Last week, GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney’s campaign made a stop at a restaurant in New Hampshire, where a heated exchange between he and a patron made headlines. According to the Washington Post, Romney spotted Bob Garon and, noticing his hat, greeted him by saying, “Vietnam veteran!”
To Romney’s surprise, Garon is gay and was eating breakfast with his husband. Garon took the opportunity to ask Romney whether or not he would support repeal of New Hampshire’s same-sex marriage law and if he thought it was unfair that the spouse of a gay service member cannot receive the same benefits as the spouse of one in a heterosexual marriage. Romney’s answer was simple and robotic. He said, “I believe that marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman.”
The interaction got a great deal of attention because of its relation to a few political narratives that have been floating around as of late. Since the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” the mainstream media have been paying more attention to the existence of LGBT service members and veterans, and to the disrespect they have received from certain Republican politicians and supporters. Opponents of repeal have been confronted with the fact that the idea of LGBT people serving in the military is not just a theoretical possibility, but that they have always been there. When Mitt Romney approached Garon, he wasn’t expecting to be forced to defend his position on LGBT issues. He was after a photo op with a (presumably) straight veteran.
Fifteen or 20 years ago, a situation like this might not have gotten the kind of attention that it has, or if it had, many more people would have been sympathetic to Romney’s position, rather than Garon’s. But the media narrative that has emerged since the repeal of DADT is that Republicans are willing to throw the entire military under the bus over ending the policy. Indeed, at the GOP presidential debate on Sept. 22 when Capt. Stephen Hill was booed by audience members for revealing his sexual orientation in his question, it seemed to confirm that the Republican Party’s base is more interested in waging culture wars than in accepting the military as it currently stands. Between this incident and Rick Perry’s recent, widely panned gays-in-the-military campaign commercial, the question has arisen, are Republicans out of touch with the military and do they really care about the troops?
Such a narrative is one that liberals are jumping on, in part as retaliation for an idea that Republicans had tried to spread during the years of the Bush presidency as a way of demonizing their opponents — that the Republican Party was the only party that supported the military and that for liberals to speak against the Iraq war meant that they hated American soldiers. It was a shallow argument then and the fact that certain Republican candidates, as well as their supporters, are now so willing to see these service members first as gay and second as soldiers demonstrates this.
Democrats have been doing a great job talking about issues that people in the military have to deal with – repeal of DADT, fighting enforcement of DOMA when it comes to those who happen to be gay and, more broadly, defending the VA from budget cuts and privatization (as recently proposed by Romney). But Democrats should be careful not to use the military as a catchphrase or a slogan in the same way that Republicans have in recent years, and it would be shameful and opportunistic to do so.
When Americans join the military, they do it to defend the Constitution and protect the rights of their fellow Americans – that includes red America and blue America, gay and straight. When “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” was in effect, gay men and women signed up knowing that they were putting service to this country ahead of their sexual identities. Service members put politics, their families, and their very lives to the side in order to defend our rights and it is disrespectful to use them to spin political arguments, especially when their jobs prevent them from defending their own ideological views in the public arena.
It would make for a great sound byte to say that Republicans hate the troops, but to say that would be to engage in the very same pseudo-nationalistic hyperbole that characterized the Bush years. While it may be tempting for Democrats to use these recent incidents from the GOP primary campaign to depict themselves as the one party that truly represents military service members as a whole, they should refrain out of respect. Failing to do so would lead to the kind of blatant political opportunism that Mitt Romney showed us on the campaign trail, with his greeting, “Vietnam veteran!”
Sean Cotter is a freelance writer based in New York. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.