Failure to Repeal 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Could Hurt Democrats in November

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Photos: Gay Rights Around the World Pat Wellenbach / AP

In the wake of a Senate vote not to advance the Defense Authorization Bill, the current iteration of which included an amendment that would have repealed "don't ask, don't tell," the 17-year-old ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military, some gay-rights advocates predicted grim ramifications for Democrats in November.

Republicans, led by Sen. John McCain, opposed the amendment, and Senate Democrats fell short of the 60 votes needed to limit debate and advance the legislation (the final tally was 56 to 43). While gay-rights advocates bemoaned the political gamesmanship in Washington, Republicans like Sen. Scott Brown similarly accused Democrats of playing politics with America's armed services. "The majority party, I feel, is using our men and women in uniform as a tactic to pass politically expedient legislation entirely unrelated to the defense authorization," Brown said. "It is in my view not appropriate."

Even Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who said she supported repeal of DADT, was upset with the Democratic leadership's process on the bill, saying she could not "vote to proceed to this bill under a situation that is going to shut down debate and preclude Republican amendments." She added, "Now is not the time to play politics simply because an election is looming in a few weeks."

Speculation has turned to how the vote could affect Democratic prospects in the upcoming midterm elections, with LGBT advocates saying that today's disappointment could hurt voter turnout. "The problem with what's going on here is that younger activists are not going to volunteer," says Lt. Dan Choi, who was formally discharged this summer and has been a leading activist in the fight to repeal DADT. He adds that the LGBT community has long expected a fight with Republicans on the issue, and that today's shock and disappointment are directed at the other party: "[Democrats] are going to come to us in November and say, 'We did our best,' and how they do more for us than Republicans. [In the GOP] we are facing a schoolyard bully, and we expect him to punch us in the face, but we don't expect our friends not to face him down."

Richard Socarides, a former adviser to Bill Clinton on gay and lesbian issues, says the administration will need to act quickly to repair relations with the LGBT community, which overwhelmingly supported Obama in the 2008 presidential election and has since been disappointed by the president's inaction on gay issues. "Clearly, from Obama on down they waited too long and miscalculated what the benefits of going slow motion on this would be," says Socarides. "Now they are seeing the consequences. We'll be looking to Obama to make good on his promise to end the discharges. If Congress is not ready to act, then the president needs to."

Socarides suggests an executive order to end the discharges: "The gay community wants to continue supporting the administration, but we are looking for Obama to acknowledge that things have gone badly and to change course." While the LGBT community would be unlikely to turn out for Republicans in November, Socarides says the disillusionment is sure to dampen enthusiasm. "The Democrats are certainly better than the alternative," he says, "but this was not a profile in courage today. It's hard to understand what anyone was thinking here in terms of strategy."

Former Democratic strategist Paul Yandura, who has worked closely with the gay-rights advocacy group GetEQUAL to fight for repeal of DADT, also sees a need for Democrats to win back the support of the LGBT community. "At the beginning of 2009, many in the community were chastised for being impatient and demanding that our friends and allies set the groundwork necessary to pass repeal of DADT immediately," he says. "Instead, the Democratic leadership and President Obama decided to kick the can down the road, and we are now paying the price for their lack of leadership."

Yandura adds, "The debate within the community has centered on whether the Democrats are truly unable or just unwilling to make good on their campaign promises, but no matter which you believe, there is no scenario where it gets easier for them after the midterms, so we need to seriously reconsider where we put our resources moving forward."

One gay-rights advocate at an LGBT organization, who asked not to be named in the hope of continuing to collaborate with the Obama administration, disagrees with the dire predictions, but agrees that Democrats are continuing to alienate a core group of supporters. "Will this keep people at home in November? No," the advocate says. "But it's additive in nature. I don't know that this particular failure will keep people at home, but it lengthens the list of talking points for why the base would feel disillusioned and disenchanted."

In terms of the current appropriations bill, Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council, a Christian organization based in Washington that opposes repeal of the provision, says he expects amendments to be stripped from the bill. "The three most controversial parts of the bill—the repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell,' the provision for abortions at military hospitals, and the DREAM Act—were all clearly added as a way to pander to liberal constituencies within the Democratic Party, and the bill will be better off without them."

While LGBT organizations are already pushing for the issue to be reexamined later in the fall, Tuesday's defeat could mean that any action on DADT will be shelved until next year, after the Pentagon delivers its findings on the ramifications of repeal to Congress on Dec. 1. But with Republicans expected to make significant gains in the midterm elections, many gay-rights advocates fear that the political will to overturn the policy could be shelved for years to come.

Failure to Repeal 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Could Hurt Democrats in November | U.S.