The inexplicable fight over DADT

THE INEXPLICABLE FIGHT OVER DADT…. In theory, this should be one of the easiest political victories of the year for Democrats. The existing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy is a disaster, denying servicemen and women of basic decency while undermining military readiness.

The public wants it repealed. So does the Commander in Chief, the Secretary of Defense, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and two of his recent predecessors. A majority of the House already approved repeal, and a majority of the Senate supports the same move. And while we’re at it, let’s also not forget that a repeal provision is in a military funding bill that has to pass very soon.

And yet, the consensus seems to be that none of this will matter, and that Senate Republicans will manage to keep the ineffective status quo in place this year — and for the foreseeable future.

At issue is the defense authorization bill pending in the Senate, and whether the DADT provision should be stripped from the bill to get Republicans to lift their filibuster. Yesterday, the White House once again made clear that it “opposes any effort to strip ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ from the National Defense Authorization Act.” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who had said he’d respect the military’s wishes on this, is now willing to kill funding for the troops unless the DADT measure is removed.

Matt Yglesias had a very smart take on this today.

Just as a pure political spectacle here, this is a thing to behold. Filibustering defense appropriations bills is politically risky. And to do it in order to support a hugely unpopular position on a related issue is a giant risk. It’d be one thing if 60% of the public was on the Republicans’ side about DADT. But it’s not. Instead this is a 70-30 issue that cuts against them.

But not only are they getting away with the filibuster, they’re turning their obstruction into a political winner by forcing the progressive community into circular firing squad mode. I try really hard to think of politics in terms of the substance of things rather than the quality of the performances, but from a sports fan type perspective you really have to admit that Mitch McConnell has delivered a gutsy virtuoso performance as a legislative leader. It takes a real kind of vision to recognize that relentless obstruction even of overwhelmingly popular progressive ideas can be turned into a political winner by creating fractures in the other side’s coalition.

It’s one thing to push Dems to take advantage of the opportunity, but much of the recent commentary I’ve seen has come from opponents of DADT blasting Democrats who are on the correct side of this, but who’ve failed to get Republicans on board.*

For those keeping score, this will be the third attempt this year in the Senate. In both previous instances, every Democrat supported getting rid of DADT, and every Republican blocked a vote. Naturally, then, supporters of ending the existing policy are lashing out at Democrats because of Republican obstructionism.

Richard Socarides, who was an adviser to President Bill Clinton on gay issues, suggested to the New York Times that the Obama White House needs to “deliver on this,” though he didn’t mention how the president is supposed to convince Republicans to vote the way he wants them to.

As for the next step, we effectively have a game of chicken. Dems are telling Republicans, “You need to let us vote or we can’t fund the military.” Republicans are telling Dems, “You better scrap the DADT provision, or we won’t let you fund the military.” McCain and other anti-gay senators are expecting Dems to blink first, since Democrats are the “responsible” ones who wouldn’t screw over the troops.

With that in mind, sensible activists shouldn’t just lean on Dems to do the right thing, they should also try to find a Republican vote or two to help make this effort successful.

* edited for clarity