At the last Republican presidential debate, a gay soldier serving in Iraq named Stephen Hill asked candidates whether they would “circumvent the progress that’s been made for gay and lesbian soldiers in the military” by repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” When he finished speaking, the crowd began booing him, and Republicans stayed silent. Rick Santorum, the former governor of Pennsylvania known for his extremely conservative stances on “social issues” like gay rights, answered the soldier’s question, and refused to thank the soldier for his service.
Republicans have since realized it is not in their best interests to disrespect a war veteran — no matter his sexual orientation — and are frantically trying to backtrack. The day after the debate, Santorum went on Fox News to thank Hill for his service and condemn the audience for booing him. On Sunday, presidential candidate Herman Cain explained that “in retrospect,” it would have been “appropriate” for him to speak out against the crowd when they booed Hill.
But Republicans still refuse to take full responsibility for the situation. Santorum claims that he “seriously did not hear those boos” because he was “too focused on the question and formulating [his] answer,” while Cain argues “that maybe they were booing the whole ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ repeal more so than booing that soldier.”
These belated half-apologies are meaningless. The boos were disrespectful, but they’e only a symptom of a much larger problem the Republicans face. The problem is that every Republican presidential candidate has gone on record saying they want to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and force gay soldiers out of the military.
There is no way their desire to expel soldiers from the military who have volunteered to defend their nation and are already fighting overseas can be seen as anything but profoundly disrespectful to both gay and straight soldiers. If Republicans actually valued or respected American soldiers, they would not deny them service just to make a foolish political point.
President Obama made a similar point on Saturday. “You want to be commander in chief?” he asked. “You can start by standing up for the men and women who wear the uniform of the United States, even when it’s not politically convenient.”
Hopefully, the attempts to distance themselves from booing a gay soldier indicate that Republicans still have some respect for the military, although we won’t know for sure until one candidate — maybe Romney — finally does the presidential thing and drops his support for the discriminatory and disrespectful policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”