Obama's Measured Path to DADT Repeal

No single individual or organization brought about the tremendous feat of dismantling "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT). In the best military tradition, repeal was a team accomplishment. As we celebrate this historic milestone, it's important to pause and consider the critical roles that so many played and remember that it took a remarkable campaign to pull this off and that the road to repeal was not always a smooth one - especially for President Obama.

When pushed on the issue of DADT in the spring of 2009, one of President Obama's senior aides bluntly told me, "You don't have the votes for repeal." Then, after months of careful deliberations and pressure from a wide range of interests, the President's team embarked upon a path that would make it extraordinarily difficult to get a successful repeal vote in 2010. They had solid reasons for the plan they decided on with the top military leadership, but I did not agree with their timeline.

Initially, the President did not call for Congress to repeal DADT outright as many of us had hoped; he didn't order the military to stop enforcing the law under emergency "stop-loss" powers; and he didn't want the courts to order the military to undo DADT. What he eventually proposed was far more ambitious and time consuming.

His two-pronged approach called, first, for Congress to pass a repeal process bill that would allow DADT to be killed; second, he wanted the military to literally pull the plug on DADT and bury it. The President would give then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen the time they wanted to complete their mission. His was a high wire act with no safety net, and, many thought, with little chance of success in 2010, especially in a lame duck session of Congress. Failure would signal an inept White House and a major setback for repeal.

But the President got some help along the way from his friends in accelerating White House action, even when his team didn't necessarily welcome all of it.

Three impatient U.S. senators had become frustrated, afraid repeal might stall. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) grabbed on to repeal in 2009 and never let go. She joined forces with Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), the Democratic Leader, and Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) to accelerate repeal.

And in the House, then Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), along with Congressman Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and then Congressman Patrick Murphy (D-PA), would pull together 192 House cosponsors for repeal. Their support, coupled with the loud and growing repeal forces, advocates, and LGBT bloggers, kept repeal alive when it looked bleak or on life support.

Jeh Johnson, DOD's General Counsel and President Obama's first appointee to the Pentagon, was the vital link for the White House and the Pentagon on repeal. Gates and Mullen and the cautious Johnson ensured the Obama team would be prepared for the Levin hearings. These three, along with scores of their Pentagon colleagues, had been preparing for months. It had fallen to the low key, dapper Johnson to be the bridge and honest broker between the White House and Pentagon on repeal. At the White House, Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina and a cadre of White House lawyers, labored with Johnson to orchestrate their forces to bring final closure.

It took nearly a year for the President's plan to jell. And it would be another painful year before the winning votes on Capitol Hill. And after that, another seven months would pass before Jeh Johnson would hand-deliver the signed Gates and Mullen certification to the White House for the President's signature and transmitted to Capitol Hill. All in all, not that long for a successful legislative and military operation, but inordinately protracted for advocates and especially long for gay and lesbian service members being discharged every day under DADT and for those serving in silence.

And make no mistake. The President directed his forces with precision, methodically insisting all options be examined and re-examined. He realized almost from the beginning that success would depend upon the military, that he would need Gates and Mullen and his senior commanders and the troops with him to bring about this change. And he also knew that would take time. He was determined not to be rushed. The last time this was rushed without a plan and military support the results had been disastrous. He would not make that mistake.

On February 2, 2010, Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen stunned Capitol Hill by outlining before the Senate Armed Services Committee precisely what the President had tasked them to do. On that day, most knew repeal would happen. It was not a matter of if - it was just a matter of when and how. That turned out to be the final days of the lame duck session of Congress in 2010 when Senators Susan Collins (R-MA), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Reid, along with Pelosi and Hoyer, pushed a standalone repeal bill over the finish line.

Some will rightly quibble over how long it took Obama's White House to pull off this remarkable achievement and who should get credit for what, but one thing few can argue is that repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" would not have happened without a determined President Obama, the essential and unwavering buy-in and support from our military, and an awful lot of very good luck.

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