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The Ghosts of 1993

What high-profile policy change has the support of 75 percent of the American public, and could be implemented by changing a very few simple statutes at essentially no cost to the American taxpayer?

That would be a repeal of Public Law 103-160, the 1993 measure more commonly known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, which prohibits openly gay persons from serving in the United States military.

Public sentiment on DADT has shifted dramatically since 1993. A May, 1993 poll by ABC News and the Washington Post showed that 44 percent Americans favored allowing homosexuals (their wording) who have publicly disclosed their orientation to serve in the military, as compared with 55 percent opposed. An identical poll taken in July, however, shows 75 percent in favor versus just 22 percent opposed. Other recent polling shows similar results; in May 2007, CNN showed 79 percent of Americas in favor of allowing for openly gay troops to serve to 18 percent opposed, and in March 2007, Newsweek had 63 percent in favor and 28 percent opposed.

What has changed? Well, certainly, America has become more liberal on a variety of issues related to same-sex-attracted individuals. But also our country is now at war, and military recruitment has become more of a problem. Not coincidentally, the number of dismissals under DADT has decreased significantly since 2002 as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq ramped up. (It’s not OK to be gay — the army seems to be saying — unless we actually need you.)

If this were any other issue, it would be the sort of slam-dunk stocking stuffer that a new administration would be looking to implement quickly to bolster its favorability ratings. But of course, DADT is laden with historical significance, precisely because of the way that the Clinton administration mishandled the issue in 1993 and expended a lot of its political capital in the process. A Washington Times report — as yet unconfirmed by other sources — suggests that Barack Obama is likely to delay action on the issue until perhaps 2010.

Does Obama have legitimate reason to proceed cautiously? It is hard to know. On the one hand, even if those who still oppose gay servicemembers are in a small minority, sometimes the minority is much more vocal than the majority. Going after a DADT repeal would surely pique the interest of the Radio Republicans; they’d attempt to portray Obama both as a liberal boogieman and as a political naïf for making the exact same mistakes that the Clinton administration did.

On the other hand, perhaps this is the sort of fight that Obama should be inviting — for target-practice if for nothing else. Obama should be fully ready to deploy the patriotism card, e.g. that our best and bravest troops should be allowed the honor of serving our country, and the commonsense card, e.g. that when our forces are stretched thin, we can’t be dismissing them for something as frivolous as their sexual orientation.

This is also precisely the sort of issue on which the Radio Republicans are liable to overplay their hand, missing the fact that Americans are capable of finer points of distinction than “Gay People Bad!”, and that there is a sizable swing vote that is ready to see gays and lesbians serve in the army, even if they aren’t ready to see them get married or adopt babies. Let the Radio Republicans wallow in their own insignificance.

Put differently, if Obama can’t get a DADT repeal passed, then good luck with something like universal health insurance, which though also supported by solid majorities of the public, is not at 75 percent support, and will be met with much, much more vigorous resistance from lobbying groups.

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