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.
On the other hand, Republicans were wildly successful at the state level, gaining control of both houses of the General Assembly for the first time since 1870. The economy continues to suffer, and Democratic governor Bev Purdue (another 2008 winner) is incredibly unpopular — she should be a promising takedown target for Republicans in 2012, even with Obama on the ticket. Interestingly, Burr wasn’t the only North Carolina senator to irritate his base over the weekend. Hagan joined Republicans in voting against the DREAM Act, a bill to that would create a path to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants. It was a conspicuous nod to the state’s more conservative voters, who are the ones most likely to turn out in midterm years like 2014, when she is up for reelection. The liberal blog Daily Kos was not impressed.
As for Burr, he dismissed the idea that his vote for repeal was swayed by any particular constituency. “Hopefully we all think independently here and we listen. We don’t have to be lobbied or influenced,” he said. Of course, these are things that every politician says. He can certainly expect his fair share of “RINO!” accusations as a result of this vote, but with a lifetime rating of 91 percent from the American Conservative Union, they are unlikely to gain much traction. And unless Burr suddenly comes out in favor of Obamacare or higher taxes on cigarettes, the idea of a primary challenge from the right in 2016 seems implausible at best.
In a statement released by his office, Burr called the DADT policy “outdated” and its repeal “inevitable.” While the former assertion is certainly debatable, it’s hard to argue against the latter. As Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.) told National Review Online, “[Repeal] was something people knew was going to happen.” And apart from John McCain (R., Ariz.), very few Republicans put up much of a fight. Corker said he wasn’t surprised by Burr’s vote and suggested that under different circumstances even more Republicans would have supported the bill. “You didn’t really see anybody in there talking about it much, right? It wasn’t impassioned at all,” he said.
Maybe Burr just wanted to be ahead of the curve. Maybe he simply knows how to read polling data. Or maybe he really meant what he said in his statement, that repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” was “the right thing to do” — is that so hard to believe?
— Andrew Stiles is a 2010 Franklin fellow.