Yes, It Was Clinton Who Signed DOMA

Andrew Sullivan —  Mar 2 2012 @ 2:34pm

Frank Rich, in a must-read, calls out the left for whitewashing history over gay rights. He's dead-on about how amnesiac some Democrats now are. And I remember all too well the morning that four of us testified in the first Congressional hearings on DOMA in 1996. My old trench-buddy, Evan Wolfson, was about to make a case for DOMA's unconstitutionality when word came in, as we walked into the room, that Clinton's Justice Department had just said it saw no constitutional problems with DOMA. We were kicked directly in the balls as we went into battle. Clinton went on to run radio ads in the South boasting of his anti-gay stands. He also signed into law the existing HIV travel and immigration ban, as well, of course, as DADT, which doubled the rate of gay discharges from the military. Rich recalls:

[DOMA] was strictly a right-wing political ploy cooked up for the year of Clinton’s re-election campaign. It had no other justification. In the spring of 1996, same-sex marriage wasn’t legal anywhere in the country or a top-tier cause for many gay leaders; it was solely in play in a slow-moving court case in Hawaii. But fear and demonization of gay men was off the charts: In 1995, a record 50,877 Americans with AIDS died—a one-year count rivaling the 58,000 Americans lost in the entire Vietnam War. The Christian Coalition, under the Machiavellian guidance of the yet-to-be-disgraced Ralph Reed, saw an opening to exploit homophobia to galvanize a Republican base unenthusiastic about Bob Dole.

In a consummate display of bad taste, Clinton announced that he would sign DOMA that spring just two days after the Supreme Court, in a rare national victory for gay rights, struck down a Colorado constitutional amendment that had barred anti-discrimination laws benefiting gay men and lesbians. In the months to come, Clinton’s stand on DOMA gave political permission to many nominally liberal Democrats to join Rick Santorum, Jesse Helms, and Larry Craig in voting for the bill that September—among them Charles Schumer (then in the House) and the senators Joe Biden, Tom Harkin, Frank Lautenberg, Patrick Leahy, Joe Lieberman, Carl Levin, Barbara Mikulski, Patty Murray, and Harry Reid. Only fourteen senators, also Democrats, had the courage to vote against it.

Erik Loomis objects:

I’m not sure what Rich is trying to say here. Are liberals making a claim to having been pro-gay 20 years ago? He talks about Bill Clinton whitewashing his own past. Well first of all, Bill Clinton is barely a liberal. Second, Clinton is whitewashing his past because he knows he was wrong. And isn’t that good that he knows he is wrong?

Yes, it is. But substantively, Clinton signed into law the most anti-gay agenda of any president in history. Yes, this was initiated, fueled and exploited by the Christianist right. But Clinton not only surrendered; he also tried to gain politically from it. I'm glad he has come around now that it's easy for him to do so. But fourteen senators can look back on history with less shame.