Hillary Clinton's Gay-Marriage Problem

Until 2013, she held a position that lots of Democratic voters now regard as deeply wrongheaded.
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Hillary Clinton didn't refrain from supporting same-sex marriage for political reasons—before last year, she earnestly believed that marriage equality should be denied to gays and lesbians. That's the story the 66-year-old Democrat settled on when NPR host Terry Gross pressed her on her views. The admission is easily the most significant in the interview with the former senator, secretary of State, and presidential candidate, though much of the subsequent media attention has focused on the perception that there was a "heated exchange" where Clinton "lashed out" at her interviewer.* The mild tension stemmed from persistent questioning as Clinton obfuscated on an issue that could damage her chances in a 2016 primary but is relatively unlikely to hurt her in a contest against a Republican, given that her coalition is so much stronger on gay rights than the opposition. 

In a primary, Clinton could be forced to explain a longtime position that a significant part of that Democratic political coalition now views as suspect or even bigoted. Most famously, the Silicon Valley left forced the ouster of Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich for a 2008 donation he made to an anti-gay-marriage ballot initiative. That same year, Clinton ran for president while openly opposing gay marriage. If she is to be believed, she also opposed gay marriage as recently as 2013, long after a majority of Americans already held a more gay-friendly position. Would the subset of Democrats who thought 2008 opposition to gay marriage should prevent a man from becoming CEO in 2013 really support the 2015 presidential campaign of a woman who openly opposed gay marriage until last year?

Doing so would seem to show inconsistency, yet there's a strong argument to be made that Clinton's anti-gay-marriage past shouldn't drive decisions to support or oppose her. No one doubts she will be a strong supporter of gay equality if elected president, now that all the political incentives to take that position are aligned. She has advanced gay rights other than marriage at times in her long career. And she has never come across in speeches or interviews as an anti-gay bigot. There is, however, a vocal segment of the left that is invested in likening people who opposed gay marriage to racists who opposed interracial marriage. There is also resentment from gays who feel that the Clintons wronged them in the past.

Andrew Sullivan's perspective is instructive:

She was the second most powerful person in an administration in a critical era for gay rights. And in that era, her husband signed the HIV travel ban into law (it remained on the books for 22 years thereafter), making it the only medical condition ever legislated as a bar to even a tourist entering the US. Clinton also left gay service-members in the lurch, doubling the rate of their discharges from the military, and signed DOMA, the high watermark of anti-gay legislation in American history. Where and when it counted, the Clintons gave critical credibility to the religious right’s jihad against us. And on the day we testified against DOMA in 1996, their Justice Department argued that there were no constitutional problems with DOMA at all (the Supreme Court eventually disagreed).

What I’d like to hear her answer is whether she regrets that period and whether she will ever take responsibility for it. But she got pissed when merely asked how calculated her position on this was. Here’s my guess: Unlike Obama, she was personally deeply uncomfortable with this for a long time and politically believed the issue was a Republican wedge issue to torment the Clintons rather than a core civil rights cause. I was editor of TNR for five years of the Clintons, aggressively writing and publishing articles in favor of marriage equality and military service, and saw the Clintons’ irritation with and hostility to gay activists up close. Under my editorship, we were a very early 1991 backer of Clinton – so I sure didn’t start out prejudiced against them. They taught me that skepticism all by themselves, and mainly by lying all the time.

So when did she evolve? Maybe in the middle 2000s. Was political calculation as big an influence as genuine personal wrestling? She’s a Clinton. They poll-tested where to go on vacation. Of course it was. But she’s also a human being and probably came around personally as well. She’s not a robot, after all. But I think of her position as the same as the eponymous gay rights organization the Clintons controlled in the 1990s, the Human Rights Campaign. As long as marriage equality hurt the Democrats, they were against it. Now it may even hurt Republicans, they’re for it. So Hillary is for it now.

We’ve just got to hope the polling stays strong.

Finally, there is widespread amnesia among Democrats more broadly, who reflexively assume that Hillary Clinton has of course supported gay marriage in her heart of hearts for years. They will experience disillusionment when they discover the truth, especially if they first catch Clinton disingenuously obfuscating. Younger voters in particular are likely to be caught unaware, and then as embarrassed by Clinton's slowness to change her mind as they are about the positions of their own grandparents, who they'd never select to run the federal government. I doubt the conservative Media Research Center had to stand on the street in Washington, D.C., for long to get these reactions from current collegians: 

If I were a Clinton primary opponent I'd see that as an exploitable weakness.

Clinton's NPR interview sheds light both on educated Democrats who think they know her and the way she plans to talk to them about her longtime opposition to marriage equality.

Consider how the issue was broached. "So what's it like when you're in office and you have to do all these political calculations to not be able to support something like gay marriage that you actually believe in?" Gross said. "You obviously feel very committed to human rights and you obviously put gay rights as part of human rights. But in doing the calculus you decided you couldn't support it." The NPR host is seemingly unable to conceive of the fact than an iconic Democrat like Clinton could have really, truly opposed gay equality all those years. In liberal circles, it now seems impossible to have cared deeply about human rights, to have cared about gay rights, and to have objected to gay marriage, even though that was the exact position of almost all liberals very recently.

Clinton said in response:

Well, I think you're reading it very wrong.

I think, as I said, just as the president has said, just because you're a politician doesn't mean you're not a thinking human being. You gather information. You think through positions. You're not 100 percent set, thank goodness. You're constantly reevaluating where you stand, that was true for me, we talked earlier about Iraq .... So for me, marriage had always been a matter left to the states. And in many of the conversations that I and my colleagues and supporters had I fully endorsed the efforts by activists to work state by state. And in fact that is what is working. And I think that being in the position I was in the Senate, fighting employment discrimination which we still have some ways to go, was appropriate at that time. As secretary of state I was out of domestic politics, and I was certainly doing all I could on the international scene to raise the importance of the human rights of the LGBT community. 

And then leaving that position I was able to very quickly announce that I was fully in support of gay marriage. And that it is now continuing to succeed state by state. I am very hopeful that we will make progress and see even more change and acceptance. One of my big problems right now is that too many people believe they have a direct line to the divine and never want to change their minds about anything. They're never open to knew information and they like to operate in an evidence free zone. And I think it's good if people continue to change. 

This is highly misleading. The Defense of Marriage Act was a federal law, signed by Bill Clinton, that barred same-sex couples from being recognized as married partners. Hillary Clinton said during her Senate run in 2000 that she would have signed the law, and as late as 2003 she was not willing to reverse her position, saying through a spokesperson only that she was in the process of "evolving" on it. So it is inaccurate for Clinton to say that she has always thought that marriage should be left up to the states, and to imply that it was just a matter for the states while she was a senator. Also notice how she elides the fact that she ran for president of the United States in 2008, openly opposing same-sex marriage. 

Gross raises some of these points in a subsequent exchange:

GROSS: So you mention that you believe in state by state for gay marriage. But it's the Supreme Court too. The Supreme Court struck down parts of DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevented the federal government from recognizing gay marriage. That part is now struck down. And DOMA was actually signed by your husband when he was president. In spite of the fact that he signed it, were you glad that the Supreme Court struck part of it down?

CLINTON: Of course! And again, we are living at a time when this extraordinary change is occurring. I'm proud of our country. I'm proud of people who've been on the front lines of advocacy. But in 1993, that was not the case, and there was a very concerted effort in the Congress to make it even more difficult and greater discrimination. And what DOMA did is at least allow the states to act. It wasn't going yet to be recognized by the federal government. But at the state level there was the opportunity. And my husband, you know, was the first to say that the political circumstances, the threats that were trying to be alleviated by the passage of DOMA, thankfully were no longer so preeminent, and we could keep moving forward. And that's what we're doing.

Here is what Bill Clinton actually said when he signed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996: "I have long opposed governmental recognition of same-gender marriages, and this legislation is consistent with that position.” His wife distorted that history.

All this left Gross confused:

GROSS: So just to clarify, just one more question on this, would you say your view evolved since the '90s, or that the American public evolved, allowing you to state your real view?

CLINTON: I think I'm an American. Ha ha ha ha ha ha. I think we have all evolved and it's been one of the fastest, most sweeping transformations I'm aware of. 

GROSS: I understand. But a lot of people already believed in it, a lot of people already supported gay marriage, back in the '90s. 

CLINTON: To be fair, Terry, not that many. Yes, were there activists who were ahead of their time? Well that was true in every human rights and civil rights movement. But the vast majority of Americans were just waking up to this issue and beginning to think about it and grasp it for the first time, and think about their neighbor down the street who deserved to have the same rights as they did, or their son or their daughter. It has been an extraordinarily fast, by historic terms, social and political and legal transformation. And we ought to celebrate that instead of plowing old ground, where in fact a lot of people, perhaps the vast majority of people, have been moving forward. Maybe slowly, maybe tentatively, maybe not as quickly and extensively as many would have hoped. But nevertheless, we are at a point now when equality, including marriage equality, in our country, is solidly established. Although there will be places, Texas just to name one, where that is still going to be an ongoing struggle. 

According to Gallup, about 35 percent of Americans supported gay marriage circa 1999. So roughly 98 million people. In fairness to Clinton, she did seem to have answered Gross' question at that point, albeit with weasel language: She "evolved" on the issue, though it is arguably a binary, where one necessarily opposes marriage equality until the moment—2013 for Clinton—when one begins to support it. It has never been clear what "evolve" is supposed to mean in this context. That she still opposed gay marriage, but with less animosity than previously?

Gross wanted further clarification, even as she adopted the weasel word:

GROSS: I'm pretty sure you didn't answer my question about whether you evolved or whether it was the American public that changed. 

CLINTON: Because I said I'm an American, and of course we all evolved. I think that's a fair conclusion.

GROSS: So you're saying your opinion changed.

CLINTON: You know, somebody is always first, Terri, somebody is always out front, and thank goodness they are. But that doesn't mean that those who join later in being publicly supportive or even privately accepting that there needs to be change are any less committed. You could not be having the sweep of marriage equality across our country if nobody changed their mind. And thank goodness so many of us have.

This is absurd. Those who only joined the push for gay marriage in 2013 after spending years defending DOMA were, quite obviously, "less committed" to gay equality than those who spent years or decades urging marriage equality. This is the point in the interview when the "heated exchange" occurred, which is to say, the part where Clinton made her most newsworthy comment:

GROSS: So that's one for you changed your mind.

CLINTON: You know, I have to say, I think you are being very persistent, but you are playing with my words, and playing with what is such an important issue. 

GROSS: I'm just trying to clarify so that I can understand—

CLINTON: No, I don't think you are trying to clarify. I think you're trying to say I used to be opposed and now I'm in favor and I did it for political reasons. And that's just flat wrong. So let me just state what I feel that you are implying and repudiate it. I have a strong record. I have a great commitment to this issue. And I am proud of what I've done and the progress we're making. 

GROSS: You know, I'm saying, I'm sorry, I just want to clarify what I was saying, I was saying that you maybe really believed this all along, you know, believed in gay marriage all along, but felt for political reasons America wasn't ready yet and you couldn't say it. That's what I was saying.

CLINTON: No, that's not, no. That is not true.

GROSS: Okay.

CLINTON: I did not grow up even imagining gay marriage and I don't think you probably did either. This was an incredibly new and important idea that people on the front lines of the gay rights movement began to talk about and slowly but surely convinced others of the rightness of that position. And when I was ready to say what I said, I said it. 

So again, according to Clinton, she did not favor gay marriage in her heart prior to 2013 and refrained from saying so because Americans weren't yet ready for that position. Rather, she earnestly felt that a marriage is between a man and a woman—even as she also thought, legally speaking, that states should make policy on the subject (one of the only states rights positions that I am aware of her taking). Her rhetoric is perfect for assuaging the discomfort of general-election voters who started supporting gay marriage relatively late in the game. But it may be problematic if she faces off against a primary opponent who spent years favoring marriage equality while Clinton opposed it. At minimum, she'll have to admit that on a big question, her opponent was correct for years while she was wrong.

One wonders if her reputation for wisdom and competence can survive a primary election that focuses attention on how frequently she gets big judgment calls wrong.


* I am always perplexed and annoyed by press coverage that treats low-grade conflict in public discourse as shocking and extraordinary, even though the intensity of emotion on display is actually significantly tamer than what many Americans express on a daily basis in the car or in moments of frustration with a spouse, sibling, child, or pet. We simultaneously live in a culture where angry young men go on murder sprees and "road rage" is a familiar term ... and where strained politeness on NPR generates breathless headlines.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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