Did Sen. Mark Kirk do the right thing by voting to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”? Absolutely.
Did Kirk do the brave thing? Maybe not. Politically, Kirk had no choice but to vote for DADT.
As ex-Chicagoan Nate Silver noted on his fivethirtyeight.com blog, of the 11 Republican senators from states carried by President Obama, seven voted to end the policy of forcing gay soldiers to hide their sexuality. They were joined by a single red-state Republican -- Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
In what reflects a shift from the way that gay rights initiatives have been perceived in the past, however, other Republicans seemed to conclude they might have been taking on some measure of risk by voting to perpetuate a policy that a clear majority of the public wanted to see repealed … Mark Kirk of Illinois, who won election by a narrow margin in November, and Richard Burr of North Carolina, who won re-election by 12 points in November but who has tepid approval ratings, may have cast a yea vote with an eye toward 2016.
As the home of President Obama, Illinois is one of the bluest states in the nation. Kirk was elected with the votes of crossover Democrats who expected him to be the independent legislator who won high marks from the Sierra Club and the Human Rights Campaign. After his vote against the DREAM Act, he needed to send a signal that he was the man that moderate voters thought they were getting.
Silver also had a good explanation of why no Republicans voted for the DREAM Act: it wasn’t as popular politically.
All of this is just Politics 101: when a policy initiative enjoys the support of 60 or 70 or 80 percent of the public, it is liable to garner some bipartisan support. By contrast, the Dream Act, which has received much less polling but which Gallup showed as having the support of a notably smaller majority (54 percent) of the public, received fewer Republican votes, and also saw several vulnerable Democrats — like John Tester of Montana — break ranks.
So conservatives got half a loaf this weekend. They can no longer discriminate against gay soldiers, but they can still discriminate against Latino soldiers. It took 17 years to repeal Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. The DREAM Act’s time will come, too, and when it does, Senator Kirk -- in his second or third term representing Illinois -- will vote for it.