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‘Don’t Ask’ Debate Caught in Tax Cut Crossfire

I suspect I’m making a fairly obvious point here, but the complex and evolving debate over extending the Bush-era tax cuts would also seem to reverberate on the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) policy, which Congress could vote to repeal before it goes on recess later this month, in two distinct ways.

First, the tepid reaction among many left-leaning groups to the compromise brokered by President Obama and Mitch McConnell could raise the incentive for Mr. Obama to score a “win” with progressives. The debate in Democratic circles — and there may be some differences of opinion between activist groups and rank-and-file Democrats — essentially amounts to whether the tax cut compromise constitutes a “loss” for liberals or, given the circumstances, a tie. Few Democrats, however, would regard any compromise that extends the current tax rates at the highest income thresholds as an unmitigated good, even if the deal also contains some elements that liberals would ordinarily support.

No, liberals’ policy priorities are not all alike; the same people who are most passionate about ending DADT are not necessarily those who have the gravest conveners about the course for tax policy. Nevertheless, when liberals are scoring Mr. Obama during 2012, his having achieved the goal of repealing DADT would help to reassure liberals that there had indeed been progress made. In some ways, it would represent a nice complement to health care: one piece of economic reform, one piece of social reform. Both policies, also, proved problematic for Bill Clinton during the first two years of his term, and so achieving them would perhaps provide liberals with some sense of closure.

On the other hand, if Mr. Obama is not able to secure a repeal of DADT during the balance of Congress’s lame-duck session, it is hard to see what other liberal priorities he might achieve after Jan. 3, when Congress it will have re-convened with substantially fewer Democrats. Ending DADT is extremely popular: although the results differ slightly depending on question wording, most polls show about twice as many Americans in favor of ending the policy — and allowing gays to serve openly — as continuing it. If, despite that, Mr. Obama cannot persude a sufficient number of Republicans to allow the repeal to proceed, what chance does he have of securing a victory for progressives in more complicated areas like climate policy or immigration reform, where public opinion is more evenly split?

The debate over tax policy is not settled yet, however, and the compromise is drawing opposition not just from some on the left, but also from some on the right — including thought-leaders like the conservative Senator James DeMint and the Club for Growth. It cannot be taken for granted that Mr. Obama and Mr. McConnell will round up the votes for their proposal; if they can’t, what happens next is anybody’s guess. And even if they do get the votes — and the odds are probably in their favor — it could take some time for them to so and for the Senate to conclude debate on the issue.

That could jeopardize the prospects for DADT repeal, because some Republicans who are key to the passage of the bill — like Senator Susan Collins of Maine — have conditioned their support on the tax debate being resolved first.

One can ask questions about exactly what Ms. Collins’ motivations and incentives are, and to what extent she is negotiating on her own behalf or instead on behalf of the entire Republican conference. But two things seem clear. First, Ms. Collins’ interest in seeing the tax compromise passed is probably sincere. Moderates in both parties are the only group in Congress to have voiced enthusiastic support for the tax package so far. If it were to fail, their influence — and the prospects for some measure of political comity over the next two years — would diminish. And second, there just isn’t very much time for Ms. Collins to play with, with a finite number of days remaining before the Senate packs up its belongings for the Christmas recess.

The fact is that the longer the tax debate takes, the lower the chances for a DADT repeal; that’s just simple addition and subtraction. Of course, this fact unto itself might color the potential strategies that various parties in the debate will take. Might a conservative Republican — who was otherwise on the fence about the tax bill but who opposed the repeal of DADT — drag his feet in order to eat up time and provide the Senate with fewer days to take up the defense bill? Might a promise from Republicans to allow DADT to be taken up become part of the compromise and help sate recalcitrant Democrats?

So far, President Obama has been quiet on the subject — he didn’t take any questions on DADT during his press conference yesterday — although there are some reports that he is lobbying members of Congress behind the scenes. It is a little surprising that he hasn’t been more vocal about it; perhaps he does not want to raise expectations when victory is far from assured, perhaps he doesn’t think he could do much good, or perhaps he simply has his hands full. But whether or not he might actually have any influence by using the bully pulpit at a time when his approval ratings remain mired in the 40s, a lot of liberals believe Mr. Obama has been too reluctant to speak out on their behalf, and by doing so he might regain some of their confidence.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.