After President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address last January, a friend of mine tweeted, “End Don’t Ask Don’t Tell now. Not in a few months, not soon. Do it now.” If only it were that simple.

In December, the president finally signed the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” — the ban on homosexual men and women serving openly in the military — into law. For supporters of the repeal, the elongated process leading up to it was painstakingly slow. The president campaigned on a platform of ending DADT, he had Democrat majorities in both houses of Congress and a majority of Americans supported changing the policy. Despite these factors, the repeal wasn’t passed until the lame-duck session concluded the president’s second year in office. What’s more, for supporters of the repeal, this is a no-brainer issue. The old policy was discrimination, end of story. It becomes tempting to ask — what took so long?

And while I do support the DADT repeal, I’d like to challenge fellow supporters to understand why it took so long to pass. It’s too easy to just say that the president lacked the boldness to take a strong stance or that it was all because of those stubborn Republicans. The answer lies largely in the fact that our political system was intentionally designed to be complex and slow moving. Officials face political checks and constraints at every level of discourse, and it would simply be foolish for them to ignore such constraints. The story of the DADT repeal legislation is full of lessons about how our political system functions and shows how difficult it can be to pass even the most promising legislation.

The first institutional factor that contributed to the lengthy timeline of the bill was Obama’s campaign. It’s true that the president campaigned on a platform of repealing the policy. However, whenever any candidate runs for office, that individual must build a coalition of diverse voting blocks in order to win the election. Once candidates are in office, they must prioritize certain parts of their electoral platform, inevitably alienating certain groups who voted for them. It’s clear that when the president came into office, the stimulus bill and health care reform were his biggest priorities. Perhaps at the expense of the DADT repeal, the above policies required lots of time and political capital in order to pass.

Next, obtaining military support for the repeal was itself a convoluted process. The Pentagon must approve the DADT repeal before it can be implemented, meaning that it would have been pointless for the president to pass a bill without first seeking military support. In early 2009, the president began meeting with top Pentagon officials — who were simultaneously managing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — to begin garnering such support. The pentagon leadership did come to approve the measure, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress in February. The Pentagon also released a study on Nov 30 that said repealing the ban posed little risk to military operations. Regardless, there is still strong resistance within the military, especially the Marine Corps, to changing the policy.

Finally, as in any legislative debate, the opposition took all defensive measures available to stall or block the repeal. Dissenting leaders within the military urged voters to lobby their elected officials for upholding the ban, and Congressional Republicans stated they were unconvinced that a repeal had full military backing. Although the House passed a repeal measure relatively easily in May, Republican filibusters blocked the bill in the Senate, once in September and once in early December. By the time of the final vote though, the Senate gained enough Republican support for the bill’s passage.

My point is that there are always institutional barriers that prevent passing major reforms, regardless of what those reforms are. As my Public Policy Prof. John Ciorciari puts it, there are lots of ways for policy actors to play offense, and lots of ways to play defense, and those actors will clash at every juncture in the process. This was true for DADT and will continue to be true for major legislation in the future. LGBTQ activists can criticize the president all they want for not taking swifter action, but everyone has something to learn from observing how the repeal did get passed.

Jeremy Levy can be reached at jeremlev@umich.edu.

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