Seventeen years ago, just days after becoming president, Bill Clinton rushed to fulfill a promise he had made several times on the campaign trail in 1992: he would repeal the ban on gays serving in the military.
At the time, the president could have repealed the ban with the stroke of a pen. It was an administrative directive, not federal law. Clinton, however, did not lay the groundwork for repeal. His fellow Democrat, Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga), then chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and an opponent of the ban, held hearings which upstaged the president. Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, voiced his opposition. And Clinton had Barney Frank, an openly gay Democratic congressman, defending him. The Massachusetts Democrat had no history of military service and was not well regarded in military circles. He cast this issue as one of gay rights.
In the end, Frank helped craft a compromise: legislation that would come to be known as “Don’t Ask,Don’t Tell” (DADT). It allowed gay people to serve provided they didn’t openly declare their sexuality. But it also codified the ban. No longer an administrative directive, it was now federal law. The president would need an act of Congress to repeal it.
Since DADT has passed, discharges of gay service members have continued, with an average of over 1,000 a year in the second half of the Clinton administration and a high of 1,273 in 2001, the year George W. Bush took office. Discharges have since declined, remaining in the 600-700 range from 2003 on.
In the same time period, various interest groups representing gay people in general and gay service members in particular have pushed for repeal. While bills were introduced in Congress, neither chamber acted. In the past two weeks, however, we have seen a flurry of activity. President Obama promised repeal in his State of the Union address. Obama has adopted an entirely different strategy for repeal from that of his immediate Democratic predecessor.
Obama, like Clinton, had promised to act on behalf of gay service members but did not rush to lift the ban, offering little more than lip service in his first year in office. Indeed, many gay activists began to grow impatient with the man they backed so enthusiastically on the campaign trail. Believing the Democrat was dragging his feet, a group of left-wing bloggers called for a temporary moratorium on donations to the Democratic National Committee until Congress passed a variety of legislation backed by gay activists, including repeal of DADT.
Perhaps in response to this pressure, the administration got its act into gear. Instead of having a left-wing congressman spearhead the effort, last October, the administration reached out to Senator Joe Lieberman, an independent Democrat who is not only a long-time opponent of DADT, but is also well regarded in military circles. Barney Frank he isn’t. And indeed, Frank has been in the background on this one. Instead, one of the administration’s point men in the House has a background of military service. Patrick Murphy, a two-term Democrat from Pennsylvania who served in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and was the first Iraq veteran elected to Congress, is the author of the only legislation that would repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” restrictions.