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Dems reluctant to take on ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’

Democrats say the nation should be ashamed of its ban on gays serving openly in the military. So what have the Democrats done about it? Nothing, really.
Gays Military
New York City resident Andrew Chapin takes part in a rally on Capitol Hill supporting legislative efforts to repeal the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy for gay soldiers in this 2007 file photo.Susan Walsh / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Democrats say the nation should be ashamed of its ban on gays serving openly in the military. It discourages qualified people from joining the ranks at a time when the armed forces are stretched by two wars, they say, and is degrading to those willing to serve their country.

So what have the Democrats done about it? Nothing, really.

Since taking control of Congress in January 2007, Democrats have not convened hearings on the matter or taken up legislation that would let gays serve openly, although most party members favor repealing the prohibition. Instead, Democrats have focused their efforts on bringing troops home from Iraq and other issues that have broad appeal among voters, such as lowering gas prices.

In a recent interview with The Advocate, a gay newsmagazine, Democrat Barack Obama stopped short of promising to lead the way for change, saying only that he can "reasonably see" a repeal of the current ban if elected president.

'Risk aversion and fear'
Indeed, the gays-in-the-military issue has slid from being a top campaign pledge of President Clinton's to a footnote on the Democratic agenda even as some of its staunchest opponents soften their rhetoric and acknowledge that the nation's attitudes are changing.

"Politics is often driven by risk aversion and fear and that's big," said Nathaniel Frank, a senior research fellow at The Michael D. Palm Center in Santa Barbara, Calif., who supports eliminating the ban. "There are people who don't want to be out front on this."

The reluctance is in large part a result of Clinton's painful experience. As one of his first acts as president, Clinton sought to make good on his 1992 campaign pledge to open the military to gays. His effort to change the law eventually gave way to the current "don't ask, don't tell" policy — but not before debate on the issue divided his party, awakened a fierce social conservative movement and helped GOP critics cast Clinton as a social liberal who was woefully out of touch with the military.

"Don't ask, don't tell" is intended to keep the military from asking recruits their sexual orientation. In turn, service members can't say they are gay or bisexual, engage in homosexual activity or marry a member of the same sex.

Quiet resistance to changes
No doubt Obama and congressional Democrats want to avoid Clinton's fate. If elected, Obama's primary task would be trying to end the Iraq war without severing his ties to the military or appearing to the American public as weak on national security issues.

"Many (party) members underestimate where Americans are on this," said Marty Meehan, the former Massachusetts Democratic congressman who last year introduced a House bill to repeal the current policy. His attempts to advance the legislation met quiet resistance among the more conservative Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee who feared the issue would prove too divisive among their constituents, particularly those on military bases.

The party's reluctance to champion the cause also is a matter of political reality: Democrats lack a veto-proof majority in Congress.

"We know this is an issue that would not be met with a lot of enthusiasm on the part of the administration. That's a big reality," said Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif., chairwoman of the House Armed Services personnel subcommittee. "You want to spend time on the things you can move."

Opportunity on the horizon
Davis and other Democrats now say opportunity is on the horizon, especially if Obama is elected president. (Whereas Obama supports allowing gays to serve openly, the GOP presumptive nominee John McCain backs the current policy.)

Davis said she plans to convene a hearing on the issue by the end of the year. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she supports the creation of a panel of military experts to study the issue.

But have times changed so much since the 1993 debate that Democrats could escape any major backlash? Strong opposition to gays in the military remains among conservatives for sure, while moderates are reluctant to embrace change in a time of war.

"The question is, Should this debate be undertaken now, when the nation is heavily engaged in missions abroad, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan?" asked Sen. John Warner of Virginia, former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and now its No. 2 Republican.

Still, advocates cite a major shift in Americans' attitudes in the past 15 years.

In 2007, two separate polls conducted by CNN/Opinion Research Corp. found that a majority of Americans thought gays should be allowed to serve openly in the military.

"You have gay people coming of age who have never known what 'the closet' is," Frank said. Instead, most young people today — gay or straight — grew up watching television shows like "Will and Grace" and the "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," where the stars are openly gay, he said.

Surprisingly, some of the biggest past critics of gays in the military agree that times have changed, including former Sen. Sam Nunn.

A conservative Georgia Democrat and then-chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Nunn led the opposition to Clinton's proposal to lift any restrictions. He eventually embraced "don't ask, don't tell" as a compromise.

'Take another look'
Last week, Nunn — whose name has been floated as a possible running mate to Obama — told reporters in Atlanta that he thinks it would now be appropriate for the nation to revisit the matter.

"I'm not advocating anything — except I'm saying the policy was the right policy for the right time, and times change. It's appropriate to take another look," Nunn was quoted as saying by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Colin Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told NBC's "Meet the Press" last year that "gays and lesbians should be allowed to have maximum access to all aspects of society." A month later, in a confirmation hearing to become Joint Chiefs chairman, Adm. Michael Mullen said that he supports the current restrictions but that Congress should decide whether they remain appropriate.