McCain’s Top 11 Positions On Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

On Sunday, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) refused to accept the findings of the Pentagon’s Working Group review of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy and insisted that the Department of Defense conduct an entirely new study on “the effects on morale and battle effectiveness.” McCain made this claim despite the fact that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ specifically asked this review to “assess and consider the impacts, if any, a change in the law would have on military readiness, military effectiveness and unit cohesion, and how to best manage such impacts during implementation.”

McCain’s vacillation on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell has been well documented, but a thorough review of the Senator’s public statements throughout the policy’s 17-year span (from 1993 to 2010) reveals that the self-styled maverick of the senate has held at least 11 different positions on the issue. For instance, McCain was initially skeptical of the policy and feared that it would become a “fodder for legal challenges.” During one Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in 1993, McCain questioned then-Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Colin Powell about how DADT would treat soldiers dressed in “transvestite clothing” and had even proposed a compromise that would have extended DADT only to new recruits, but preserved the ban for existing servicemembers.

He eventually voted for the policy, however, and since then has taken a number of different positions about whether or not it should be repealed, reviewed, or debated. What follows is a chronology of McCain’s evolution of thought on the policy:

1. McCain doesn’t think Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell will work, proposes alternative compromise.


“Already the homosexual community has announced, it’s in all the newspapers, that they will take this all to court and they will get their justice, in their view, in court, and what you have done is duck the issue. And frankly — well, I have no further questions, Mr. Chairman, except to say that I think that there is very little doubt as to what you have done here has muddied the issue to an incredible degree. Perhaps you have made some advance, in your view, some improvement, in your view, but clearly, this is fodder for legal challenges. I suggest that you come in with a supplemental appropriation for increases in the JAG corps.” [Senate Armed Services Committee, 7/20/1993]

SEN. MCCAIN: Well, how about, General Powell, if they went in transvestite clothing?GEN. POWELL: I think that would be something that I as a commander would find troubling and I would begin to wonder about that situation, but just the attendance solely at the parade — SEN. MCCAIN: This policy says marching in a gay rights rally in civilian clothes will not in and of themselves constitute credible evidence that would provide a basis for initiating an investigation.GEN. POWELL: I would still take a hard look at it to see whether the costuming that was used started to slop over the good browns of ordered discipline.SEN. MCCAIN: According to this regulation, you can’t.GEN. POWELL: But Senator, this is the problem we’ve had with the regulations that exist now. We are in court now, and as the Attorney General says -SEN. MCCAIN: I’m not — (inaudible word ) — the present regulations; we’re examining the proposed regulations. [Senate Armed Services Committee, 7/20/1993]

However, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a Vietnam veteran, thinks that eliminating the questioning of recruits, but continuing to exclude the openly gay, could be “”a compromise the military leaders can live with, a reasonable compromise,’’ an aide said. [The Houston Chronicle, 5/13/1993]

2. McCain voted for the Defense Authorization Act, which included the measure.

3. McCain served alongside gay servicemembers and can recognize their “lifestyle.”

“On Monday, McCain reaffirmed the United States’ ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy about gays in the military, explaining that he served with gays in the Navy. When asked how he knew that some of his fellow servicemen were gay, he said, “I think we know by behavior and by attitudes. I think that it’s clear to some of us when some people have that lifestyle.”” [Hannity and Colmes 1/19/2000]

RUSSERT: Senator McCain, did you ever serve with a gay person?

MCCAIN: Sure. Absolutely. [Republican Presidential Debate, 1/20/2000]

4. Military leaders tell McCain the policy is working and if they ask him to reconsider the ban, he will.

General, I thank you for your service to our nation. I respect it. All the time, I talk to our military leaders, beginning with our joint chiefs of staff and the leaders in the field, such as General Petraeus and General Odierno and others who are designated leaders with the responsibility of the safety of the men and women under their command and their security and protect them as best they can.Almost unanimously, they tell me that this present policy is working, that we have the best military in history, that we have the bravest, most professional, best prepared, and that this policy ought to be continued because it’s working. [Republican YouTube Debate 11/28/2007]

I listen to people like General Colin Powell, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and literally every military leader that I know, and they testified before Congress that they felt that the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy was the most appropriate way to conduct ourselves in the military, a policy that has been effective. It has worked. […]

And so I think that the policy is working. And I understand the opposition to it, and I’ve had these debates and discussions. But the day that the leadership of the military comes to me and says, “Senator, we ought to change the policy,” then I think we ought to consider seriously changing it, because those leaders in the military are the ones we give the responsibility to. [Hardball, 10/18/2006]

When you have people like General Colin Powell, General Norman Schwarzkopf, our most respected military leaders who tell us that that’s the policy that works, that that’s the best way we can have the finest army in the world — which we don’t for other reasons — then I have to support a policy that the most respected people in America would support. [South Carolina Debate, 2/15/2000]

The policy of “don’t ask, don’t tell” is working. I rely on people like General Colin Powell, people I served with all my adult life, who tell me that this policy is working. “ [Republican Presidential Debate at Calvin College, 1/10/2000]

I would make sure that a policy that’s working and is working and should work is continued. I believe that when people like General Colin Powell and other most respected men in America come up with a policy that does work, yes, it has troubles with it, yes, if it needs some reviews or changes or fine-tuning, then I’ll be glad to support such a thing. But I cannot — I cannot change a policy that’s working.” [New Hampshire Debate, 1/6/2000]

“The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy is working,” McCain said. If there have been abuses, appropriate steps should be taken to correct them, he said.” [AP, 12/29/1999]

“I don’t understand why anyone who would pretend to lead this country would take a position … without consulting the military leadership of our country…”You have to rely on the conclusion, knowledge and experience of the leaders of our military,” he said, and “this policy has worked. The military is a unique culture. We know that.” [The Post and Courier, 12/15/1999]

5. McCain doesn’t want to even consider repealing the policy.

“I think it would be a terrific mistake to even reopen the issue. It is working, my friends. The policy is working and I’m convinced that is the way which we can maintain this greatest military. This [current generation of military personnel] is the greatest. Let’s not tamper with it.” [Republican Presidential Debate, 6/5/2007]

6. McCain wants the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to conduct a study on the “impact of changing the policy” and develop recommendations.

No, I’ve said for a long time I — this is really something that our military commanders should be involved in since we give them responsibility to lead. And I’d like, among other things, to have the chairman of the joint chiefs to conduct an in-depth study and come up with recommendations. [Press Conference, 6/25/2009]

Again, I’ve said for months, I’ll be glad to have a thorough review of the policy by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and their recommendations. You might recall it was General Powell who weighed in back early on in the Clinton administration that said we need to have this policy. And it’s been successful….So I would rely on a study by the Joint Chiefs of Staff as to how the impact of changing this policy would have on our ability to carry out our military missions, and then I would make judgments from there. But in all due respect, right now the military is functioning extremely well in very difficult conditions.[This Week, 5/10/2009]

“I’ll be glad to have it reviewed but I have to base that from my recent conversations with military leaders, they don’t see any reason to change it.” [GMA, 7/19/2009]

7. McCain reacts to Gates/Mullen testimonies: claims that “one” opinion from a military leader will not change his support for DADT. Accuses Mullen of ‘bias’ and attacks the study.

“One person, speaking individually, not on behalf of the Navy at all, is not going to change Senator McCain’s position” on the issue, McCain communications director Brooke Buchanan said, noting that “McCain had submitted for the record a list of thousands of former military officers who oppose lifting the ban on openly gay people serving in the military.” [Statement from McCain, 2/3/2010]

“I’m deeply disappointed in your statement, Secretary Gates….Your statement is the question before us is not whether the military prepares to make this change, but how we best prepare for it. It would be far more appropriate, I say with great respect, to determine whether repeal of this law is appropriate and what effects it would have on the readiness and effectiveness of the military, before deciding on whether we should repeal the law or not…. So your statement obviously is one which is clearly biased, without the view of Congress being taken into consideration. […] So again, you are embarking on saying it’s not whether the military prepares to make the change, but how we best prepare for it, without ever hearing from members of Congress, without hearing from the members of the Joint Chiefs, and of course without taking into consideration all the ramifications of this law. Well, I’m happy to say that we still have a Congress of the United States that would have to pass the law to repeal ‘‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’’ despite your efforts to repeal it in many respects by fiat. [Senate Armed Services Committee, 2/2/2010]

8. McCain believes DADT is working, but wants to see Working Group review.

“I’m not going to deal and hypotheticals as to what would come out. But the fact is that I want to review and then I will make a decision from there. I don’t know what the review result will say, I don’t know what they will be about. And I just have to tell you that I engage in a lot of hypotheticals. But I’m convinced that it is working and has worked well.” [Arizona Daily Star, 4/11/2010]

9. McCain calls for the Working Group study to be completed before Congress acts on repeal.

“I’m not going to allow us to move forward and I will be discussing with out leaders and the 41 members of this side of the aisle as to whether we’re going to move forward with a bill that contains a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy repealed before, before a meaningful survey on the impact of battle effectiveness and morale on the men and women who are serving this nation in uniform. It’s again…moving forward with a social agenda on legislation that was intended to ensure this nation’s security.” [Wonk Room, August 6, 2010]

“I have a big problem with repealing a piece of legislation, that’s the law, without assessing and surveying the effects on the ground, battle effectiveness, recruiting and retention of men and women in the military. I have a big problem with it….and I have a big problem with not surveying and analyzing and studying the issue and what that effect is…I want a study done, a serious study done, to assess the impacts. That’s my position. You’re not going to change it, my friend.” [Wonk Room, 6/14/2010]

“This ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ issue, they’re going to try to jam that through without even trying to figure out what the impact on battle effectiveness would be,” [The Hill, 5/25/2010]

10. McCain says he has no position on DADT, wants to see a “real” study.

“I want to make one thing very clear. I do not oppose or support the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell at this time. I do oppose taking legislative action prior to the completion of a real and thorough review of the law.” [Wonk Room, 9/16/2010]

11. McCain says he wants a new study, before even seeing the Working Group’s report.

“Yeah. You and I have not seen that study. And this study was directed at how to implement the repeal, not whether the repeal should take place or not. But, very importantly, we have people like the commandant of the Marine Corps, the three other–all four service chiefs are saying we need a thorough and complete study of the effects–not how to implement a repeal, but the effects on morale and battle effectiveness… What this study is, is designed to do is, is to find out how the repeal could be implemented. Those are two very different aspects of this issue.” [MTP, 11/14/2010]

“Note that this ‘study’ does not assess the impact on morale and effectiveness of repeal of the law. What it does is ask questions about how the military would adjust to repeal of the law. So therefore, we are now basing a decision by the President of the United, Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, based on a study that doesn’t get to the fundamental question, which is: what is the effect of repeal on morale and battle effectiveness?” [Wonk Room, 9/21/2010]