In the end, the Senate’s vote to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” went off without a hitch. Democrats, as expected, relished and rejoiced, while Republicans, resigned to the inevitable, didn’t put up much of fight. The measure passed by a decisive 65–31 margin. Still, the event was not without a few surprises.
On the Democratic side, Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.), recently diagnosed with prostate cancer, made an unexpected appearance, while Sen. Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.) was nowhere to be found. He said he couldn’t attend the “historic occasion” because of a “family thing,” which turned out to be a Christmas party. On the right, the biggest story was the surprising yea votes by two GOP senators, bringing total Republican support to eight members. Just hours after voting against cloture on the repeal bill, Sens. Richard Burr (R., N.C.) and John Ensign (R., Nev.) voted for passage, surprising many of their colleagues, including Sen. Susan Collins (R., Maine), who said she was “delighted but surprised” by Burr’s decision.
Indeed, Burr’s vote was particularly remarkable, given that he represents a state that is home to two of the largest U.S. military complexes in the world — the Army’s Fort Bragg and the Marines’ Camp Lejeune. Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, had been one of the most high-profile critics of repeal. Burr’s vote also made him the fourth Republican member of the Senate Armed Services Committee — along with Collins, Scott Brown (Mass.), and Mark Kirk (Ill.) to back repeal. But unlike Ensign, who snuck out “quickly and quietly
,” Burr made a concerted effort to explain (and defend) himself.
Speaking to reporters outside the Senate chamber, Burr said it was not a difficult vote to cast. His underlying rationale? The times, quite simply, were a’changin’. “This is a policy that is generationally right,” he said. “A majority of Americans have grown up at a time [when] they don’t think exclusion is the right thing for the United States to do. It’s not the accepted practice anywhere else in our society, and it only makes sense.” Even so, Burr said he didn’t necessarily agree with those who characterize the issue as a struggle for civil rights.
In explaining his initial vote against cloture, Burr said he “vehemently objected” to the nature and timing the debate. He didn’t think Congress should be considering such sweeping changes to military policy during a lame-duck session, and especially not during a time of war. “Even though this bill has now passed, it should never be enacted immediately,” he said. Many of his colleagues invoked this same argument as a basis to oppose repeal, full stop. Thus, as is always the case in politics, Burr’s unexpected and conspicuous vote had many wondering, “Why? What’s his ulterior political motive?” A fascinating question, but one without an obvious answer.
For starters, unlike Ensign and Brown, who are both up for reelection in 2012 (and acting like it), Burr just won another six-year term — his second — in November, handily defeating Democrat Elaine Marshall by twelve points. He’s not trying to win over any swing voters, at least not anytime soon, but it’s reasonable to wonder whether he would have voted the same way under different electoral circumstances. What about the longer term? It’s no secret that North Carolina is no longer the reliable red state that elected Jesse Helms to five Senate terms. Barack Obama won the state in 2008, the first Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter to do so, and in the process propelled Sen. Kay Hagan (D., N.C.) to an easy victory over Elizabeth Dole. Burr would almost certainly have met the same fate.
Driven by a rapidly growing minority population, and an influx of New England transplants to the metropolitan areas of Raleigh/Durham and Charlotte — currently a leading contender to host the 2012 Democratic convention — the Tar Heel State has become increasingly liberal over the last decade. If, as polls indicate, more than two-thirds of Americans favor repeal, most North Carolinians probably do as well.
That’s not all. Burr’s victory aside, North Carolina was a huge disappointment for the GOP in 2010. In a favorable Republican year that saw Congressional Blue Dogs voted out in droves, conservative Democratic national level. Larry Kissell, Heath Schuler, and Mike McIntyre all won comfortably. Republicans picked up just one House seat by narrowly defeating Rep. Bob Etheridge, though not without considerable help from a damning YouTube video.