A lot has changed in the 17 years since Congress passed, and Clinton signed, the Defense of Marriage Act
"In 1996, I signed the Defense of Marriage Act," says former President Bill Clinton in The Washington Post. DOMA, which prevents federal recognition of same-sex marriage, is up for review at the Supreme Court on March 27, and the justices will have to decide whether the law "is consistent with the principles of a nation that honors freedom, equality, and justice above all," Clinton says. In the 17 years since he signed it, the former president says, "I have come to believe that DOMA is contrary to those principles and, in fact, incompatible with our Constitution." (He's not alone: Read Dana Liebelson's four reasons DOMA was doomed even before Clinton waded in.)
In the middle of Clinton's explanation on why he signed DOMA — times have changed, no states had legalized gay marriage in 1996, he thought it might head off more "draconian" measures like a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage nationwide, only 81 of the 535 members of Congress opposed it — he drops in this "bit of a mea culpa," notes Joel Connelly at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:
When I signed the bill, I included a statement with the admonition that "enactment of this legislation should not, despite the fierce and at times divisive rhetoric surrounding it, be understood to provide an excuse for discrimination." Reading those words today, I know now that, even worse than providing an excuse for discrimination, the law is itself discriminatory. It should be overturned. [Washington Post]
Gay-marriage advocates have been urging Clinton to apologize for signing DOMA for some time, and it's not like his new op-ed signals "a change of heart from the former president," says Margaret Hartmann at New York. Clinton has "been on the record as pro gay marriage for years and was never enthusiastic about the law." So why completely disown DOMA now?
There are the obvious reasons: This is the first time the law has come before the high court, and public opinion really has shifted considerably, even in the year since President Obama embraced gay marriage. And he's not alone: Many of the lawmakers who voted for the law in 1996 want to see DOMA overturned or repealed, too.
Clinton has had 17 years to reverse course, and a year of watching Obama pay no political price for his own evolution. This smacks of "cynicism and lawlessness" — why did he sign a law he thinks is unconstitutional? says Paul Mirengoff at Power Line. "Does he think that one or more of the five Supreme Court justices who may be inclined to uphold DOMA will be moved by this op-ed to switch on the issue?"
I doubt it. More likely, the judge Clinton has in mind is History. That arbiter already has him pegged as lawless cynic anyway. So why not try to explain away his endorsement of DOMA, and get on what he assumes eventually will be the prevailing side by hopping aboard the gay marriage express before it arrives at the station? [Power Line]
The gay community Clinton has courted since his first successful run for the White House certainly considers this step long overdue. "Whether he begins to lead on the issue remains to be seen," says New York's Hartmann, "but at the very least his new stance should make things less awkward when
Hillary Clinton whatever Democrat happens to run for president embraces gay marriage in 2016." Politico's Maggie Haberman is thinking along similar lines, tweeting that Clinton's DOMA disavowal "helps lay a predicate for when Hillary ultimately supports gay marriage, which activists expect is coming soonish."
Maybe the why isn't as important as the what, and Clinton turning on DOMA is "a BFD, it seems to me," says Andrew Sullivan at The Dish. He obviously knew it was discriminatory legislation when he signed it, "but it's churlish to cavil." If gay-rights advocates "can forgive Ken Mehlman," George W. Bush's recently un-closeted 2004 campaign manager, "we can surely forgive Bill Clinton. And welcome him to the civil-rights cause of our time."
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