President Bill Clinton signed the federal Defense of Marriage Act in the middle of the night in 1996 because he'd been burned by supporting allowing gays in the military, and he didn't want to get burned again. He's been doing penance for it ever since, and times have certainly changed. It seems Clinton couldn't imagine that just 15 years after he signed DOMA, the first black president would sign the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell — with overwhelming public support. As a loyal former Clinton aide explained in The New Yorker, "if you compromise on principle, on the assumption that the world will never catch up with your ideals, you will likely come to regret it."
"His posture was quite frankly driven by the political realities of an election year in 1996," Clinton's then-press secretary Mike McCurry tells The New York Times' Peter Baker. Clinton aired campaign ads on Christian radio touting DOMA. According to Newsweek, Clinton thought gay-baiting was still good politics in 2004, because he advised John Kerry to come out for state constitutional amendments against gay marriage. Clinton's spokesman says that's not true, the Times reports. But Kerry adviser Bob Shrum said Clinton's advice was worse — that Kerry should back a federal marriage amendment. Eventually, Clinton felt really bad about DOMA. "In my conversations with him, he was personally embarrassed and remorseful," Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen told the Times. Richard Socarides, who went to work for Clinton in May 1996, helped fix the damage both before and after Clinton left the White House. In fairness, the 1990s were a dark time. In 1995, The Washington Post reported in 1999, "uniformed Secret Service officers had greeted gay rights activists arriving for a meeting with rubber gloves." By 1999, the Post reported, Socarides was helping undo the damage by getting hate crimes legislation passed. And it was Socarides who made sure people noticed when Clinton started shifting on marriage. Clinton endorsed gay marriage in a 2009 speech, but no one really noticed, so Socarides called CNN's Anderson Cooper to make sure Cooper asked about the issue in an interview with Clinton. Clinton endorsed gay marriage in New York two years later, and campaigned against a state constitutional amendment against in in North Carolina. Earlier this month, he wrote a Washington Post op-ed calling for DOMA to be overturned. Socarides wrote in The New Yorker that it was Clinton's own idea to write the op-ed this time.
After a tough-to-read hearing on California's Proposition 8 on Tuesday, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a challenge to DOMA on Wednesday, and there's a good chance it will be overturned. Politico's Jonathan Allen and Tal Kopan declare that the culture wars are back, and this time, they're helping Democrats on guns, gays, immigration, and other issues. Former Pew Research Center president Andrew Kohut explained last week that the Republican Party is more estranged from the American center than either party has been since 1972, when the Democrats were known as the party of "acid, abortion, and amnesty." Kohut explains that hardliners within the Democratic Party made it look radical, and that's what's happening to the GOP now. But it's worth noting that "acid, abortion, and amnesty" are no longer unpopular positions. "Acid" referred to the legalization of marijuana — which just happened in Washington and Colorado, and is something state legislatures across the country are considering. And while polls may not matter to the Supremes, a majority of Americans now think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, a January NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll found. ("Amnesty" referred to amnesty for Vietnam war draft dodgers, which is no longer an issue, though it's a funny coincidence the GOP is now considering what is derisively called "amnesty" for illegal immigrants.)
Gay marriage wasn't on the radar back then. But in 1988, 72 percent of Americans opposed gay marriage. Now, 58 percent support gay it. That includes many young Republicans (59 percent of Republicans oppose gay marriage). Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told Politico's Katie Glueck that young Christians don't want to talk about the issue. "[They say,] 'It feels intolerant. We believe what we believe, they have a right to what they want to believe. Marriage should be a church thing, not a legal thing," Land said. Presumably, even the audience for anti-gay ads on Christian radio has diminished.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.