Friday, June 08, 2007

Don't Ask Don't Tell About Don't Ask Don't Tell

Rudy Giuliani had no problem living in the home of a gay couple when his wife kicked him out of the house for having an affair, but in his view Don't Ask Don't Tell --- premised on the notion that men and women who daily risk life and limb from snipers and IEDs would freak out if they knew exactly which of their fellow soldiers were gay --- is working well. And anyway, as he said at the latest Republican debate: "at a time of war, you don’t make fundamental changes like this." Mitt Romney said more or the less the same thing but his sellout on this issue is slightly easier to take because the whole premise of his campaign is that he didn't really mean any of those liberal things he said and did when he was Governor of Massachusetts; he was just kowtowing to a liberal constituency then but now freed from the bluest of blue states he's a true-blue conservative. Romney's approach is something like the Saturday Night Live parody of Hillary Clinton's vote for the Iraq War: "Knowing what we know now, that you could vote against the war and still be elected president, I would never have pretended to support it."

Having just bashed three candidates for President, I'll come to the real point: This is a potentially dangerous issue for both parties.

A NY Times story today reports that a poll taken last year showed the public favoring openly gay service members in the armed forces by a 60-32 margin. Moreover, logic is overwhelmingly on the liberalization side. Excluding---indeed removing---otherwise qualified service members during wartime simply because of their sexual orientation will strike most sensible people as a reckless rather than cautious thing to do, given the stop-loss orders and extended and repeat tours. Nonetheless, positions on Don't Ask Don't Tell are not designed to appeal to most people, sensible or otherwise. Right now, they are designed to appeal to the respective bases of the two parties, but with an eye on the general election too.

And thus we come to the question that's likely to define American politics for some time: Is the Roveian strategy dead? Karl Rove showed that you could (just barely and with some help) win Presidential elections by mobilizing your base and doing your best to mislead and/or frighten swing voters. Presumably some of the Republican candidates who support Don't Ask Don't Tell do so because they actually oppose gay people serving. But the ones who are simply playing to the base on this issue aren't necessarily doing themselves damage in the general. They believe that the 32 percent of Americans who oppose openly gay service members in the armed forces care about the issue a lot more than the 60 percent who favor repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell. Moreover, because the 32 percent are older than the 60 percent, a larger fraction of them vote. (Remember MTV's "Vote or Die," or as it should have been called, "Vote or Don't"). Will this strategy work? Damned if I know. Conventional wisdom says that the 2006 midterms finally repudiated Rove's views, but then conventional wisdom also said that his strategy never should have worked in the first place.