The Kerry Edwards 2004 campaign says Bill Clinton tried to throw gays under the bus. Bill Clinton’s office says it’s not true. Who do we believe? And what does this mean for Hillary Clinton’s presidential run?
As Pam Spaulding noted last week, Democratic political consultant Bob Shrum claims in his new book that during the 2004 elections, Bill Clinton advised John Kerry to support the Federal Marriage Amendment, i.e., the anti-gay amendment to the US Constitution that would have banned gay marriage and vitiated scores of other rights that gay couples may have, including health insurance, inheritance, child custody, parenting, and more. Shrum reports that Kerry refused to endorse the amendment.
I decided to check with Bill Clinton’s office and the Kerry-Edwards 2004 campaign to find out if this is true. Here is what I found.
Jay Carson, spokesman for President Clinton told me:
“I checked and it’s completely untrue. He never advised John Kerry to support the gay marriage ban President Bush was pushing.”
A senior Kerry-Edwards 2004 campaign staffer told me:
“It’s definitely true. Newsweek had reported that Clinton had said Kerry should support some of the state [anti-gay] ballot initiatives. Clinton believed it would be this grand master stroke to neutralize Bush’s base.”
I went back to both President Clinton’s office and the Kerry-Edwards campaign official, asking them to reconcile the apparent discrepancy. Clinton’s spokesman stands by his denial – to the best of his knowledge, it didn’t happen. The senior Kerry-Edwards 2004 campaign staffer also stands by their statement that it did happen, noting that Clinton’s denial was “typical Clintonian revisionism.”
(As an aside, I also went back to Clinton’s spokesman to make sure that he wasn’t parsing his words – i.e., Clinton never advised Kerry to support the anti-gay amendment that Bush was pushing, but did he advise him to push any other version of the federal amendment? Clinton’s spokesman assured me that there was no intent to parse, Clinton never advised Kerry to support any version of the federal constitutional amendment.)
Who to believe? Is there absolute proof that Clinton said it? Not yet. But you’ve got two sources who say he did, to one source who says he didn’t. Then you have to look to the veracity of the sources. Shrum is not well-loved in bloggyland, though I’m not sure he’s thought of as a liar – rather the charge is that he’s inept at winning. The Kerry-Edwards campaign is not known for its electoral victories either, to be sure, but it’s also not known for lying. Then there’s Bill Clinton. I’m not going to revisit ancient history, but it certainly “sounds” like something Clinton would say and do, and it sounds like something he’d subsequently deny.
To get a sense of whether this “sounds like Clinton,” let’s look back at Clinton’s record on federal bans on gay marriage. Go back to the Clinton re-election campaign in 1995. Clinton hired Democratic strategist Mark Penn as his pollster and political adviser along with now-conservative pundit Dick Morris. (Mark Penn is also Hillary Clinton’s chief strategist for her current presidential run – more on that later). Penn, Morris and Clinton had decided that Clinton was going to win the re-election based on his support for “family values.” And family values meant “bashing gays.”
By the time Clinton arrived in Chicago for his party’s convention in August, nothing that hinted at liberalism was left hanging on him. When the President, who had begun his term advocating the rights of gays in the military, came around to supporting the Defense of Marriage Act, which barred federal recognition for gay and lesbian unions, Dole was wide-eyed. “Is there anything we’re for that he won’t jump on?” Dole asked. The answer, essentially, was nothing…
It’s no coincidence that after hiring Penn, Clinton signed the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act and then ran radio ads on Christian radio touting his support for DOMA.
From the Associated Press, October 17, 1996:
After angry complaints from gay-rights advocates, the Clinton campaign on Wednesday replaced an ad running on religious radio stations that boasted of the president’s signature on a bill banning gay marriages….
The Clinton spot also touted his signing of the Defense of Marriage Act, in spite of earlier White House complaints that the Republicans’ use of the issue amounted to “gay baiting.”
DOMA wasn’t something Bill Clinton was forced to do, it’s something he chose to do, wanted to do, was happy to do. And that explains why Bill Clinton has never repudiated his support for DOMA. I thought at the time, and still thought up until a few days ago, that Bill Clinton was forced to sign DOMA. That the only reason he hadn’t repudiated that support – hadn’t said “look, it was GOP gay-baiting and I didn’t have a choice, no Democrat had a choice” – was because it might put Hillary in a bind, forcing her to also repudiate DOMA, something she of course would WANT to do but couldn’t because it might prove politically dangerous. But now it seems Clinton’s Choice was much clearer, and more calculated, than that. Clinton thought DOMA was a great idea for him then, and thinks it’s a great idea for his wife now. It’s not a necessary evil, it’s manna from heaven.
The final proof that legislative gay-bashing is still something President Clinton recommends as smart Democratic politics? Bill Clinton wanted to make sure that John Kerry’s presidential defeat in 2004 would be blamed on Kerry’s unwillingness to sufficiently bash the gays. That’s the most sensible explanation for why he made the following leak to Newsweek within days of Kerry’s loss (Kerry-Edwards campaign staff tell me that they were not the ones who leaked this to Newsweek, and Clinton and his people were the only other party involved).
President Clinton, who signed the Defense of Marriage Act when he was in the White House, advised Kerry in a phone call early in the campaign to find a way to support the state bans. Kerry never considered abandoning his principles to that extent, but he also didn’t take seriously enough the threat.
So now the gays lost Kerry the election. Priceless.
It gives me no joy to bash Bill Clinton. I cannot express sufficiently how much I admire the man’s intellect and his political acumen. We had lunch with him last fall, and my first thought was “this is what a real president is like.” He possesses so many of the qualities that our party and our politicians lack nowadays. But the man is politically amoral. Not immoral – amoral. And he, along with his amoral campaign aide Mark Penn, are the top advisers to Hillary Clinton’s presidential run. And that should give every supporter of gay rights, civil rights, or any other issue, serious pause.
There’s already a growing concern in the gay community that Senator Clinton, while “good on paper” on gay issues – and once considered remarkably good personally – will throw us under the bus if and when she becomes president. And let’s be clear. We’re not talking about some arcane tax policy issue. We’re talking about our lives. Having the Democratic party’s top two legislative gay-bashers as her top two advisers, men who will betray any cause, any principle, any supporter, for a bump in the polls (read more about Mark Penn’s own loyalty problems here and here), does nothing to assuage those growing concerns.
PS And if I’m wrong, if Bob Shrum is wrong, if the senior Kerry-Edwards campaign official is wrong, if history is wrong, then let Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton publicly repudiate DOMA in its entirety.