Clinton called out for whitewashing Defense of Marriage Act history

Hillary Clinton has been trying out a new explanation for her support of the Defense of Marriage Act, which her husband signed into law in 1996. According to her, the bill wasn’t meant to be an offensive attack on the LGBT community, it was a “defensive action” to prevent something worse, like a constitutional amendment banning marriage equality. As she told Rachel Maddow last week:

On Defense of Marriage, I think what my husband believed – and there was certainly evidence to support it – is that there was enough political momentum to amend the Constitution of the United States of America, and that there had to be some way to stop that. And there wasn’t any rational argument – because I was in on some of those discussions, on both ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and on DOMA, where both the president, his advisers and occasionally I would – you know, chime in and talk about, ‘you can’t be serious. You can’t be serious.’ But they were.  And so, in a lot of ways, DOMA was a line that was drawn that was to prevent going further.

As Chris Johnson noted in the Washington Blade, this isn’t the first time the Clintons have explained DOMA in this context:

The Clintons on inauguration day, via Wikimedia Commons

The Clintons on inauguration day, via Wikimedia Commons

The notion that DOMA was signed into law to stave off a U.S. constitutional amendment has been articulated before by Hillary Clinton during an interview last year on National Public Radio. Bill Clinton offered that rationale for DOMA in 2009 during Netroots Nation when confronted by LGBT activist Lane Hudson.

“We were attempting at the time, in a very reactionary Congress, to head off an attempt to send a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage to the states,” Bill Clinton said. “And if you look at the 11 referenda much later — in 2004, in the election — which the Republicans put on the ballot to try to get the base vote for President Bush up, I think it’s obvious that something had to be done to try to keep the Republican Congress from presenting that.”

However, this version of the history of DOMA doesn’t square with what many LGBT activists remember:

Clinton’s revision is especially puzzling given the fact that, in the 2016 campaign, Clinton has been pretty good on LGBT issues, especially her full-throated endorsement of the Equality Act, which she called her “highest priority.”

At Saturday’s Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner in Iowa, Bernie Sanders attacked Clinton over this distortion — a rare move for him — highlighting his vote against DOMA while he was in Congress:

Now today, some are trying to rewrite history by saying that they voted for one anti-gay law to stop something worse. That is not the case. There was a small minority in the house opposed to discriminating against our gay brothers and sisters and I am proud that I was one of those members.

Of course, as the same activists frustrated with Clinton were quick to point out vis a vis Sanders, just because he cast the right votes doesn’t mean he can necessarily call himself a champion of LGBT rights.

That being said, Sanders is a co-sponsor of the Equality Act in the Senate, and has opposed anti-gay discrimination laws going back to his campaigns for mayor in the 1970s.

At the end of the day, the Democratic field is filled with candidates who have done some degree of evolving on LGBT rights, but who have all (O’Malley included) landed in the right place today. Rather than pretend that their past errors don’t exist, or were actually pro-LGBT moves in the first place, they’d do better to admit their mistakes and move on. They can take credit for how far they’ve come.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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