Ballot Box

Slander Patrol: Gore’s Litmus Test

John McCain says Al Gore and Bill Bradley are not qualified to be commander in chief “based upon their support of a litmus test for future chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.” The Republican National Committee is now running ads that say the same thing. Leaving aside the minor nuance that Bradley never endorsed any test at all, let alone a “litmus” test for the Joint Chiefs chairman, is McCain right to argue that Gore’s position is unreasonable?

Here’s what Gore said in the debate on January 5, in response to a question from Peter Jennings on whether he would have a “litmus test” for the post of chairman of the Joint Chiefs:

I would try to bring about the kind of change in policy, on the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, that President Harry Truman brought about after World War II in integrating the military. And I think that would require those who wanted to serve in on the position of–on the Joint Chiefs to be in agreement with that policy. So, yes.

In answer to a follow-up question from Jennings, Gore modified his answer slightly. “I would insist, before appointing anybody to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that that individual support my policy,” the vice president said. “And, yes, I would make that a requirement.” Requiring “support” is somewhat different than requiring “agreement” (see “Kausfiles” for further analysis of this distinction). After he was attacked for the answer, Gore made clear his preference for his second response over his first. “I did not mean to imply that there should ever be any kind of inquiry into the personal, political opinion of officers in the U.S. military,” Gore said, at an impromptu press conference two days later.

As Gore belatedly realized, “support” is the better answer, because it leaves open the theoretical possibility of appointing a military officer so honorable that he will work assiduously to implement a policy he personally disagrees with. But in reality, there isn’t much of a difference between “support” and “agreement”–certainly not enough to constitute a “reversal,” which was how the New York Times characterized Gore’s adjustment. Chairmen and members of the Joint Chiefs who “personally” oppose this particular change in policy are not likely to put their feelings aside and implement it. They’re likely to try to sabotage it.

Consider what happened to Bill Clinton when he tried to lift the ban on gays in the military in 1993. In theory, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs at that time, Colin Powell, was an obedient officer ranking directly below Clinton in the chain of command. In practice, Powell worked around Clinton to prevent a policy change that he disagreed with. After Clinton was elected but before he was sworn in, Powell gave a speech at the Naval Academy in Annapolis in which he told midshipmen that if the new policy violated their beliefs, they should consider resigning from the military.

George Stephanopoulos describes the political reality of the situation in his book All Too Human. “I knew we had no cards to play,” Stephanopoulos writes, describing Clinton’s first meeting with Powell and the Joint Chiefs. “If we didn’t work out a compromise with the chiefs, they would sabotage us on the Hill. While they were obliged to obey their commander, they had the right to present their personal views to congressional committees publicly.” It was, in fact, the prospect of Powell and the other chiefs testifying before Congress about their personal opposition to allowing gays to serve in the military that gave Sen. Sam Nunn the leverage to foist Powell’s own preferred compromise of “don’t ask, don’t tell” on the administration. And had Congress not acted, it’s entirely likely that the chiefs would have worked to sabotage the new policy at the bureaucratic level.

For this reason, Gore’s “litmus test” position is not merely defensible; it’s the only sensible one to take if you seriously intend to get rid of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” By contrast, Bradley’s stance–that he would expect the chairman of the Joint Chiefs to follow his orders–is utterly naive. As for the Republican line that all the Joint Chiefs ever do is offer advice and obey their commander in chief, it’s worse than naive. It’s disingenuous. Conservatives know that litmus-untested chiefs are likely to try to undermine a Democratic president’s effort to allow gays to serve openly in the military. And what’s more, Republicans want them to undermine it.