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Over the Hedge: McCain on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”

October 8, 2010
Sen. John McCain

Image by Kate Holterhoff

If you’re waiting for social change to arrive, you don’t need a big court decision or legislative victory to tell you that it’s on the way.  Language, especially language used by policy makers, can tell you everything you need to know.

Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell (DADT), the US military’s ban on openly gay and lesbian soldiers, is a good example. One might well look to the “big” signs.  Some of them are good.  President Obama has long expressed his wish to end the policy through legislative means and a federal judge in California recently ruled the policy unconstitutional in Log Cabin Republicans v. United States of America.  On the other hand, some of the signs are bad.  Sen. John McCain successfully led a filibuster last month against the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2011, ostensibly because the bill included a measure repealing DADT.

But, McCain will eventually change his mind and support a repeal.  How do I know?  It’s in his language.

In a 2006 interview with Chris Mathews, McCain said that he would support the repeal of DADT if and when the “leadership of the military” also supported a repeal:

We have the most qualified, the bravest and most capable military we‘ve ever had in our history, 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.

McCain was criticized when, earlier this year, he appeared to reverse his position on DADT after Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen—who surely represent “leadership of the military”—expressed support for a repeal of DADT.  Asked about this apparent reversal, McCain said that “At this moment of immense hardship for our armed services, we should not be seeking to overturn the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.”  McCain does not exactly reverse his position; he merely questions the timing of recent attempts to overturn DADT.

His recent remarks about the stalled National Defense Authorization Act, which included a measure repealing DADT, are almost bizarrely ambivalent.  Despite having just lead a filibuster, he said, “I’m not supporting it, and I’m not opposing it” and claimed that more information was needed. This is hedging, plain and simple. Hedging is a way of expressing uncertainty in language.  People often hedge by adding adverbs or introductory clauses that water down the force of a statement (e.g. “I’m no doctor, but you might want to have that looked at”).

McCain hedges in the way he justifies varying positions on DADT.  He provides three different justifications:
1.  Deference to military leadership (in his 2006 remarks).
2.  Timing/involvement in two wars (in his February 2010 remarks).
3. The need for more information (in his most recent remarks about the filibuster of the National Defense Authorization Act).

So why does McCain’s reasoning keep changing?  Are his reasons for opposing the repeal of DADT changing?  It’s certainly possible.  It’s more likely, however, that McCain did not expect military leadership to support repeal anytime soon.  When that happened, he switched to a less measurable “timing” rationale.  Most recently, he has shifted to an even less quantifiable we-don’t-know-enough-yet concern.

McCain provides standards of evidence that get harder and harder to meet.  The first standard, support from military leadership, has already been met.  The second, the end of seemingly endless wars, seems more and more probable.  The last standard (more information) offers McCain an almost unlimited time period in which to act. How do we know when we know enough about DADT?  I guess he’ll let us know.

Although McCain’s position on DADT appears more and more vague, the meaning of his hedging is clear.  He knows that change is coming, but the voting public is still divided on whether or not DADT should be repealed.  It’s smart for McCain to make his position ambiguous.  Getting off the fence later is going to be tricky business, but then, that’s what the hedges are for.

If you want to know more:

  • For more footage of McCain being crabby about DADT (and also those annoying journalists who insist on asking irritating questions) check here.
  • For a thorough treatment of hedging in political discourse, see Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s article, “Justifying the War in Iraq: What the Bush Administration’s Uses of Evidence Reveal.”
  • For an example of a Democrat hedging, see President Obama’s comments supporting the repeal of Prop. 8, but not same-sex marriage.

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