In a State of the Union address with a few glaring omissions—gun control and surveillance programs got just one line apiece—perhaps the most surprising was President Barack Obama’s failure to devote even an aside to the issue of sexual assault in the military.
His circumspection was all the more striking when the speech lingered over the service of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan: One of the president’s guests was Sgt. First Class Cory Remsburg, who has undergone years of surgery after being hit by a roadside bomb. It was the perfect moment to mention that an estimated 19,000 military men and women are assaulted in a year—and why not, since rape in the military actually has bipartisan appeal, enough to have made the strangest of bedfellows out of Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz.
The timing is stark, too: Just last week, Obama released a study on rape, and assembled a new task force to tackle the epidemic on college campuses. Sexual assault was the subject of his weekly address this past Sunday, and he decried the problems in the armed forces in particular as “an injustice that no one who volunteers to protect our nation should ever endure.” He has professed to care deeply about this issue before. “The bottom line is: I have no tolerance for this,” he said last May. And the reformers in his party are in dire need of the push his address could have provided tonight. Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act, which would remove sexual assault prosecutions from the military chain of command, may come up for a vote in February—and is vulnerable to a filibuster from her opponents.
Those opponents, of course, include Gillibrand’s fellow Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill. As the talking heads have said all week, this State of the Union couldn’t afford to divide the Democratic Party before the midterms, and needed to give Obama’s troops issues to run on this fall. The infighting over military sexual assault may have been too messy for the president’s script.