The Chutzpah of Bill Clinton

The Chutzpah of Bill Clinton June 28, 2013

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.

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  • edmundog

    I’ve always had the impression that if he hadn’t signed it, the GOP would have pushed forward with the federal marriage amendment, and it would have passed back then. So Clinton signed it even though he didn’t like it, because it was the only way to stop them. Less cowardice and more of a sacrifice.

  • slc1

    Re edmundog @ #1

    I have also heard that. If so, it was immensely successful to the point now where such a Constitutional amendment wouldn’t stand a chance.

  • trucreep

    I always say this problem has two sides to it. You’re absolutely right about the political convenience of it, but I think part of what makes something politically convenient is that voters don’t really apply the most….intelligent scrutiny of candidates.

  • Robert Harvey

    It wasn’t that much of a political calculation. It didn’t change much, or even anything. There was no same sex marriage in the USA at the time, so federal recognition was a non-issue, at least for a few years.

    And even before DOMA no state was required to recognize any other states’ marriages. That’s still true, with or without DOMA.

    I agree that the Federal recognition provisions eventually did start to bite, and that repealing a law is always harder and less certain than enacting it, but the political calculation at the time was not pure evil.

  • cry4turtles

    I’m no big fan of politicians, but isn’t that what they all do Ed?

  • “But he is a political coward, as Obama has been on this issue, always lagging behind public opinion rather than helping drive public opinion. ”

    This could be safely said of ANY politician I have ever fucking met. Not to say that there aren’t some principled politicians, but I’ve never met any.

    Clinton was, despite his failings and character flaws a fuckton better than his opponents would have been in the WH. That’s all I really need to know.

    Too bad about DOMA but considering that his own party deserted him on the bill. The vote in the House was 342 to 67 (source: and in the Senate it was 85-14 (source:

    Clinton might be or might not have been totally cynical, but his math was certainly sound. He knew that his veto would not stand against the Congress.

  • CSB

    As democommie pointed out, DOMA was well into 2/3 majority territory when it was passed. Maybe he could have bully pulpited the Democrats into voting against it when it went back for the override vote. But more likely, it would have gotten the override and Clinton’s principled stand wouldn’t have changed anything for the better.

    Still doesn’t excuse him flogging his lack of veto during the reelection campaign, but it’s not too hard to see why the original choice was made.

  • machintelligence

    “But he is a political coward, as Obama has been on this issue, always lagging behind public opinion rather than helping drive public opinion. ”

    What do you call a politician who tries to lead public opinion rather than follow it? Usually an also ran.

  • mikeyb

    The reality is for the foreseeable future, we either are for the party of compromisers and cowards (Democrats) or anti-science anti-minority anti-women anti-middle class demagogues (GOP). I don’t see any other choices. Anyone for starting another party.

  • Who Knows?

    I doubt this qualifies as chutzpah, or anything like it, on the part of the Clintons. From my recollection the Clintons have long supported gay rights. One of the first things they wanted to accomplish for gays was the elimination of the ban on gays serving in the military. It is not surprising they would come out in support of the Supreme Court’s decision now.

    Unfortunately, the political reality of the time was a rise in anti-gay sentiment and number of states implementing anti-gay laws, especially constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. Don’t Ask Don’t Tell certainly seems like a compromise that was made in that political environment. I don’t know if DOMA was a compromise or not, but this is what was going to happen and it certainly was better than amending the Constitution.

    Most of the time makes no sense to complain about politicians not making principled stands. When it comes down to it, generally have to go with the majority.

  • Don Williams

    1) The thing I admired about Bill Clinton was the elegant way he pressed his lips firmly to the buttocks of Citigroup billionaire Sandy Weill. Joining in with that ole Texas Republican rogue Phil Gramm to repeal Glass Steagall and laying the skids for the current 5 year depression that has thrown tens of millions of Americans into poverty.

    2) Fortunately, Bill and Hillary somehow managed to pick up $80 million in net worth while looking out for the Little People so maybe they can weather this depression in slightly more comfort than the rest of us.

  • Don Williams

    Re “Who Knows” at 10:

    You might ask David Geffen about Bill Clinton “championing gay rights”

    That’s squeaky sound of frustration is from someone who raised $18 Million for Bill Clinton’s campaign.

  • intergalacticmedium

    machintelligence has it, it is a systematic thing with short cycle representative democracy and always will be

  • slc1

    Re Don Williams @ #11

    Sandy Weill. Amazing how ole Don manages to focus in on billionaires who belong to the same ethnic group. Gee, there must be some billionaires not belonging to that ethnic group who ole Don doesn’t like. We wouldn’t want to think that ole Don’s prejudices involve that ethnic group and not billionaires in general.

  • slc1

    Actually, despite ole Don’s citing of David Geffen, there was no difference between Obama and Hillary Clinton on same sex marriage in 2008, both opposed it but favored civil unions. Hell, even Sarah Palin opined that she didn’t object to civil unions in 2008.

  • Who Knows?

    Don @ 12, there were a lot of us who were disappointed in how the Clinton’s promise to end the ban on gays serving in the military turned out. I was hoping that ending the ban would give me a chance to reenlist and at least earn the honorable discharge I think I deserve. Actually, I would have liked to continue my military career.

    So, yeah, my disappointment was really great. I don’t know what David Geffen’s disappointment is about. Being able to get a bunch of his rich friends to kick in their spare change to Clinton’s campaign? Fuck him and his squeaky sound of frustration.

  • Michael Heath

    On the other side, I wonder if George W. Bush is pleased the Supremes struck down the VRA; in spite of his signing an extension.

    This is one area where Mr. Bush’s been more classy than many of his predecessors.

  • Ed, you misspelled “hypocrisy” “chutzpah”.

  • vmanis1

    We all know that Bill Clinton has an amazing ability of tellng each person exactly what they want to hear, but even so, I can’t condemn him too much for signing DOMA. This was at a time when support for LGBTs was pretty much a minority opinion, and if he had vetoed it, he would have found himself being attacked across the board. To any politician (remember, `politics is the art of the possible’) that just seems untenable unless the issue is overwhelmingly important (think Winston Churchill and the Nazis in the 1930s).

    So yes, Clinton knew at the time that DOMA was wrong, but like any politician he knew that he could not get too far ahead of the electorate, so he made (what I consider) an unfortunate calculation, aided by the loathesome and stupid Dick Morris. To his credit, he has not only `evolved’ on marriage equality, but he has apologized for signing DOMA and spoken on behalf of equality. Doesn’t make everything right, but it’s a lot better than nothing.

    Goiing back to Churchill, he famously said `It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.’ Democracy sometimes encourages mob rule (Plato complained of this). Of course politicians are driven by the electorate, but we ameliorate that by having a written charter of rights, and in this case the U.S. constitution did what Clinton could not.

  • @vmanis1

    Of course politicians are driven by the electorate

    Is that based on some observation of some democracy or other? Which?

  • steve84

    A constitutional amendment wasn’t the only alternative then. They could have simply overridden his veto first. I’ve also read a story that said that the FMA wasn’t on the horizon at that time, but was only proposed later. Not sure what really happened.

  • JasonTD

    In an interview with the Advocate in 1996, Bill Clinton said:

    [Advocate]Why do you oppose same-sex marriage? Is there a chance you could reconsider?

    [Clinton]I remain opposed to same-sex marriage. I believe marriage is an institution for the union of a man and a woman. This has been my long-standing position, and it is not being reviewed or reconsidered. I also strongly believe that issues relating to gays and lesbians should not be used to tear our communities apart. Even on the most difficult social issues we face, we must work together to find common ground. Every American deserves no less.

    [Advocate]What about the slate of proposed laws to limit marriage to individuals of the opposite sex? Should Congress establish a national standard for marriage?

    [Clinton]I am opposed to same-sex marriage. If Congress sends me the Defense of Marriage Act in the form now being considered, I will sign it.

    I’m completely with Ed on this one. Excuses about the politics of the time ring hollow given how completely Clinton has shown himself to be willing to say or do just about anything to advance or protect his career. (And I voted for him twice.)

  • Excellent call, as the surreptitious rehab of the weasels is in full progress. Clinton and Obama have been moral cowards on this

  • We also know that Dick Morris advised him that if he vetoed the bill it would hurt him politically during an election year.

    Which in retrospect, was probably not the best person to accept campaign advice from.

    I’m sort of with Ed on this. I think Clinton meant well, but he saw which ways the winds were blowing in the mid-90s and decided to go with the flow instead of swimming against the tide, if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor. That’s pretty much par for his entire career.

    But I’ll still applaud him for “evolving” on the issue now that public opinion has shifted.

  • Robert B.

    @ 8:

    What do you call a politician who tries to lead public opinion rather than follow it? Usually an also ran.

    If that were the reason, politicians would be less principled in their election speeches and more principled in their actions in office, at least in their final terms. A second-term president has already won the election game. 100% completion, all achievements unlocked. There is literally nothing he can lose by not pandering to the comfort zones of voters who have nothing to vote for him for anymore. If all that was holding Clinton back from being a stalwart champion of gay rights was fear of alienating the voters, the White House should have been one big pride party from 1997-2000. What we observe is the exact reverse: politicians branding themselves with “HOPE” and “CHANGE” during the election and then chickening out when they get into office.

    I am really, really tired of claims that people with hugely disproportionate amounts of power somehow can’t get out in front and lead with it because GROWNUP REASONS. Someone is leading public opinion, and they’re doing it with far fewer advantages than Clinton had or Obama has. If the President of the United Fucking States can’t lead public opinion then what’s the point of having one?

  • dustbunny

    You know what’s changed? Public opinion.

    Exactly. So, the way I see it, President Clinton did the only thing he could do at the time and that was sign the bill.

    I would rather have a politician understand public opinion and act accordingly, than one who pushed through his own view regardless of what the people think. I mean, isn’t that second thing what we’re accusing some of the Republicans of regarding gay rights?

  • dingojack

    I read this quote just today in the paper:

    “Your representative owes you, not his industry only; but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion” – Edmund Burke (Bristol 1774).



    [Vale Julia, you brought in the changes no-one was prepared to take a punt on, then got shafted by the Men in Blue Ties. But your legacy lives on.]

  • I would rather have a politician understand public opinion and act accordingly, than one who pushed through his own view regardless of what the people think.

    Like Obama boldly evolving to Dick Cheney’s stance on gay marriage? Leave it to the states like Abe should have left ending slavery to the states?

  • JAck Sprat

    What a revolting country.

  • Who Knows?

    Excuses about the politics of the time ring hollow given how completely Clinton has shown himself to be willing to say or do just about anything to advance or protect his career.

    Well it is that, or that’s the way he really felt about same sex marriage. You know it has been 17 years since DOMA was passed? People change their minds over a period of days, weeks, and months. Why can’t President Clinton honestly change his mind over a period of 17 years?

    Recently Ed posted about an open letter written by Patton Oswald. In the letter, Patton describes how he has changed his views on the Tosh rape joke story and he ended his post with, “I’m a man. I get to be wrong. And I get to change.”

    Well, President Clinton is a man and just like all the rest of us. He gets to be wrong. He gets to change.

  • Who Knows?

    Now it is Gay Power

    The link above has an image of an article written in 1970 about the emerging gay rights movement. Reading it gives some perspective on how much we have changed in just 43 years.

  • JasonTD

    Who Knows? @30

    “Well it is that, or that’s the way he really felt about same sex marriage.”

    Ed refers to testimony (but doesn’t specify who or where to find that testimony) of Clinton administration insiders involved with the decision that he personally thought it was wrong and unconstitutional. After Clinton’s Washington Post op-ed calling on the SCOTUS to overturn DOMA, one of those insiders wrote this article trying to explain the decision. He said, to the question of why Clinton signed DOMA,

    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.

    And, in regards to potential political fallout if he vetoed it,

    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.

    While he has recently credited Chelsea with changing his mind on marriage equality, I am far more inclined to believe that he has been using political calculations the whole time, given his track record on telling the truth.

  • JasonTD

    Bah, stupid blockquote fail.

  • Who Knows?

    Then of course there is this from President Clinton.

    “So I said, you know, I realized that I was over sixty years old, I grew up at a different time, and I was hung up about the word. I had all these gay friends, I had all these gay couple friends, and I was hung up about it. And I decided I was wrong…. I had an untenable position. ”

    People practice what you call political calculation every day. We do it to preserve relationships we value and the positions we hold. When legislation has the support of a majority the elected representatives in Congress and by extension the electorate, it isn’t that big of an issue for me to hear that a politician is advised to sign the legislation because opponents will use it against the politician with effect.

    And then there is the fact that had Bob Dole won the election, none of this would have happened.

    He became the first President in history to endorse gay-rights legislation by announcing his support for a new federal hate-crimes statute that included sexual orientation. He supported legislation banning employment discrimination against gays. He continued, and even stepped up, appointments of openly gay Americans to important Administration positions, including the recess appointment of James Hormel as the first openly gay Ambassador. He signed an executive order banning sexual-orientation discrimination in the federal civilian workforce, leading the way for much of corporate America to follow.

    I’m certain that these actions did quite a bit to advance the cause of equality for gays in the United States.