Repeal 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

It will fire up progressives before the midterm elections. And it will further marginalize the right.

The intensity of the left wing’s disaffection with President Obama really hit me over the holidays, when I kept getting into angry arguments with friends and relatives who insisted that our current president is just like Bush. With apologies to my in-laws, this is insane. During his first year in office, Obama has shepherded the economy away from total collapse, put Sonia Sotomayor on the Supreme Court, pushed through deeply compromised but still historic health-care reform, rescued the Copenhagen climate talks from disaster, and started the process of closing Guantanamo. Obviously, there have been disappointments, even betrayals, particularly around civil liberties. But given the squalid realities of American politics, it’s hard to imagine any current president surpassing Obama’s progressive achievements.

Nevertheless, even if the fury of the left isn’t wholly justified, it needs to be taken seriously. Going into the 2010 midterms, the Republican base is burning with passionate intensity, while key Democratic blocs are dispirited, even despairing. They need a victory, a reason to remember why they were so ecstatic when Obama was elected. He can give them one by putting an end to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

Since going into effect in 1993, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has resulted in the discharge of more than 13,500 service members for being gay. At a time when the military is desperately short of foreign-language expertise, it has fired over 65 gay Arabic and Farsi linguists. Obama promised to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” during the campaign, and he reiterated that promise in a speech to the Human Rights Campaign in October. Yet so far his administration has done nothing. Indeed, according to a Center for American Progress report published in June, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” has resulted in more than 265 service members being kicked out of the military during Obama’s presidency.

It’s reasonable that Obama didn’t want to pick a fight with the military right after assuming office. (Bill Clinton’s disastrous attempt to end the military’s ban on gays early in his own presidency is what gave us “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in the first place). It’s understandable that he wanted to focus on the economy first, and then on a new Afghanistan policy, and then on health-care reform. But the justifications for delay have run out. Indeed, tackling the issue of gays in the military right now would be politically advantageous as well as morally right.

In order to entirely repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Congress will need to act, and there are signs that it will. On December 22, nearly 100 members of Congress signed a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates seeking monthly reports on service members discharged for being gay. “Through these monthly updates, Congress and the public will get a clearer picture of the continued costs and damage to our national security inflicted by this policy,” the letter said. Hearings on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are expected this spring.

But Obama doesn’t have to wait that long. Besides coming out strongly for legislative repeal, he can sign an executive order suspending the discharges of gay service members, using the same “stop-loss” authority that lets the military extend soldiers’ tours of duty past their enlistment dates. As the Center for American Progress report said, “A presidential moratorium on further dismissals on the basis of DADT would be the initial first step that would give lawmakers the political cover needed to secure the passage of a bill overturning the current law.”

Such a step would thrill the Democratic grassroots, and put the Republicans on the defensive. Seventeen years ago, when Clinton tried to end the ban on gays in the military, he was working against public opinion. Now, though, polls show solid majorities in favor of letting gays and lesbians serve openly. John Shalikashvili, who was chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was adopted, came out against it in 2007.

These days, even Republicans flinch at being called homophobic. (Sarah Palin, remember, felt the need to insist that she has gay friends.) But among the GOP base, hostility to gays and lesbians is fundamental. Repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” will create a liberal version of positive polarization, heartening the left while forcing the right to marginalize itself. It’s not often that political expediency is so neatly aligned with justice.

Michelle Goldberg is the author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World and Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. She is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and her work has appeared in The New Republic, The Nation, the Los Angeles Times, Glamour, and many other publications.