The untold story of the DADT repeal

It was December of 2010, and Congress was in a protracted battle over a host of issues, including an extension of expiring tax cuts, the Defense Authorization bill which included a contentious repeal of the so-called Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT) policy, and the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty.

Senator Susan Collins, who I worked for at the time, had just come back from a meeting with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.  She and Senator Joe Lieberman had presented Reid with a very reasonable and fair proposal to allow a limited number of Republican amendments on the Defense Authorization bill, as a means to secure enough GOP support to invoke cloture on the bill, allowing debate, and securing its eventual passage.

Immediately after that meeting (and without telling Collins), Reid marched onto the Senate floor and announced that he was scheduling a vote.  Something very strange was happening, because Reid knew that without a deal to allow Republican amendments, the bill would fail.

Senator Collins was incensed.  The Defense bill and DADT repeal were both important to her, and she had expended a great deal of political capital advocating for them.  At this point, she was the only Republican willing to publicly push for the repeal, and she knew that holding a vote at that time would kill all the progress that had been made.

She virtually sprinted to the Senate floor to make an impassioned speech, expressing her bewilderment at the Majority Leader’s actions, and took him to task for sacrificing a vitally important bill on the altar of partisan politics.  Reid, of course, walked away and moved forward with the vote anyway.

The bill was promptly blocked by a GOP filibuster, just like Reid knew it would be.  There were real concerns with the legislation that Republicans wanted to address, and the Majority Leader knew that without any allowance for amendments the bill would die.  The fact that he brought it up anyway meant he was up to something.

Before we could even blink, a report by Greg Sargent of the Washington Post hit, quoting anonymous aides to Harry Reid, claiming that Senator Collins was making unreasonable demands such as an insistence on unlimited debate, which were of course complete fabrications and never part of the proposal she had made.

My email account was simultaneously being overwhelmed with liberal authors from leading gay rights blogs, parroting the exact same narrative and demanding answers.  It quickly became obvious to us that Harry Reid and his allies in the White House were actively engaged in a coordinated attempt to torpedo the Defense bill, and blame Republican hyper-partisanship for its failure and for blocking repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

The White House and Harry Reid had decided that hammering home the “party of no” narrative, and painting the Republicans as obstinate obstructionists was, to them, good politics. Better politics than passing the historic legislation, it seems.

But Reid got outflanked.  Senator Collins, together with Senator Lieberman, unexpectedly introduced a standalone DADT repeal bill, intended to go around Reid’s roadblocks.  After a great deal of lobbying to rally a number of other Republicans to support the bill – a necessary step to prevent a filibuster – her bill eventually passed 65-31, thanks almost entirely to Senators Collins and Lieberman.

Wednesday, President Obama completed his supposed “evolution” on the gay marriage issue by coming out in favor, personally.  In the fawning coverage by much of the media for his “support”, the repeal of DADT has often been cited as an accomplishment of his, which it was not.

The president, who we all knew favored gay marriage since at least 1996, pretended to oppose it in 2008 for his own political benefit.  Then he winked at the gay community by saying he was “evolving” on the issue, which is political code for, “I can’t say what I really believe right now, but elect me to a second term and we’ll talk.”

Politics is, above all, what matters to this the supposedly post-partisan president.  I saw up close the White House and its Democratic allies actively trying to stop, for political purposes, the very legislation they are now taking undue credit for.

Instead, a lone Republican Senator from Maine was the one actually taking a phenomenal personal and political risk, and ultimately proved to be the real engine behind the repeal.

So while I consider the president’s rhetorical support for gay marriage to be a welcome development, I’ll believe the conversion genuine when I see some tangible proof.

Until then, I’ll believe this – like so much with President Obama – is a cynical case of political gamesmanship driven by opportunism, not principle.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.