July 22, 2011
By Adam Bink
I noticed a comment over at The Advocate’s summary of “don’t miss” moments from the DOMA hearing, from Frank Erdman in Austin:
I love Bill Clinton. Always have. Always will. But history I think will record that his biggest mistake was not personal indiscretions, but rather was this unconstitutional federal power grab over the states that was DOMA. Ethics and equality issues aside, DOMA was as unconstitutional as it gets. That he signed this into law constitutes in my opinion the single biggest mistake in what was otherwise a great Presidency. Everyone makes mistakes. I would like to see President Clinton apologize for this one, and I say this as someone who loves and admires him very much.
The legislation got packaged up and delivered out in time for the 1996 election. And the only real strategic error they made was picking Congressman Bob Barr from Georgia as their champion; he had been married three times. So that led to the only happy moment in this battle for me. Bob Barr and I were on the Newshour on PBS. We were debating the merits of the bill and I said, “You know, there’s some confusion out there, Congressman Barr. Which marriage are you defending? Your first? Your second? Or your third?” The cameraman started laughing so hard that I thought the camera was shaking.
Dick Morris, who was President Clinton’s chief political strategist at hte time, said to the president, “You need to take this out of play and you need to announce now that you’ll sign it.” So Bill Clinton announced that if the Defense of Marriage Act reached his desk, he’d sign it. I was absolutely enraged.
I had the chance to passionately make a case to Vice President Gore that Part “A” of the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional because it violated the Constitution’s Full Faith and Credit clause, which requires that official acts and proceedings of each state be recognized by the other states. I was making a very Republican argument.
I also said that I thought that when the president was ninety years old and looked back he would be proud of having stood on the right side of history.
It didn’t happen with “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” The president could have simply issued the executive order banning discrimination in the military. He would have acted decisively and been done with it. Yes, Congress would have overturned it, but again, he would have been on the right side of history. And with the Defense of Marriage Act I thought he was secure enough in the election cycle to withstand the test of acting decisively. It would have been magnificent if he had simply vetoed it, said it was about discrimination, not about marriage.
Vice President Gore was very, very moved by what I said. He is an extremely good man and cares a great deal about our community. He said, “I will take it up with the president.” And I’m sure he did, but the president signed the bill into law in the middle of the night on September 21, 1996.
And Al Gore:
I felt that President Clinton’s judgement about the political factors was understandable given the complete impossibility of persuading more than a small percentage of Americans at that time that the other view was correct. I don’t feel good about that, but I think that was pretty much where I was.
I’d have to say I did not make the same fight on the Defense of Marriage Act as I did on “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” I don’t think that I had the vocabulary then to articulate the kind of alternative that I now strongly support. I feel that the right outcome would be to have a legally recognized civil union by some name that differentiated it from the marriage right that is so deeply interwoven with the expectations of what marriage is all about and give it the same legal protections and the same rights and responsibilities.
I sort of saw it that way then, but it wasn’t to the point where I could really express it well, and therefore it seemd like a binary choice. I did feel that it was really a hard push for the president; both he and I come from Southern states, the Bible Belt. And there were more than a few gays and lesbians who said, “Look, we understand.” That was also a factor. A number of people had said to him, “You don’t have to take this bullet.”
I recall being at the Netroots Nation conference in Austin a few years ago, when people angrily shouted at President Clinton (who was the keynote speaker) for agreeing to Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act. What I recall most was President Clinton shouting back “well, you didn’t get me the support I needed in the Congress!” For him, and others, there is enough blame to go around — some of it being simply the environment of where the country was, and other parts being that, it’s true, if Clinton is to blame, so is the entire community for not mobilizing the support around this. On the other hand, in many was this community was nascent and still very young. I note all this simply because a lot of people are looking back at the history of DOMA, and it’s worth considering what lessons we might learn.
President Clinton has actually come out in support of the Respect for Marriage Act to repeal DOMA, and let’s hope he continues to be vocal in his support for repealing what he did 15 years ago.