Can we forgive Bill Clinton for DOMA?

17 years later, he comes out against one of the worst laws he signed (and campaigned on) as president

Published March 8, 2013 1:32PM (EST)

Bill Clinton’s op-ed in Friday’s Washington Post calling for the Defense of Marriage Act to be overturned is big news, but it’s hardly surprising. The former president, like a number of other leading political figures, has “evolved” on the issue in recent years, backing the push for gay marriage in New York in 2011 and pitching in to fight a North Carolina ballot initiative last year that amended the state constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and woman.

Still, for gay marriage backers, there’s a neat and necessary symmetry to Clinton’s latest pronouncement: With the Obama administration lending its support to a push to convince the Supreme Court to overturn DOMA, it’s helpful to have the guy who signed the law in the first place on board too.

In his op-ed, Clinton notes that “it was a very different time” when the law reached his desk in 1996 and suggests his motivation for signing it was to forestall the enactment of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage – something that has generated decreasing support in the years since ’96. He also points to his signing statement at the time, which declared that DOMA shouldn’t “be understood to provide an excuse for discrimination.”

“Reading those words today,” Clinton writes, “I know now that, even worse than providing an excuse for discrimination, the law is itself discriminatory. It should be overturned.”

It’s hard not to wonder if Clinton recognized this all along, and that his refusal to speak up until the last few years represented nothing more than a cynical political calculation. This has long been the suspicion of gay marriage supporters, who were infuriated by his earlier posturing on the issue. But this raises a question, too: If it’s true, was Clinton right – was it politically necessary for him to do what he did in the years before gay marriage was a mainstream issue? Or would it have been a mainstream issue even sooner if he’d shown more leadership?

Some context for his 1996 decision to sign the law is useful. Clinton, recall, came to office in 1993 armed with large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate – the first time in over a decade that Democrats had enjoyed unified control of the government. In its years out of power, the party had built up a long to-do list, and Clinton set out to take action on it.

One of the first areas he pursued was the military’s ban on openly gay service members. As a candidate, he’d pledged to reverse the ban, but when he sought to follow through as president, military leaders (most notably Colin Powell), Republicans and more than a few Democrats shrieked in protest. Clinton seemed unprepared for the blowback, and the issue dragged on for months, dominating headlines and distracting from the rest of his agenda. This is where the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy came from; gay rights supporters would curse it for years to come, but realistically it was the best Clinton could do given the politics of ’93.

When Democrats were wiped out in the 1994 midterms, the push for “gays in the military” was cited as one of the (many) ways that Clinton and his party had alienated swing voters, particularly blue collar and middle-class whites. For the rest of his first term, Clinton recalibrated his messaging and toned down his legislative ambitions, angling to occupy the political center. By ’96, he’d recovered his political footing and was running well ahead of his Republican challenger, Bob Dole. This is when, thanks to rumblings from Hawaii that the state would soon legalize gay marriage, DOMA was hastily passed by Congress – and Clinton, eager not to foul up his political comeback by moving far to the left on a divisive cultural issue, signed it. Not only that, his campaign also ran ads on Christian radio stations citing DOMA as proof that the president shared “our values.” The ads were pulled after an outcry from gay rights groups, but the episode illustrated the political utility Clinton saw in his decision to sign DOMA.

Clinton went on to win an easy victory over Dole, and it’s a stretch to suggest the outcome would have been much – or any – different even if he’d vetoed the law. There was more room for courage then Clinton allowed, although that’s clearer in hindsight than it was at the height of the campaign. If Clinton’s goal was to get reelected and to get gay marriage off the table without a constitutional amendment entering the equation, he succeeded. At the same time, he reinforced the assumption that no politician with national aspirations was safe going anywhere near gay marriage. And the law he signed had destructive consequences for same-sex couples for years to come.

Eight years later, at the height of another presidential campaign, Clinton apparently tried to dust off his ’96 playbook. With a Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling reopening the gay marriage debate, Republicans rushed to place referenda on the ballot in numerous states in 2004. As the Democratic presidential nominee, John Kerry officially opposed gay marriage, but in Newsweek’s account of the campaign, Clinton suggested he go farther:

"Looking for a way to pick up swing voters in the red states, former President Bill Clinton, in a phone call with (Sen. John) Kerry, urged the senator to back local bans on gay marriage. Kerry respectfully listened, then told his aides, "I'm not going to ever do that.' "

Would Kerry have swung 60,000 votes in Ohio and won the White House if he’d listened to Clinton? Again, it’s doubtful, but that didn’t stop the political world from concluding in the wake of the election that “values voters” casting their ballots on issues like gay marriage had decided the race.

Public opinion on gay marriage has changed dramatically in just the last few years. Barack Obama’s endorsement of it last year, however it came about, hastened this evolution. It’s now a mainstream position in the Democratic Party, one on which candidates and office-holders dissent at their own political peril, and one that Republicans are starting to come around on too. After losing in every state where it was on the ballot – more than 30 referenda in all – gay marriage went four-for-four last fall.

Compared to other issues, the public opinion shift on gay marriage has been lightning fast. Clinton is right: it was a very different time in 1996, and for that matter 2004. Clinton has put himself on the right side of history in the last few years, and chances are that his legacy won’t ultimately be tarnished much by DOMA. But when the definitive story of America’s road to marriage equality is ultimately written, he won’t get a ton of credit either. That’s what happens when you wait until it’s easy politics to evolve.

By Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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Barack Obama Bill Clinton Bob Dole Colin Powell Doma Opening Shot