Analysis: Barrow tiptoes past 'Don't ask; don't tell'

John Barrow in Augusta
Barrow during an Augusta Tech visit last week

When the U.S. House voted recently to take the first step toward repealing the ban on gays in the military, Jack Kingston voted no.

The Savannah Republican fired off a press release accusing Speaker Nancy Pelosi of "a reckless and blatant political power play."

Kingston said rescinding the so-called "don't ask, don't tell" rule would "change the dynamic in the barracks and the morale in the field."

Meanwhile, the region's other congressman, Democrat John Barrow, voted for the bill but issued no press release.

That has more to do with election-year politics than the workload of his communications staff. More about that shortly.

Several days later, a reporter's inquiry elicited the following prepared statement from Barrow, whose 12th district represents a portion of Augusta.

"The military," he said, "is about to complete a study regarding the effects of 'don't ask, don't tell.' If that study shows that the policy should be repealed, then I think it absolutely should be.

"I've always said that we need to defer to the military commanders in matters like these, and that's what this bill does."

That statement is remarkable more for what it doesn't say than what it does.

Note that Barrow doesn't actually take a stand on whether the policy ought to repealed. He merely defers to the results of some yet-to-be conducted study.

He also seems to overlook the underlying context of the legislation. It's clearly intended to - sooner or later - do away with "don't ask, don't tell."

That's supposed to happen after a military study and after President Barack Obama and others sign off. But the obvious question before the House wasn't whether the policy should be repealed, but when and how.

In ducking the question of whether repeal is desirable, Barrow appears to be trying to have it both ways.

That is, he has voted to start the steamroller toward repeal, which - in theory - ought to placate gay-rights advocates.

But he has done so without endorsing their cause in principle, which - in theory - might spare him the wrath of social conservatives.

If all of this sounds vaguely familiar, it probably should.

It's all about his 12th Congressional District, where he is seeking re-election in this year's rabidly incumbent-hostile environment.

He has a July 20 primary rematch against former state Sen. Regina Thomas. And, should he be renominated - which seems likely but hardly inevitable - he may face a well-funded GOP candidate on Nov. 2.

As he apparently has in the past, Barrow seems to suspect there are fewer gay-rights advocates than social conservatives in the 12th.

The problem is the former tend to vote mostly in Democratic primaries, while both groups likely will do so Nov. 2.

So, until after July 20, the two groups are like treacherous reefs a helmsman should steer between. For now, Barrow has charted that course.

And why should any of this sound familiar?

Flash back to 2004, when Barrow, running in the district for the first time, was in a four-way Democratic primary.

He actively courted people in the gay community. And, however one might parse his words at the time, he convinced them he opposed banning same-sex marriages.

But after he won the primary, he ducked taking a stand on a state ballot measure on the issue. And he later supported a federal measure that would bar such unions.

So for the moment - that is, at least until July 20 - Barrow seems to be trying to avoid rubbing salt into old wounds.

Will it work?

Or might it turn out to be too clever by half? That is, will it feed ammunition to his general election foe?

And does it matter?

We'll see.

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