Over the weekend Bernie Sanders hit Hillary Clinton hard in a speech at the influential Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Iowa, in what some are saying is an example of his going negative when he said he wouldn't. Whatever your take is on that (his campaign says he's getting "more pointed," not negative), what Sanders exposed is a simple truth: Clinton, in an interview on Rachel Maddow last week, revised the history of her husband and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Hillary claimed that Bill signed DOMA as a "defensive action" to keep back a possible constitutional amendment:
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 so, in -- in a lot of ways, DOMA was a line that was drawn that was to prevent going further.
It's a version of a story her campaign put forth in 2008 -- and which didn't really erupt at the time, as it did over the weekend, perhaps because no other candidate challenged it -- and it's similar to how Bill Clinton has revised his own history over a period beginning in 2009 until his 2013 call to overturn DOMA. But as I explained at the time, it's just not true. There was no talk, among activists, antigay forces or politicians, of a constitutional amendment in 1996 when Clinton signed DOMA and then touted his signing of DOMA in radio ads in the South during the presidendial race against Republican Bob Dole, positioning himself as a defender of "religious freedom."
''That's complete nonsense," Evan Wolfson of Freedom to Marry told Chris Geidner in Metro Weekly in 2011. "There was no conversation about something 'worse' until eight years later. There was no talk of a constitutional amendment, and no one even thought it was possible -- and, of course, it turned out it wasn't really possible to happen... That was never an argument made in the '90s.''
And over the weekend, this was backed up by none other than long-time Clinton friend, Democratic strategist and lesbian activist Hilary Rosen, tweeting that Hillary Clinton should just "stop."
The former president of the Human Rights Campaign, Elizabeth Birch, who worked for the group at the time DOMA was passed and signed -- and who is also a supporter of Hillary Clinton -- took Bill Clinton to task in 2013, clearly refuting this "defensive action" claim, and pointed to the radio ads. Now really, if DOMA was a
"defensive action" taken for our own good, why was Clinton using it for his own good in radio ads in the South? At the time he signed DOMA, Clinton did call the bill "gay-baiting" and didn't believe it was necessary. But he said he agreed with the substance of it: "I have long opposed governmental recognition of same-gender marriages, and this legislation is consistent with that position."
I believe Bill Clinton could have refused to sign DOMA if he truly thought it was wrong. Dole was way down in the polls, and was not going to beat him by any stretch; Clinton, in my opinion, simply wanted a blowout win.
But, whatever. We can agree to disagree on that. It's now a different time, and everyone's evolved and understands what the cultural and political reality was then, right? So why is it so difficult for Hillary Clinton to simply say this: "Yes, after the fact, years later, some Democrats used DOMA to forestall a constitutional amendment when it came up -- saying that we don't need an amendment because we have DOMA -- but no, a possible amendment was not something that was a rationale for signing DOMA in 1996. My husband did think DOMA was the result of GOP gay-baiting and unnecessary. But he agreed on the substance of it, as did the majority of Americans and the vast majority of Democrats. And we were all wrong. We evolved, as has our current president and the American public. And I'm glad to see DOMA gone."
Though she was slow to embrace marriage equality and got criticism for not speaking about the continued discrimination affecting LGBT Americans earlier in this campaign -- including from me in recent months -- Clinton has spoken out more strongly on the issues of LGBT inclusion more recently, promised to push for an all-ecompansing anti-discrimination bill, and even talked of LGBT discrimination in her opening statements at the Democratic debate in Las Vegas. She's grown and responded to critics, and it just wasn't necessary to revise history to somehow make herself -- and her husband -- seem more consistently pro-LGBT. (I suspect it's more so an issue of Bill's pride -- and guilt -- but that's another piece entirely.)
By doing so now she opened herself up to the attack by Sanders and now to criticism by even some of her staunchest supporters who are having to correct the historical record. Other supporters, however, have been defending her on social media, saying the issue isn't relevant, that the DOMA era was a terrible time and that political realities forced Bill Clinton to sign DOMA. Again, whatever you may think about it, that is not the point. The point is he didn't sign it to push back a possible amendment. Whether or not it's relevant to the presidential race now, it is definitely relevant to history. And it cannot go unchallenged.
But while we're at it, Bernie Sanders is engaging in own window dressing too. Yes, he voted against DOMA -- one of only 67 brave House members to do so -- and for that he gets a gold star, and it's certainly something he should be touting (and I've urged him to do so). But as Mark Joseph Stern pointed out recently, Sanders actually didn't support marriage equality at the time -- though he's glossing over that fact now, implying he did support it -- and said he voted against DOMA because he thought the states should not be intruded upon by the federal government. His chief of staff insisted he wasn't "legislating values." In 2006, two years after Massachusetts became the first state with marriage equality, Sanders identified himself as "a supporter of civil unions," and was still saying "marriage is a state issue."
Sanders' sins of omission are perhaps not as egregious as Clinton's revisionism, but they still need to be corrected. I understand the passions of those who support each of these or other candidates -- or none of them -- and the impulse to paper over difficult issues from the past. But if we don't get LGBT history right, including how our own friends dealt with the issue as well -- and learn from it-- we risk failing to get full equality moving forward.