The announcement that Pennsylvania Senator-elect Pat Toomey will support repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy about gays in the military may signal the end of this pointless rule. Those who haven’t followed Toomey’s career may be surprised that a hard-core conservative Republican and devout pro-life Catholic like Toomey would support a gay-rights measure. But Toomey’s libertarian instincts and abhorrence of big government have led him to the correct conclusion that seeking to ban a portion of the population that might usefully serve their country is a mistake. Nor is this a new position for Toomey.
During his successful Senate campaign, Toomey made it clear that he wanted to end DADT. In fact, he mentioned it in an op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette he wrote last summer in which he detailed why he would have voted against Elena Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court. In the piece, he criticized Kagan for banning military recruiters from Harvard Law School because of DADT. Toomey wrote:
I share the view that the “don’t ask, don’t tell,” policy regarding gay servicemen and women has outlived its usefulness and, subject to the military’s conclusion of the feasibility of removing it, I support its repeal. However, one’s disagreement with a federal law does not give one license to circumvent it.
While Toomey won’t be able to cast a vote on the repeal attempt during the lame-duck session of Congress, his willingness to do so after January may change the mathematics of this debate. Moreover, Toomey — whose reputation as a pro-life stalwart, Tea Party favorite, and libertarian hardliner on fiscal matters renders him largely impervious to attacks from the right — could help give cover to other wavering Republicans. Previously, the only Republicans to announce support for the end of DADT were the liberal Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe of Maine.
Toomey’s stand on gays in the military might put him in conflict with conservative culture-war advocates, who will lament his willingness to put this issue to rest. Indeed, this puts him at odds with Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who has recently been beating the bushes in New Hampshire promoting a possible 2012 presidential candidacy (though not too many people are taking Santorum’s ego-trip of a campaign seriously). But the irony here is that six years ago, Santorum, the man who now proclaims himself as the true guardian of conservative values, did his best to torpedo Toomey’s primary challenge of liberal Arlen Specter. Though Santorum and President Bush urged Toomey to step aside, he wouldn’t compromise and stayed in the race, ultimately narrowly losing the primary to Specter. Six years later, Toomey, who stuck to his guns on his conservative principles, is now about to take the place of the turncoat Specter, who was beaten out for the Democratic nomination earlier this year.
Six years is a lifetime in politics, but Pennsylvania Democrats are already looking ahead to 2016, since they believe the election of a conservative like Toomey was a fluke that cannot be repeated. They may be right, but what we will see until then is a senator who denounces big government and actually means it. That may not earn Toomey many friends in a state that has long counted upon its representatives to fight for local special interests, something that Toomey is unlikely to do. But as we are seeing with the issue of gays in the military, Toomey’s principled independence is a factor that political observers ought not to take for granted.