Thursday, March 27, 2008
Former President Bill Clinton was asked earlier this week by an MTVU editorial board member about his involvement in the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996. The question was prompted by a comment Melissa Etheridge made during last year’s HRC/Logo Presidential forum where she said President Clinton “threw gays and lesbians under the bus” when he signed DOMA into law.
As you can see from his body language and aggressive cross-examining in the video above, the issue of DOMA is not a comfortable one for the former POTUS. He also got some very important facts wrong in his response to the question.
First, his chronology is incorrect. The question asks about the President’s actions in 1996, but Clinton starts talking about the divisiveness of the issue of gay marriage during the 2004 Presidential campaign. He doesn’t talk about the circumstances under which he signed DOMA, which—even though it does little to remedy the injustice the law brought upon same-sex couples—would at least be an honest response to Melissa Etheridge’s “throwing under the bus” assertion.
To recap 1996, President Clinton was facing a hostile Republican Congress and a re-election challenge by the well-respected but way behind-in-the-polls Senator Bob Dole. Trying to find some issue that would give Dole traction with the electorate, the Republican Congress passed DOMA and sent it to Clinton, essentially daring him not to sign it so that it could be turned into a campaign issue. But he did sign it in what was widely viewed at the time as a cold calculated political decision to make the issue go away in the ’96 campaign. And indeed it did. . .for him. . .in his election.
President Clinton also got it wrong in the interview when he explained what DOMA does. He said DOMA makes it clear that a marriage that is performed in one state (Massachusetts) does not have to be recognized in another (Idaho for example). In other words, what happens in Massachusetts stays in Massachusetts.
This is true, but he neglected to tell the other half of the story and that is that DOMA also says that the federal government won’t recognize a marriage between two people of the same sex or provide that couple with any of the federal rights and obligations it provides to married couples, which according the Government Accounting Office numbers around 1138 rights and obligations. These include filing taxes jointly, Social Security survivor benefits, inheriting a deceased spouse’s property and not have to pay taxes and many other protections and rights the federal government provides married couples so they can take care of each other.
I’m still not completely clear as to why President Clinton jumped ahead eight years to the 2004 elections when answering this question from MTVU about something that took place in 1996. He couldn’t have possibly known in 1996 what was going to happen years later, but that does seem to be frame he’s using to justifying his signing DOMA. It would be refreshing to hear him talk about his thinking on DOMA at the time the bill was presented to him, but he didn’t go there.
Even though Clinton did do more for LGBT people than any previous President in history, it’s obvious he still wrestles with talking about the other things he did that set us back, like DOMA.