The Clintons’ DOMA history thoroughly debunked

Buzzfeed’s Chris Geidner just poured a gallon of cold water on Hillary Clinton’s claim that the Defense of Marriage Act was itself a “defensive action” that prevented a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage from passing:

There is no contemporaneous evidence…to support the claim that the Clinton White House considered a possible federal constitutional amendment to be a concern, based on a BuzzFeed News review of the thousands of documents released earlier this year by the Clinton Presidential Library about same-sex couples’ marriage rights and the Defense of Marriage Act. In the documents, which include correspondence from a wide array of White House and Justice Department officials, no one even hints that Bill Clinton’s thinking or actions regarding DOMA were animated by the threat of a federal constitutional amendment.

Instead, as Geidner notes, those operating within the White House at the time simply assumed Clinton would support DOMA, given that he had already expressed his opposition to same-sex marriage by the time the bill came up for consideration in 1996. As he writes, “While some of the few out gay employees and their strongest straight allies worked in the spring of the year to find a way to keep Clinton from supporting DOMA, the internal conversation surrounding the bill mostly concerned when Clinton would announce his support.” As he continues:

And Clinton ended up announcing his support sooner rather than later. On May 23, 1996 — less than three weeks after the bill was introduced in Congress — Clinton announced that he would sign the bill if it came to him as he understood it.

Through it all, though, no one discussing the bill in the Clinton administration — from the White House senior staff to gay staffers and their strongest allies to the press office to Justice Department lawyers — ever mentioned any concern about a federal constitutional amendment.

That’s because conservatives weren’t throwing around the idea of a constitutional amendment in any serious way. At the time, conservatives were freaking out over the prospect of having to do exactly what DOMA said they wouldn’t have to do: recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. A constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage was not the go-to policy response to states like Hawai’i legalizing same-sex marriage; DOMA was.

This jives with a guest post Elizabeth Birch wrote here at AMERICAblog in 2013, explaining that the Clintons’ assertion that DOMA was passed to “defuse a movement to enact a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage” simply isn’t supported by the discussions that took place at the time. As she wrote:

In 1996, I was President of the Human Rights Campaign, and there was no real threat of a Federal Marriage Amendment. That battle would explode about eight years later, in 2004, when President Bush announced it was a central policy goal of his administration to pass such an amendment. (President Bush made such an announcement even while his right hand man, Vice President Cheney, had a lesbian daughter).

The only threat in 1996 — the year DOMA became law —- was a marriage case making its way through the courts in Hawai’i, and that case was only construed under the Hawai’i Constitution.

Geidner’s account traces the White House’s train of through throughout 1996, as DOMA was introduced and considered in Congress. While White House memos initially suggested that allowing the states to hold different definitions of marriage would violate the Equal Protection Clause, but they quickly backed off that view and took a more generous interpretation of the bill:

The Clintons, via stocklight / Shutterstock

The Clintons, via stocklight / Shutterstock

Even then, though, nothing in the voluminous communications among members of the White House staff or between the Justice Department and White House mention any concerns about or even consideration of the possibility of a federal constitutional amendment that might explain support for DOMA.

The story detailed in the discussions is simpler: Clinton opposed same-sex marriage and opposed federal recognition of same-sex couples’ marriages. Ultimately, then, he supported the substance of the bill — and efforts to get him to oppose the bill on federalism grounds or due to constitutional concerns were shut down within a week of the bill’s introduction.

This stance was continuously affirmed by White House staff in public, as well as in private, with Press Secretary Mike McCurry responding to a question about DOMA by saying that “[President Clinton] believes this is a time when we need to do things to strengthen the American family.” Shortly thereafter, Assistant Attorney General Andrew Fois informed House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde that the White House believed DOMA would hold up under constitutional scrutiny.

Shortly thereafter, the White House adopted a position in favor of DOMA based not on Clinton’s begrudging nod to federalism, but rather on his opposition to same-sex marriages being recognized by the federal government, with talking points that read: “[S]ince the president does not believe that the federal government should recognize gay marriage, he does not believe it is appropriate for federal resources to be devoted to providing spousal benefits to partners in gay and lesbian relationships.”

Geidner’s account is comprehensive and thorough, leaving no doubt that when Hillary Clinton says that her husband’s support of DOMA was actually pro-LGBT, as it was a calculated political decision aimed at preventing something worse, she’s simply wrong. You can read the whole thing here.

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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