Why Obama Deserves Credit for DADT Repeal
by Rob Harbaugh
[Note: In the DADT open thread, I said that I would get the thoughts of a friend of mine, who had experience with the legislative process, having worked on Capitol Hill as a legislative aide, and who normally pays closer attention to what’s happening on Capitol Hill than I do. Here they are—James Hanley]
Yesterday, I was asked to comment on the recent and surprising action by Congress to overturn DADT and what was President Obama’s role in making this happen. To be honest, I usually like to give credit to Congress for many of its activities when it is of this controversial nature however I would argue that the decision to overturn DADT was really motivated by the Administration and not by Congressional actors. In order to understand this position I believe we must look at the five key motivators of Congressional action: 1) constituents, 2) interest groups, 3) institutional leadership, 4) national emergencies, and finally 5) the Administration.
A quick examination reveals why the first four motivators are flawed for explaining why Congress overturned DADT. The first is that simply put, the American people were not clamoring for Congress to repeal DADT. A variety of current public opinion polls show that a significant majority of Americans are ok with gays serving in the military. However, they were doing nothing to push Congress towards repeal. The American people have bigger issues on their mind, i.e. the economy. I would accept that several members in both the House and Senate voted their constituencies, like Scott Brown of Massachusetts, however that doesn’t mean their constituents were pushing them.
Secondly, while interests groups like Human Rights Campaign and other pro-gay rights interest groups receive a good deal of respect in DC, they are not real heavy hitters. In my professional life before teaching, I was a legislative aide to a member of the US House and my legislative portfolio included being the lead staffer on homosexual issues for the Congressman. I can tell you from experience that the staffers of these interest groups are great political operatives, but simply lack the power and influence of the major players in DC like the Chamber of Commerce or even the labor community.
While some argue that it was Congressional leadership who pushed the repeal of DADT, I would respectfully disagree. Nancy Pelosi is not acting like the Speaker of the House, but she is already acting like the Minority Leader who is struggling to keep her caucus happy. While passage of DADT might appear like Pelosi is exerting her Speakership power, the reality is that passage was a practically a foregone conclusion in the House, especially since the Democratic majority wanted a win following the tax bill “debacle.” Also remember that she faced a challenge to her leadership position following the Democrats large loss in November.
While Rep. Heath Schuler did not mount a huge campaign for the post, he still captured more than 60 votes of the incoming caucus, which suggests that Pelosi has real problems. I believe she recognizes this and is scrambling to redefine the image of her caucus and more importantly herself. For the better part of 30+ years the Senate has been evolving into a more individualistic chamber than ever before and unfortunately for Harry Reid he continues to falter in the face of that growing individualism. Without a filibuster proof majority, Reid is vulnerable to attacks from the GOP and since he has proven to be a weak leader anyway, I don’t believe he could have pushed this through an unwilling Senate.
It can certainly be argued that with the US engaged in conflict in Afghanistan and still having a certain amount of forces in Iraq (perhaps not directly in combat, but present) that a certain level of military emergency exists. In spite of this, I do not believe that the repeal of DADT constitutes a response to a national crisis and therefore was not the motivation for Congressional action.
This leads me to the fifth and final motivator, the Administration. While President Obama has certainly not been a constant and daily advocate for repeal, he has been central to finally making Congress act. Some might argue that since he wasn’t front and center on TV and in the papers everyday he couldn’t be that important, I disagree. Although Obama has been forced to use the political capital he currently has left to accomplish what he views as bigger priorities, such as the tax cut deal and perhaps Senate movement on the START treaty, which the Senate has finally taken up, that does not mean he hasn’t been using key players to advance the cause of repeal. I would agree with many people that the idea of Obama using the “hidden hand” of the presidency is out of character for him, however Obama is no political fool, he has shown on more than one occasion he can engage in masterful political maneuvers.
I would argue that Obama used his two most useful people in making this repeal happen, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen. Gates and Mullen are both highly respected by members of both political parties on Capitol Hill and their views matter. In recent weeks both Gates and Mullen were regularly called upon by Congress to testify on the repeal DADT and its effect on military readiness. They were consistently in favor of repeal. Further, both of these men were regulars on news programs discussing repeal of DADT. I believe that it was actually better for Obama to be using Gates and Mullen as his message carriers rather than himself because of the respect members of Congress have for them both, plus their testimony carried greater legitimacy since it was coming straight from DoD rather than being just more White House rhetoric.
There are even members of the gay interest group community who agree with this assessment. In a recent statement for an article in Politico following the repeal, C. Dixon Osburn, founder of Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a gay advocacy interest group stated, “Obama, more than any president, has urged nondiscrimination in the military, and it’s my strong sense he’s worked tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure that people who needed to lead this effort in the Pentagon and Congress have done so.” He goes to say, “One of the most significant things he’s done was to realize that we needed to have the military leadership, Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen, out there in front.” I could not agree more.
Robert Harbaugh, MA
Adjunct Instructor of Political Science