N E W S A N A L Y S I S
Activists concerned Democrats could lose seats in Senate, House in mid-term elections, diminishing chance for repeal in near future
Wording is everything in politics. What is not said can sometimes be more important than what is said, and what is said can be subjected to a multitude of interpretations that transform a simple sentence into a powerful new expectation.
Such has been the case with this statement, made by President Barack Obama in January during his State of the Union speech: "This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country."
He did not say that he and Congress would "repeal the law this year." He said he would work with Congress on it this year.
But, whatever the president’s intention, the sentence was widely interpreted by many LGBT people and other political circles as a promise by the president to repeal the military’s "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy this year.
And this interpretation has been repeated often enough that it has taken on a life of its own.
LGBT activists have reasons for pushing for repeal this year. In part, they are concerned about mid-term elections this November — elections that many predict could weaken the Democratic majority in both the House and Senate, making for a tougher vote if repeal is postponed until 2011.
And in part, they have been relying on the advice of Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., and the Human Rights Campaign from last September. They said then that a floor vote on DADT in the House wasn’t likely until 2010 because of Congress’ preoccupation with health care reform.
Frank suggested activists focus on garnering support for a 2010 push to approve the measure through on the annual bill to authorize Department of Defense spending.
But now that 2010 is here, another stack of critical bills is piling up on the Congressional floors — immigration, oil spills, climate change and a Supreme Court nominee.
Democratic leaders are not promising to put the language into the original DOD authorization bill but suggesting, rather, that the repeal measure fend for itself as an amendment. And Defense Secretary Robert Gates is becoming emphatic that a vote on repeal should not happen until after the Pentagon study group hands its study into him on Dec. 1.
Gates’ position has not changed since February. Six days after the State of the Union, Gates appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee, with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen, and stated very carefully that his working group would come up with an "implementation plan by the end of this calendar year."
He did not say they would implement the plan this year. He said they would come up with a plan this year. And that plan, said Gates, is to ensure that the department is prepared "should the law be changed," not when it is changed.
The prospects for change are defined, of course, by that delicate relationship between the political composition of Congress and the perceived support of the public as measured through polls.
And, for the Obama administration, those prospects are no doubt still haunted by the memory of President Clinton’s failed effort to overturn the ban on gays in the military — the effort that ended up producing "don’t ask, don’t tell."
So, until recently, the White House has been mum on a timetable.
So, LGBT activists have stepped up the pressure, publicly confronting Obama during a speech in Los Angeles, staging three events in which activists have handcuffed themselves to the White House fence, and, on May 10 and 11, organizing more than 300 veterans to lobby Congress for the measure.
Then, at a regular White House briefing on April 21, Advocate magazine reporter Kerry Eleveld asked White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs whether President Obama is "committed to letting the Pentagon work through its working group process until Dec. 1?"
"Yes," said Gibbs. "The president has set forward a process with the chair of the Joint Chiefs and with the Secretary of Defense to work through the issue."
Asked whether that commitment "rules out legislative action this year," Gibbs passed the buck. Congress, he said, is "a different branch of government."
Congress was clearly feeling the pressure, too, and, on April 28, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee — Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Missouri — sent a letter to Secretary Gates asking for his views "on the advisability of legislative proposals that may impact" the DADT policy.
"I expect this issue will be raised at a number of junctures throughout" the process of reauthorizing the DOD funding bill, wrote Skelton. Skelton opposes repeal of DADT, so his letter appeared to be a request for ammunition against consideration of a repeal measure.
On April 30, Gates and Mullen, responded — although the response came on the letterhead of the Secretary of Defense and was written in the first-person singular:
"I believe in the strongest possible terms that the department must, prior to any legislative action, be allowed the opportunity to conduct a thorough, objective and systematic assessment of the impact of such a policy change; develop an attentive comprehensive implementation plan and provide the president and the Congress with the results of this effort in order to ensure that this step is taken in the most informed and effective manner."
The Gates letter advised Skelton that it is "critical" the DOD working group be able to "systematically engage our forces, their families, and the broader military community."
"Our military must be afforded the opportunity to inform us of their concerns, insights and suggestions if we are to carry out this change successfully," said the letter.
"Therefore, I strongly oppose any legislation that seeks to change this policy prior to the completion of this vital assessment process," stated the letter.
To change the policy prior to this study completion, said Gates, "would send a very damaging message to our men and women in uniform that in essence their views, concerns and perspectives do not matter on an issue with such a direct impact and consequence for them and their families."
It was an unusually blunt message from a man who has demonstrated he is capable of being politically cautious — even neutral — on this issue. Now, suddenly, Gates was drawing a line in the sand and warning of failure for repeal should Congress approve it prior to the study’s completion.
Then, the White House issued a statement that same day:
"The President’s commitment to repealing ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is unequivocal. This is not a question of if, but how," said the statement. "That’s why we’ve said that the implementation of any congressional repeal will be delayed until the DOD study of how best to implement that repeal is completed. The president is committed to getting this done both soon and right."
Given the timing and bluntness of the White House statement, some might have interpreted it as a pushback against Gates’ letter. But LGBT activists reacted angrily to the president’s willingness to wait on repeal "until the DOD study of how best to implement that repeal is completed."
"The commander in chief sounds like he is deferring to his Defense Secretary, to a House chairman who opposes him on repeal, and to his political operatives," said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director for Servicemembers Legal Defense Network.
Michael Cole, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, said the repeal effort lacks "clarity and leadership" and added, "We expect and demand that clarity and leadership from the administration immediately."
There may be a compromise in the works.
On April 30, the same day Gates drew his line in the sand and the White House responded, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., issued a statement suggesting the administration "immediately place a moratorium on dismissals under the policy until the review has been completed and Congress has acted."
It’s a suggestion Pelosi has raised before but which has gotten little attention or support from either LGBT activists or the DOD.
"Our first priority is for full repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ this year," said a statement released by SLDN spokesman Trevor Thomas. "It is premature to be looking at moratorium options right now."
The White House confirmed Tuesday, May 4, that a meeting has been scheduled between more than 100 gay vets and officials in the White House Office of Public Engagement, on May 10.
But Shin Inouye, a spokesman for the White House for LGBT media, said the meeting is simply one of the "many outreach meetings we do on a wide range of issues."
HRC’s Cole agreed.
Cole said the meeting was scheduled as part of HRC’s lobby day effort "for the veterans to hear from the White House about their plans for repeal and for the veterans to share their stories and impress upon them the need for repeal this year."
Â© 2010 Keen News Service
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition May 7, 2010.