2006, that majority had grown to 60 percent, while 32 percent opposed the idea.
Much of the shift in attitudes is generational. “Age is a huge factor,” said Michael Dimock, a researcher at Pew. Younger people were, in fact, more tolerant toward gay men and lesbians in the military than their elders in 1994, when 56 percent of the 18-to-29-year-olds supported allowing homosexuals to serve openly, compared with 47 percent of those ages 50 to 64. But that trend intensified: 72 percent of the 18-to-29 age group supported lifting the ban by 2006.
There is also a partisan connection: people who are Democrats tend to be most supportive on gay rights, by many measures.
Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, the gay advocacy group, said he sees “a sea change” in attitudes reflected among Democratic candidates. In Iowa next week, his group is kicking off a “Legacy of Service” tour of veterans from Iraq, speaking out against the policy.
Thom Shanker contributed reporting.
Gay Britons Serve in Military With Little Fuss, as Predicted Discord Does Not Occur (May 21, 2007)
Gay Groups Renew Drive Against ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ (September 14, 2006)
Military’s Discharges For Being Gay Rose in ’05 (August 15, 2006)
New Course by Royal Navy: A Campaign to Recruit Gays (February 22, 2005)