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Why Did the Republicans Cross the Aisle in the DADT Vote?

December 22, 2010

This morning, President Obama is signing the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” into law. Obama’s signature comes one week after the House of Representatives and four days after the Senate voted for the repeal—with numbers of 250-175 and 65-31, respectively. Eight Republican senators—Scott Brown (MA), Richard Burr (NC), Susan Collins (ME), John Ensign (NV), Mark Kirk (IL), Lisa Murkowski (AK), Olympia Snowe (ME), and George Voinovich (OH)—crossed party lines to vote for the repeal.

But why did these Republicans cross the aisle? Because they’re widening their stance, if you know what I mean (wink wink, nudge nudge). No, really, it’s because they’re widening their ethos or pointing out that they already widened it.

Ethos, as one of the three persuasive appeals described in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, has been mentioned before on The Silver Tongue. It’s appealing to the audience by invoking your character and credibility. Aristotle even comes close to calling ethos the most important of the three persuasive appeals, even more than logos (reasoning logically) and pathos (drawing on emotions): a speaker’s “character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses” (1356a).

And when you’re in the elected representative business, it makes good sense to keep a consistent ethos. No one likes a flip-flopper, after all—just ask John Kerry circa 2004. So what’s striking about these eight Republican senators is how differently they invoke and describe their ethos to justify their aye votes on a largely bipartisan issue.

Collins, for example, was on the front lines with Joe Lieberman in the Senate to fight for the repeal. She says she lobbied every Republican in the Senate except Burr, in fact. In her statement after the repealing vote, Collins said:

This is an historic day.  It is important that the United States will now join at least 28 of our closest allies in welcoming the service of any qualified individual who is willing and capable of serving our country.

Society has changed a great deal since President Clinton signed the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell law in 1993.

Collins presents an ethos that emphasizes both the rarity of “an historic day” that she was at the forefront of and her solidarity with “at least 28 of our closest allies.” It pays to be on the winning side of history, and you want safety in numbers when you’re publically declaring that you’re on the winning side. Claiming this kind of character helps Collins persuade her constituents not only that she’s been on the right side, but that they have been, too.

Collins’ early work with Lieberman also lends an air of precedence for other Republicans voting to repeal. But Brown still felt compelled to explain the journey that he had taken toward voting yes. Brown has given little post-vote elaboration, instead pointing constituents and others to previous remarks like his December 3 statement:

Having reviewed the Pentagon report, having spoken to active and retired military service members, and having discussed the matter privately with Defense Secretary Gates and others, I accept the findings of the report and support repeal based on the Secretary’s recommendations that repeal will be implemented only when the battle effectiveness of the forces is assured and proper preparations have been completed.

In this journey, Brown links his own ethos to other people’s, like members of the military and Secretary Gates. But even more persuasively, he links his ethos to the ethos of the Pentagon report that can’t anthropomorphized (at least, not easily) as Democrat or Republican. He also makes an important move earlier in the statement when he says that he has “pledged to keep an open mind.” In the case of Flip-Flopper v. Open Mind, the latter wins as a positive ethos move in the court of public opinion.

So, why did these Republicans—especially Brown and Snowe, who are up for re-election in 2012—cross the road? The short answer is to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The longer, still unfolding answer may be to widen our stereotypical and polarized notions of what Republican ethos, or any politican’s ethos, can be.

If you want to know more:

  • You can read (and search!) Aristotle’s Rhetoric online. Book I.2 focuses the different persuasive appeals.
  • An Inside Higher Ed article suggests that the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” means a return of ROTC programs to many college campuses that had previously banned them.
  • You can download the PDF of the 266-page Report of the Comprehensive Review of the Issues Associated with a Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
  • You can read the current policy on homosexuality in the military, courtesy of the Cornell University Law School.
  • You can read Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ statement on the repeal.
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