The Senate today mustered only 56 votes – four short of the necessary 60 – to break a filibuster and bring to a vote a defense appropriations bill containing two highly controversial provisions: (1) a measure repealing the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy (a Clinton-era policy) that permits gays to serve in the military only if they are not openly gay, and (2) the DREAM Act, which permits illegal aliens to earn citizenship either by military service or enrollment in college. Leaving aside Harry Reid (who voted against cloture for procedural reasons*), the opposing votes included all present Republicans as well as Arkansas’ two Democratic Senators, Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor.
The DADT vote was the headliner, and the subject of much anguish among liberals/progressives and their Hollywood allies who see ending DADT as a key unfulfilled Obama campaign promise. But the fact is, the Democratic leadership was never serious about using this vote to overturn DADT. Let us count the ways.
(1) Having a DREAM
DADT repeal was appended to an otherwise uncontroversial measure, the annual defense appropriations authorization bill. But it wasn’t the only controversial measure; the bill also included the DREAM Act, which not only allows illegal aliens to become citizens through honorable military service (a not-uncontroversial provision, but on balance a reasonable one and rationally related to the purpose of the bill) but also extends citizenship for attending college. This is a radical expansion of immigration law, and one fraught with perils; as we know from experience with federal education grants (and, further back, draft deferments), if you give people something really valuable in exchange for being in “college,” you create incentives for lots of shady “colleges” to offer enrollment to people desperate to gain federal benefits.
Anyway, by offering two separate cultural flashpoints in the same bill, the Democrats guaranteed an out to any Republican – or Democrat – who wanted to vote against the bill. Scott Brown, for example, might have felt some pressure from his constituents to support DADT repeal, but Brown is on record as an opponent of illegal immigration, and so he could comfortably sidestep that issue by declaring the DREAM Act a game-breaker. Meanwhile, Reid – who has no particular need for gay support but needs Latino support in a big way to get re-elected, which is why he famously declared that the Nevada construction industry employs no illegal immigrants – gets to go back and run Spanish-language ads casting the vote as some sort of anti-Latino pogrom.
(2) Limiting GOP Amendments
It’s Beltway inside baseball to be sure, but while Reid stuffed the bill with liberal hot-button cultural issues, he refused to allow Republicans to offer much in the way of amendments – a decision that made it easy for wavering liberal Republicans like Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe to decide that their votes for this bill were not wanted.
(3) Rushing It
The military is scheduled to deliver a report on DADT in December. While the bill in question would have formally required that DADT repeal be delayed until a certification that the report was favorable to repeal, that’s not the same as allowing legislators to read the report and put their own interpretation on it when it comes out.
Personally, like a lot of Republicans, I have no particular stake in DADT. While there are arguments on both sides of this issue – including the fact that military histories are full of successful soldiers, even military commanders, who were known or broadly suspected to be gay – I think the arguments for allowing openly gay soldiers to serve are stronger in theory. But of course, militaries don’t operate in theory, they operate in the most ruthlessly practical of realities, and so the views of the people charged with actually running the military on a day-to-day basis (particularly the NCO corps) are quite important to deciding whether the military is ready to deal with the unique challenges presented by openly gay soldiers.
If the Administration and Senator Reid waited for the report to come down, they might find a good deal more bipartisan support for DADT repeal, as liberal Republicans – even filibuster leader John McCain, who has expressed openness to changing his mind on this issue – – may have found bipartisan cover for supporting repeal. But they’re not interested in doing this as a bipartisan measure; they were interested in a polarizing social-issue split to help fire up their dispirited base for the election, and perhaps preempting the possibility that the military report would be less favorable than advertised. I just hope that base understands the cynical calculations involved in the vote.
The Administration pulled so few strings to get this bill passed that Mother Jones magazine was left to ask plaintively, “Is Lady Gaga a Better Politician Than Barack Obama?,” referencing the stump speeches and Twitter activity by the 24-year-old pop star in favor of the bill. One can forgive Gaga for her political naivete – or commercial cynicism, as her fanbase is heavily gay and overwhelmingly in favor of DADT repeal – but the lack of initiative by the Administration on behalf of the bill is telling, if not of President Obama’s fatal political weakness, then of his unwillingness to spend political capital on DADT repeal.
* – Only a Senator who votes against cloture can bring a bill back up for a later vote. Thus, the Majority Leader generally votes against cloture if he does not have the votes to break the filibuster.