We’re not professional political strategists, but if the Obama administration thinks the time isn’t right to end the “don’t ask, don’t’ tell” policy on homosexuality in the military, it might want to consider how things have changed since 1993. That was the year President Bill Clinton instituted the compromise authored by Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Before that, Clinton suffered a series of setbacks to his agenda in 1992. Many strategists said this was because the new president spent too much political capital on trying to lift the ban on gays and lesbians openly serving in the military, which was an unpopular position at the time.
A lot has changed in 16 years, so it is disappointing to see President Barack Obama put this equal rights issue on the back burner. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the administration in rejecting a gay former Army captain’s constitutional challenge to the policy. If the courts had accepted the case, Obama’s Justice Department would have had to defend a policy the president claims to oppose.
The case began with 12 military members filing suit when they were expelled. They lost, and only James Pietrangelo II chose to appeal. The others decided to leave it up to the administration. But because Obama hasn’t issued an executive order or ordered the military to stop pursuing gay and lesbian service members who “tell,” the effect for them and many others is the same as keeping the inexcusable law.
Obama knows the law is wrong. He knows it isn’t morally defensible to postpone an end to this senseless discrimination. And he has an even weaker case than Clinton did for caving in.
For one thing, public opinion has flipped dramatically. Seventy-five percent of Americans favor allowing gay and lesbian service members to serve openly, according to a July 2008 Washington Post/ABC News poll. In 1993, only 44 percent of Americans felt that way. This attitudinal shift would make it much easier for Obama to act. Instead, he’s been unnecessarily timid by calling for the Pentagon to study the ramifications of a policy change. That’s ducking the issue.
Obama’s delays could boomerang politically because the case of former Air Force Maj. Margaret Witt, a decorated Spokane flight nurse, could be next in the pipeline. Her case is considered to be quite strong, and she was a popular and respected member of the military. If his Justice Department fights that case, Obama’s commitment to equality could be severely damaged.
As this policy has demonstrated for 16 years, good intentions aren’t good enough.