Inside the White House, there was a genuine belief that if the President vetoed the Defense of Marriage Act, his reëlection could be in jeopardy. There was a heated debate about whether this was a realistic assessment, but it became clear that the President’s chief political advisers were not willing to take any chances. Some in the White House pointed out that DOMA, once enacted, would have no immediate practical effect on anyone—there were no state-sanctioned same-sex marriages then for the federal government to ignore. I remember a Presidential adviser saying that he was not about to risk a second term on a veto, however noble, that wouldn’t change a single thing nor make a single person’s life better.
What we didn’t fully comprehend was that, sooner than anyone imagined, there would be thousands of families who would be harmed by DOMA—denied federal benefits, recognition, and security, or kept apart by immigration laws.
They didn’t fully comprehend that the federal law would do … exactly what it said it would do. Blogger, please. That’s like Stephanopoulos taking me out to dinner at the time to persuade me that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was going to reduce the number of discharges of gay servicemembers – when it did the very opposite. And Socarides won’t mention Dick Morris, who was the real force behind this move and who once actually told me (probably disingenuously) that his one regret in the Clinton years was DOMA.
But Socarides’ point – once you get past his ludicrous excuse that they were shocked, shocked that gay people would be affected by the law – is honest enough. They wanted votes. They thought signing a pro-marriage law would help elect Bob Dole. They had the eager backing of the gay liberal establishment, like the Human Rights Campaign, who wanted a place at the DNC money table and if gay equality hurt that, then gay equality would have to wait.
But was Bob Dole really a threat so great it was worth becoming the most substantively anti-gay president in history?
DOMA was signed in September 1996. At no point in the entire campaign had Bob Dole even come close to beating Clinton in the polls. When DOMA was introduced by Bob Barr (now also an apostate on the question) in May 1996, Clinton led Dole in the polls by 14 points. When Clinton signed the bill, in mid-September, he was up by 12 points. Dole never broke 40 percent in the polling all year. The reason DOMA was signed was because Dick Morris saw it as a key to re-establishing Clinton as a good ol’ boy. Socarides’ job was to sell this to his fellow gays. You can read his memo on how to snow the rest of us here. Here was his pitch:
The president believes that raising this issue now is divisive and unnecessary and is calculated only to score political points at the expense of this community. The president believes it is an attempt to divert the American people from the urgent need to confront our challenges together… the President does not believe that the federal government should recognize gay marriage [and] he does not believe it is appropriate for scarce federal resources to be devoted to providing spousal benefits for partners in gay and lesbian relationships.
So it was also about saving money! Look: there was profound cynicism and opportunism in the GOP on this. They bear primary responsibility. But they didn’t sign the law – and no president has to. And he doesn’t have to run ads in the South bragging about it later (something the former president and perjurer understandably omits in his new op-ed). Clinton, instead, insisted to the Advocate:
I remain opposed to same-sex marriage. I believe marriage is an institution for the union of a man and a woman. This has been my long-standing position, and it is not being reviewed or reconsidered.
He sister-souljahed us – but, unlike the hip-hop artist, we were not celebrating the murder of cops, but seeking core civil rights. Kornacki sets Clinton’s opportunism and Socarides’ lack of principle straight:
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.
It’s been a nightmare for countless human beings. I welcome president Clinton’s change of heart, just as I welcomed Barack Obama’s and Bob Barr’s. But I am not going to white-wash his or Richard Socarides’ records. The core test of a defense of civil rights is when they are unpopular – not when they have reached widespread acceptance. On that measure, Clinton failed. And Socarides failed too.
Their failures had victims. And neither will still actually, you know, apologize.
(Photo: Bill Clinton laughs October 7, 1996 in Manchester, New Hampshire, not long after signing DOMA. By Dirck Halstead/Liaison/Getty. )