We’re all used to politicians brazenly saying one thing and doing another, or vice versa, but former President Bill Clinton’s reaction to the Supreme Court overturning section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, which he signed into law purely out of political convenience, irks me more than most:
“By overturning the Defense of Marriage Act, the court recognized that discrimination towards any group holds us all back in our efforts to form a more perfect union,” former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a joint statement with her husband, former President Bill Clinton. “We are also encouraged that marriage equality may soon return to California. We applaud the hard work of the advocates who have fought so relentlessly for this day, and congratulate Edie Windsor on her historic victory.”
But we know from the testimony of those who were involved with the decision to sign DOMA rather than veto it that Bill Clinton considered it both wrong and unconstitutional at the time. We also know that Dick Morris advised him that if he vetoed the bill it would hurt him politically during an election year. So he put political calculation ahead of principle and not only signed the bill but, as Andrew Sullivan notes, publicly defended its wisdom and constitutionality and ran ads in southern states bragging about having passed it. He basically screwed over gay people to further his career.
You know what’s changed? Public opinion. That’s it. If it had been politically safer for him to be on the right side in 1996, he would have. But he is a political coward, as Obama has been on this issue, always lagging behind public opinion rather than helping drive public opinion. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good thing that being on the side of equality is now a politically advantageous decision rather than a principled one, for the obvious reason that more politicians are motivated by calculation than by principle. But that doesn’t mean we should pretend that it was anything but the politically convenient selling out of principle.