In recent weeks America has had the opportunity to explore the history behind two catastrophic failures: the Defense of Marriage Act and the Iraq War. It need not be recounted again how many lives were lost and how much happiness was denied to people around the world due to these two oppressive policies and the dangerous beliefs lurking behind them. Yet, inexplicably, the liberals proudly changing their avatars and profile pictures to display support for marriage equality seem uncomfortable assigning blame to anyone but Republicans. I suspect a certain portion of liberals are genuinely unaware that Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law. But how can one explain the dearth of self-criticism from Clinton supporters who understand full well the role their political heroes played in this travesty of unconstitutional homophobia?
Certainly the Clintons’ failures on these issues are deeper than momentary lapses in judgment. Either the Clintons knew they’d committed egregious errors and remained silent until opinion polls made it politically advantageous for them to confess their sins, or they aren’t perceptive enough to understand that denying equal rights to gay people and unnecessarily invading countries without sufficient justification are rather terrible ideas. In either case, it’s difficult to argue a convincing defense on the Clintons’ behalf.
To outside observers, it would seem liberals are again being duped by a couple of talented political strategists and opportunists. How convenient it must be for the Clintons to reverse their stance when the majority of Americans, and indeed many conservatives, have already professed support for gay marriage. How convenient for them to acknowledge that nearly every piece of evidence used to justify the Iraq War was wrong after most Americans have already reached the same conclusion.
After others have already completed the arduous tasks of exposing the Bush administration’s bad intelligence and convincing social conservatives to grant everyone marriage rights, here come the Clintons, extremely late to the party, eager to embrace views that have already become the consensus. When Americans most needed the Clintons to fight for gay rights and oppose an unjust war, the ex-first family failed them. Unfortunately, it seems that no matter how profoundly wrong the Clintons are on the definitive issues of our time, liberals will still support them.
Consider what Bill Clinton said shortly before the Iraq War began:
“[Saddam Hussein] is a threat. He’s a murderer and a thug. There’s no doubt we can do this. We’re stronger; he’s weaker. You’re looking at a couple weeks of bombing and then I’d be astonished if this campaign took more than a week. Astonished.”
Or what Hillary said about Iraq in October of 2002:
“In the four years since the inspectors left, intelligence reports show that Saddam Hussein has worked to rebuild his chemical and biological weapons stock, his missile delivery capability, and his nuclear program. He has also given aid, comfort, and sanctuary to terrorists, including Al Qaeda members….Saddam Hussein will continue to increase his capacity to wage biological and chemical warfare, and will keep trying to develop nuclear weapons. Should he succeed in that endeavor, he could alter the political and security landscape of the Middle East, which as we know all too well affects American security.”
And consider Hillary’s statement on the “sanctity of marriage” in 2004:
“I believe that marriage is, not just a bond, but a sacred bond between a man and a woman. …I take umbrage at anyone who might suggest that those of us who worry about amending the Constitution are less committed to the sanctity of marriage or to the fundamental bedrock principle that it exists between a man and a woman going back into the mists of history as one of the founding, foundational institutions of history and humanity and civilization and that its primary principle role during those millennia has been the raising and socializing of children into the society in which they are to become adults.”
Clinton supporters have penned op-eds detailing the “journey” the Clintons took to arrive at their support for gay marriage (as if supporting equal rights requires some sort of taxing, soul-searching voyage guided by opinion polls) and liberal pundits have solemnly lamented how “everyone” was wrong about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. This is mere historical revisionism, designed to muffle the voices of the dissenters and skeptics who loudly and publicly opposed DOMA and the Iraq War. Those who truly understood the flaws of DOMA and the faulty logic used to justify the Iraq War often found themselves marginalized and dismissed. The Clintons meanwhile have largely maintained their good standing amongst liberals who, by continuing to support the Clintons, reinforce the notion that one can be terribly wrong on crucial issues but avoid any consequences so long as a recantation is offered at the eleventh hour.
Of course no politician who is in power for many years can claim to possess a flawless voting record, but the Clintons have erred in myriad ways and they’ve been excruciatingly slow to correct their mistakes. Affirmations of support for gay marriage in 2013 do not compensate for decades of not just inaction, but ardent support of anti-gay policies that yielded direct consequences on the happiness of citizens. Yet something suggests that the cries for “Hillary 2016” will persist and so too will the reverence for Bill Clinton. It is ultimately not principles and foresight that Clinton supporters most value, but rather the talent for winning elections and acquiring power. Andrew Sullivan stated it best when he wrote:
“In some ways, I find the opportunism of the Clintons – who did more substantive harm to gay people in eight years than any other administration – more disgusting than the fundamentalist hostility. At least the Christianists were sincere. The Clintons have always been phonies and opportunists and for Bill Clinton to proclaim the sanctity of marriage and sign DOMA while cigar-fucking his intern tells you a lot about him. On no issue were they as shameless as on this one – portraying themselves as civil rights advocates while kicking those of us fighting for equality squarely in the groin.”
Much to the delight of many Democrats, President Clinton recently penned an op-ed declaring the Defense of Marriage Act, which he signed into law, to be unconstitutional. Clinton began the piece by writing what is ostensibly an explanation as to why he once supported DOMA. He lays out the usual excuses: “it was a very different time,” DOMA was “opposed by only 81 of the 535 members of Congress,” and “in no state in the union was same-sex marriage recognized.” After making himself look better, Clinton then bluntly states “I know now that, even worse than providing an excuse for discrimination, the law is itself discriminatory. It should be overturned.”
It is always preferable that error-prone politicians admit their mistakes, however belatedly. But far more preferable is that our elected officials take greater care to avoid errors in the first place. It’s not as if opposition to DOMA did not exist. It’s not as if there were no warnings about its inevitable discriminatory consequences. For instance, Rep. Patricia Schroeder accused DOMA supporters of “stirring the political waters and seeing what hate you can unleash.” New York Assemblywoman Deborah J. Glick protested “Some people have been led to believe that their own marriage is somehow threatened if other people are allowed to marry. It’s as if there’s some finite pool of commitment and love in this world.” The ACLU, which has a rather remarkable track record protecting individual liberties, also opposed the bill.
Richard Socarides, who served as Clinton’s White House Special Assistant and Senior Advisor, wrote in The New Yorker that Clinton seemed to recognize, at least to some extent, DOMA’s faults but reluctantly signed the bill into law anyway for fear of losing re-election. Socarides writes:
Inside the White House, there was a genuine belief that if the President vetoed the Defense of Marriage Act, his reëlection could be in jeopardy. There was a heated debate about whether this was a realistic assessment, but it became clear that the President’s chief political advisers were not willing to take any chances. Some in the White House pointed out that DOMA, once enacted, would have no immediate practical effect on anyone—there were no state-sanctioned same-sex marriages then for the federal government to ignore. I remember a Presidential adviser saying that he was not about to risk a second term on a veto, however noble, that wouldn’t change a single thing nor make a single person’s life better.
During the campaign season, Clinton would sometimes complain publicly about how the Republicans were using the marriage issue against him. He said, derisively, that it was “hardly a problem that is sweeping the country” and his press secretary called it “gay baiting, pure and simple.” And that September, when the Defense of Marriage Act was passed, President Clinton signed it.
Clinton never believed that the federal government had the right to discriminate. The harder question is this: When is winning the most important thing? Would a veto, in retrospect, have been worth the risk?
This “harder question” isn’t so hard if you don’t buy into the Clinton ethos that the accumulation of power is more important than doing the right thing. And this “harder question,” when really considered, begins to seem more like an impossible one. People can endlessly speculate as to what might or might not have swayed the outcome of an election in any given scenario. One could play this game of hypotheticals and crystal ball gazing forever and in so doing, justify any terrible policy as a necessary evil to achieve the supposedly blessed outcome of an elongated Clinton Presidency.
Rather than remain fixated on unpredictable election outcomes, our elected officials should be expected to clearly communicate what it is they believe and then enact policies that match those beliefs. Clinton was never very good at this kind of honest politics and our country still suffers for it.