Bill Clinton’s Mea Culpa on DOMA

Photograph by John Moore/Getty Images

President Bill Clinton during a campaign rally in Youngstown, Ohio, in this file photo.

Bill Clinton always has had an eye for history.

For the most part, he has been a few steps ahead of it.

His forging of a middle-ground in political life propelled him to the White House, where his willingness to embrace measures such as “Workfare” showed Democrats a way to beat Republicans at their own game.

Yet, signing the Defense of Marriage Act?

A big mistake, the former president admitted today in an op-ed in the Washington Post. In his readiness to accept it then, it appears, he underestimated just how swiftly public opinion would evolve on this issue. Just this week, a Quinnipiac University poll of Americans showed that a majority of Catholics support same-sex marriage.

As the Supreme Court prepares for oral arguments challenging the law, as well as an appeal of a ruling striking down the California Proposition 8 ban on same-sex marriage, Clinton spoke out today in print.

As Bloomberg’s  Roger Runningen notes:

Clinton says the U.S. Supreme Court should strike down a law he signed 17 years ago that bans same-sex marriage, calling the measure “incompatible” with the Constitution. Clinton says the justices should overturn the Defense of Marriage Act he signed in 1996 that bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages. He said the law is inconsistent with “equality and justice” under the law.

“I have come to believe that DOMA is contrary to those principles and, in fact, incompatible with our Constitution,” Clinton wrote in an op-ed article in the Washington Post.

“When I signed the bill, I included a statement with the admonition that “enactment of this legislation should not, despite the fierce and at times divisive rhetoric surrounding it, be understood to provide an excuse for discrimination,”’ Clinton wrote in the Post. “Reading those words today, I know now that, even worse than providing an excuse for discrimination, the law is itself discriminatory. It should be overturned.”

Richard Socarides explains the admission this way at The New Yorker today:

“It is extremely rare for former Presidents to admit mistakes made in office, and rarer still for one to disavow a major piece of legislation. That’s partly why Bill Clinton’s op-ed in the Washington Post calling the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act—a law that he signed—“incompatible with our Constitution,” and asking the Supreme Court to overturn it, is so important.”

“The essay, a Clinton associate told me, was Clinton’s own idea; he wrote it out himself in longhand on a legal pad. As his former White House adviser on gay-rights, I was not surprised by the message. But Clinton’s willingness, just twenty days before two gay-rights cases go to the Supreme Court, to publicly call DOMA discriminatory is a big step, even if his comments stopped short of the full apology some have asked for.”

“But the op-ed leaves a political mystery intact. Clinton, though clearly unhappy with the law today, does not really explain why he signed it, other than to say “it was a very different time.” Perhaps that is explanation enough. Still, how was it that Bill Clinton, the first President to champion gay rights, put his name on one of the most discriminatory anti-gay statutes in American history?”

“The simple answer is that he got boxed in by his political opponents, and that his campaign positions on gay rights ran ahead of public opinion. But there was another important factor: a failure to imagine how quickly gay rights would evolve, and how difficult it would be to undo the damage that DOMA did.”

 

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