This week will give Barack Obama’s liberal credentials a significant boost. On December
18th, the Senate had a successful cloture vote in favour of a bill to repeal "Don’t ask, don’t tell". DADT as it is commonly known restricts the US military from trying to discover
or reveal closeted gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members, while it bars those who are openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual from military service. The bill has now passed in both Houses of Congress
and it only awaits President Obama’s signature. As my friend R. Clarke Cooper, Executive Director of the Log Cabin
Republicans, and one of several prominent ex-officers to lead the fight against the discrimination, said: “With this vote, we have crossed one of the final hurdles standing in the way of
ending the failed ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy.”
Since 1993 various initiatives to repeal the Truman era restrictions on homosexuals serving in the military have failed. In the early 1990s, Congress overrode Bill Clinton’s efforts to address the
problem. The Clinton Administration then invented DADT as a midway house between repeal and keeping restrictions.
The issue has always cut through parties, the military and even long-standing political alliances. Democratic Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia favoured maintaining an absolute ban on gays serving in the
military. Reformers were supported by the late Senator Barry Goldwater, a Republican icon, who argued on behalf of full repeal. The issue has recently seen Senator Lieberman and Senator McCain
taking opposite sides.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff have also split on the issue. The Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Chief of Naval Operations, and Commandant of the Coast Guard had no qualms about a repeal;
the chiefs of staff of the Army and Air Force as well as the Commandant of the Marine Corps are on record opposing a repeal for the moment. Perhaps most importantly, the Chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, has denounced DADT several times and pushed for a repeal.
For their part, the American public seem quite clearly in favour of a repeal. In a December 2010 Washington Post-ABC News poll, 77 percent of respondents said they thought gays and lesbians who
publicly disclose their sexual orientation should be able to serve in the military. Other polls, like the Quinnipiac University poll conducted earlier in the year, showed smaller numbers in favour
but still a clear majority: 57% were in favour of gays serving openly, compared to 36% opposed, with 66% saying they thought the current policy a form of discrimination.
How will it play in 2012? Hard to tell. But President Obama, having advocated a full repeal during his election campaign and disappointing his liberal base throughout his term, will now have a
clear "I did what I promised" line for his election speeches. Opposition to reinstate DADT could coalesce around a Republican presidential candidate but such a contender would have to
prove that in the two years since the policy was scrapped, ie from 2010-2012, the military suffered. And that will be tricky to do.