It was a cool autumn night in Washington when President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law. He had just returned to the White House after four days campaigning across the nation for what he hoped would be a second term, and he was tired. Just before 1 a.m., he picked up his pen and made DOMA the law of the land. There were no cameras, and no press conference. He hoped to avoid drawing attention by signing it in the middle of the night. He did not mention it once in his voluminous autobiography.
DOMA was not a battle Bill Clinton wanted to fight. Those who criticize him today for its passage forget the role Republicans played in whipping up fear of gays and lesbians in their unsuccessful attempt to win the 1996 presidential election.
Clinton's rise to the White House had been propelled by the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), whose members believed that the Democratic Party's capture by special interests had caused it to drift out of step with the values of middle-class Americans. It sought to de-emphasize divisive social issues like abortion, gay rights, and affirmative action, and move to the right on issues like law and order, welfare reform, and strengthening the traditional family unit. DLC co-founder Al From had approached Clinton in 1988 with an offer to place all the DLC's resources towards his 1992 presidential bid if Clinton would agree to become DLC chairman and support the organization's center-right policies. After a long courtship, Clinton agreed.
The DLC's agenda created major rifts within the party. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. criticized it for being a "quasi-Reaganite formation." DNC Chair Ron Brown argued that "The last thing we need in this country is two Republican parties. One is plenty." And Jesse Jackson summed-up the feeling of many liberals when he derided the DLC as "Democrats for the Leisure Class."
After gaining the presidency, Bill Clinton faced liberal majorities in both houses of Congress who argued on behalf of the party’s standard special-interest groups. To the dismay of Al From and the DLC, the new president began his first week on the job by announcing that he would end the ban on gays serving in the military. Although he would later back down and accept the military's watered-down approach of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," Clinton sustained long-term damage by focusing on such a polarizing subject so early in his presidency. Gay advocates saw his backing down as a betrayal, and middle-class voters were targeted by conservative pundits who declared that Clinton had wasted no time in showing his true colors as a far-left radical.
Clinton's popularity plummeted by 20 points, and any hope the DLC had of convincing middle-class Americans that the Democratic Party represented mainstream cultural values was blown to shreds. Clinton later reflected:
"Instead of a president fighting to change America for the better, I was being portrayed as a man who had abandoned down-home for uptown, a knee-jerk liberal whose mask of moderation had been removed. I had recently done a television interview in Cleveland in which a man said he no longer supported me because I was spending all my time on gays in the military and Bosnia. I replied that I'd just done an analysis on how I'd spent my time in the first hundred days: 55% on the economy and health care, 25% on foreign policy, 20% on other domestic issues. When he asked how much time I'd spent on gays in the military, and I told him just a few hours, he simply replied, 'I don't believe you.' All he knew was what he read and saw."
At the end of his first two years, Clinton was publicly upbraided by the new DLC Chairman Dave McCurdy: "While Bill Clinton has the mind of a New Democrat, he retains the heart of an Old Democrat. The result is an administration that has pursued elements of a moderate and liberal agenda at the same time, to the great confusion of the American people."
This confusion cost Clinton dearly in the 1994 midterm elections. For the first time in 40 years, Republicans won control of the House of Representatives. For the first time in 14 years, they won the Senate. Republicans held 30 governor's mansions across the nation. Post-election analyses showed that many white middle-class voters felt that Clinton had betrayed them by campaigning as a centrist only to govern as a liberal. The reaction within the Democratic Party was one of shock and blame. More than a dozen conservative House Democrats threatened to change parties unless Clinton turned the situation around — and fast.
The DLC interpreted the results as a vindication of its center-right policy recommendations, and urged Clinton to change course. "Get with the program," DLC co-founder Al From groused.
And Clinton did.
Over the next two years, he wholeheartedly embraced the center-right policies of the DLC. He introduced a balanced budget plan that cut spending without raising taxes. He passed a historic restructuring of welfare which cut benefits to recipients. He argued for charter schools over the objections of the teachers union. He supported the V-chip to allow parents to censor television programs for their children. He triangulated between liberal Democrats and radical Republicans to offer compromise solutions which resonated with middle-class Americans. The extremism of House Republicans under Speaker Newt Gingrich played right into his hands: When the public saw the federal government shut down twice between 1995 and 1996, it blamed Republicans, not Clinton.
As both parties entered the 1996 election year, Republicans realized they could no longer attack Clinton as a typical tax-and-spend liberal, so they doubled down on the culture war. Gingrich worked with his allies in talk radio and the Christian Coalition to depict Democrats as morally bankrupt: "Gingrich advised Republican candidates to speak of Democrats with the words pathetic and sick (two words Gingrich often used). Corrupt, liberal, and waste were other key words. Republicans were to be associated with change, moral, and family."
But it would take more than semantics to help Republicans gain the White House that year, especially with an uninspiring presidential candidate like Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kansas). Republicans needed to find hot-button social issues like gays in the military which would handicap Clinton as he headed into November.
Enter gay marriage. Columnist Frank Rich explained that DOMA "was strictly a right-wing political ploy cooked up for the year of Clinton’s re-election campaign. It had no other justification. In the spring of 1996, same-sex marriage wasn’t legal anywhere in the country or a top-tier cause for many gay leaders; it was solely in play in a slow-moving court case in Hawaii. But fear and demonization of gay men was off the charts: In 1995, a record 50,877 Americans with AIDS died — a one-year count rivaling the 58,000 Americans lost in the entire Vietnam War. The Christian Coalition, under the Machiavellian guidance of the yet-to-be-disgraced Ralph Reed, saw an opening to exploit homophobia to galvanize a Republican base unenthusiastic about Bob Dole."
Introduced by Republican Bob Barr in May 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) denied federal marriage benefits to same-sex couples, and allowed states not to recognize same-sex marriages which had been performed in other states. The House Judiciary Committee explained that DOMA was intended to "reflect and honor a collective moral judgment and to express a moral disapproval of homosexuality." Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) assured his fellow lawmakers that DOMA ''will safeguard the sacred institutions of marriage and the family from those who seek to destroy them and who are willing to tear apart America's moral fabric in the process.'' DOMA also allowed Bob Dole to shore-up support among conservatives by signing on as the bill’s first co-sponsor, drawing a rebuke from the Log Cabin Republicans in the process.
Part of Clinton's post-1994 transformation included a renewed commitment to traditional family values, and one month after DOMA was introduced in the House, he went on record to affirm his own opposition to gay marriage. He understood that Republicans were trying to place an albatross around his neck for the upcoming election, and while his numbers against Dole were encouraging, the last thing he needed was a repeat of gays-in-the-military. A spirited debate ensued in the House. DOMA was assailed by Democrats as a crass, election-year stunt designed to inflame public opinion, and although the bill passed both houses of Congress with strong majorities, 98% of those voting against it were Democrats. Only one Republican in Congress voted against DOMA — Representative Steve Gunderson from Wisconsin, who had been humiliatingly outed on the House floor by fellow Republican Robert Dornan two years earlier.
DOMA arrived on Clinton's desk in September, and at ten minutes to 1 a.m. he signed it into law. Triangulating between liberals and conservatives on such a heated subject may have been smart politics, but DOMA stood against everything he had done for gay rights. He added a short written statement: "Throughout my life I have strenuously opposed discrimination of any kind, including discrimination against gay and lesbian Americans... I also want to make clear to all that the enactment of this legislation should not, despite the fierce and at times divisive rhetoric surrounding it, be understood to provide an excuse for discrimination, violence or intimidation against any person on the basis of sexual orientation. Discrimination, violence and intimidation for that reason, as well as others, violate the principle of equal protection under the law and have no place in American society."
Earlier this year, Clinton argued that DOMA should be overturned. Even DOMA's author, Bob Barr, has since concluded that it was a mistake. Chalking these late-stage turnarounds up to mere opportunism fails to recognize how quickly views on same-sex marriage have changed. When Clinton signed DOMA into law, less than 30 % of the public approved of gay marriage. Today, it's over 50%:
Bill Clinton studied the political calculus in 1996 and signed DOMA into law, but blaming him for its passage ignores how Republicans used homophobia as a political weapon in the first place. Had Clinton refused to sign DOMA, gays and lesbians would not have been the victors: Congress would have overridden his veto with its commanding majorities, and he would have entered his re-election fight as damaged goods. By winning a second term, he was able to advance gay rights by fighting for employment nondiscrimination, eliminating arbitrary limits on gays obtaining security clearances, nominating the first openly gay ambassador, and increasing financing to combat AIDS.
After uniformly opposing gay marriage for most of its history, the Republican Party today has some within its ranks calling for a re-evaluation. Former presidential candidate Jon Huntsman argued earlier this year that Republicans should embrace gay marriage as a conservative cause. While this places him in line with conservative media personalities like Margaret Hoover and Meghan McCain, it also makes him the only 2012 Republican presidential candidate to support same-sex marriage. His fellow Republican presidential candidates, meanwhile, called for spiritual warfare against same-sex marriage, and associated it with bestiality and "pagan behavior." The party's eventual nominee, Mitt Romney, pledged to support a a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Few were surprised this year when the Republican National Committee reaffirmed its opposition to gay marriage by unanimous vote. The movement to accept gay marriage (and, by extension, gays themselves) faces a long, uphill climb within the GOP.
Bill Clinton's midnight signing of DOMA and his note of conscience on behalf of gay Americans testifies to the ambivalence he felt at the time. Republicans, with the exception of Steve Gunderson, suffered no such pangs of doubt. To them, the fight against gay marriage was a vital front in the culture war they believed would place them in the White House. It’s easy to criticize Clinton for the choice he made, but to do so willfully ignores the homophobic hate-mongering of the Republican Party, as well as the very real steps Bill Clinton took to advance the rights of gays and lesbians during his presidency.