Advocates want Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell repealed this year, while military leaders say they need time to determine how best to implement the repeal. We can address both wishes by passing the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell this year, and delaying its implementation until next January. This meets the desires of repeal advocates to rescind the legislation in a timely manner, and the needs of the Pentagon to do it right.
Why pass the repeal this year instead of waiting?
1. We have the momentum, our opposition is in turmoil.
No one expected Secretary Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mullen to be so outspoken in support of the repeal. And the surprise clearly extended to Republicans on the committee, who either didn’t even bother to show up, or, like John McCain and Jeff Sessions, were so incensed at being caught off guard, and unprepared, that they took the unusual (and contradictory) position of telling the Pentagon that its opinion didn’t matter.
Our momentum only grew when former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Colin Powell, added his voice, supporting Gates’ and Mullen’s position today.
It is always better to fight a battle on your own terms, and to fight when you have the upper hand. We have both at the moment, but they won’t last for long.
2. Our opposition will regroup.
It’s only a matter of time before the Republicans get their talking points, and their religious right troops, in order, and do what they do best – attack, attack, attack. Better to take them on now when they’re not fully ready, and we are.
3. We can’t afford a long war.
Democrats are good at battles, Republicans are better at wars. We excel at short term blitzes, they excel over the long haul. Health care reform was a good example of this last year. No matter how good our hand, no matter how just our cause, the more time we gave the GOP to fight back, the more effective they were at tearing us down and turning the public against us. We have been fighting for the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell for 17 years. The polls show the public overwhelmingly on our side. We gain nothing by dragging this out another year. Our opponents gain everything.
For those advocates who worry that delayed implementation is justice denied, in fact there wouldn’t be much of a delay at all. Last year, the Defense Authorization bill didn’t pass until the end of October (many are advocating that the repeal be placed in the Defense Authorization bill to ensure against a GOP filibuster, and simply because it’s clearly germane). The Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal legislation in the House already provides the Defense Department with 90 days in which to promulgate the regulations needed to implement the bill. The end of October plus 90 days equals the third week in January. About the time Secretary Gates told us the study would be complete. So in fact, the military can get it right, and we can still get it quickly, by passing the bill this year and delaying implementation until next.
There is another imperative for acting now. In an off-year election, when the party controlling Congress also controls the White House, it’s generally expected (though not guaranteed) that the majority in Congress will lose some seats. Last month, we saw how the loss of just one Senate seat in Massachusetts, leaving Democrats with “only” an 18 seat majority in the Senate, threatened to imperil Democratic resolve across the board. We don’t need the uncertainty of the fall elections adding to our troubles when we know we can get the job done now.
Finally there is political gain in proceeding expeditiously. While those of us in Washington debate the nuance of when the President, the Secretary, the Chairman and the Congress really want to see Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repealed, regular Americans, including gay Americans, their friends, and their families, saw only one thing this past week: Our President and our military leaders united in their resolve that the ban would be lifted, and soon. The expectations have been raised. There is no backing down now. To the extent that the repeal is delayed beyond the fall elections, with the knowledge that such a delay imperils the entire repeal effort, the Democrats are going to have some angry voters and donors on their hands, right before a major election that could affect the balance of power in the Congress. By choosing to pass the repeal before the election, the Democrats re-energize their base just when they need it the most.
Secretary Gates and Chairman Mullen stuck their necks out for us, and for their commander in chief, yesterday. They got our back, now it’s time we got theirs. DOD and the White House have made clear that they plan to repeal the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy. And if you’re going to fight a war, then you had better plan to win it. It would be folly to proceed with the repeal in a manner that didn’t maximize our chance of success, and limit our opponent’s.
The best opportunity we have to lift the ban is to include it in the Defense Authorization bill, get it passed this year, and direct that implementation be postponed until a specific date, pending the Pentagon’s review of the best manner in which to implement the repeal.