So, a little over a week ago, Bill Clinton wrote an editorial for the Washington Post in which he came out in favor of same sex marriage. As one who has supported same sex marriage publicly since 2003, I welcome him to the cause, but I have to wonder at the following passage:
In 1996, I signed the Defense of Marriage Act. Although that was only 17 years ago, it was a very different time. In no state in the union was same-sex marriage recognized, much less available as a legal right, but some were moving in that direction. Washington, as a result, was swirling with all manner of possible responses, some quite draconian. As a bipartisan group of former senators stated in their March 1 amicus brief to the Supreme Court, many supporters of the bill known as DOMA believed that its passage “would defuse a movement to enact a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, which would have ended the debate for a generation or more.” It was under these circumstances that DOMA came to my desk, opposed by only 81 of the 535 members of Congress.
On March 27, DOMA will come before the Supreme Court, and the justices must decide whether it is consistent with the principles of a nation that honors freedom, equality and justice above all, and is therefore constitutional. As the president who signed the act into law, I have come to believe that DOMA is contrary to those principles and, in fact, incompatible with our Constitution.
(Emphasis mine.) Let’s be clear about something: Although 1996 was “a very different time,” there have been no changes whatsoever in the Constitution to support the excuse that the existence of “a very different time” justified the signing of DOMA. The constitutional regime of 1996 is the same as the constitutional regime of the present day, which means that if Clinton thought back in 1996 that DOMA was constitutional, he should think the same thing today as well. To be sure, people change their minds on the great issues of the day, and it would be acceptable if Clinton wrote that after having re-examined the issue, he had come to the conclusion that what he did in 1996 was wrong. But Clinton doesn’t write that. Instead, he writes that because 1996 was “a very different time,” he and others have the luxury of thinking differently. Clinton argues that the change in time alone justifies the change in opinion.
So while Bill Clinton has come to the proper policy conclusion and now supports getting rid of DOMA, he has done so for the wrong reasons, without so much as an “I’m sorry for having signed DOMA into law in the first place” to be found in his editorial. The best Clinton does is to re-examine a statement he released along with the signing of DOMA in which he wrote 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.” Clinton now believes that “even worse than providing an excuse for discrimination, the law is itself discriminatory.” It’s nice that he has finally come to this conclusion, but again, the constitutional structure has not been altered in any way whatsoever since the signing of DOMA. The only thing that has happened is that time has passed, the public’s views on same sex marriage have changed dramatically, and Clinton doesn’t want to be perceived as being out of step with those views—especially given the possibility that his wife might run for president again in 2016. This isn’t exactly what one would call a profile in courage.
Contrast Clinton’s act of political expediency with the behavior of Senator Rob Portman, who is in my book one of the shining lights of the Republican party. After finding out that his son is gay, Portman examined his views, and came to the conclusion that he could no longer oppose same sex marriage in good conscience. His editorial on the subject is worth reading. An excerpt:
Two years ago, my son Will, then a college freshman, told my wife, Jane, and me that he is gay. He said he’d known for some time, and that his sexual orientation wasn’t something he chose; it was simply a part of who he is. Jane and I were proud of him for his honesty and courage. We were surprised to learn he is gay but knew he was still the same person he’d always been. The only difference was that now we had a more complete picture of the son we love.
At the time, my position on marriage for same-sex couples was rooted in my faith tradition that marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman. Knowing that my son is gay prompted me to consider the issue from another perspective: that of a dad who wants all three of his kids to lead happy, meaningful lives with the people they love, a blessing Jane and I have shared for 26 years.
I wrestled with how to reconcile my Christian faith with my desire for Will to have the same opportunities to pursue happiness and fulfillment as his brother and sister. Ultimately, it came down to the Bible’s overarching themes of love and compassion and my belief that we are all children of God.
Well-intentioned people can disagree on the question of marriage for gay couples, and maintaining religious freedom is as important as pursuing civil marriage rights. For example, I believe that no law should force religious institutions to perform weddings or recognize marriages they don’t approve of.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has said he supports allowing gay couples to marry because he is a conservative, not in spite of it. I feel the same way. We conservatives believe in personal liberty and minimal government interference in people’s lives. We also consider the family unit to be the fundamental building block of society. We should encourage people to make long-term commitments to each other and build families, so as to foster strong, stable communities and promote personal responsibility.
Portman has taken a genuine risk in staking out this new position on the issue of same sex marriage. Many liberals who support same sex marriage decided that it would be better to attack and ridicule Portman for a late conversion instead of welcoming a potentially powerful ally to their cause—proving that those liberals are less interested in the issues of the day and more interested in attacking Republicans for any reason whatsoever, no matter how small the reason is in context. The perpetually comical Matthew Yglesias calls Portman’s switch “the politics of narcissism,” because apparently, it’s wrong for Portman and other Republicans to base policy stances on personal experience. Yglesias further suggests that Portman should now re-examine his stance on a host of other issues, since apparently, a change of mind on one issue means a change of mind on all. (I wonder if the same rule applies for Bill Maher.) Meanwhile, a host of conservatives have decided that there needs to be a primary challenge against Senator Portman when he comes up for re-election—proving anew that a large segment of the conservative movement is more interested in preventing the existence of a coalition large enough to win elections than it is in actually building a coalition large enough to win elections. And people wonder why Mitt Romney lost last year. I guess this is the part of the blog post where I point out that if the Republican party can’t afford to make room for the likes of Rob Portman, it can’t afford to make room for the likes of me either. Oh, and the GOP should be aware that if it loses enough of us, it will die as a political force.
There are those who will continue to fight against same sex marriage out of principle. I guess that there is nothing I can do about that, but I agree with Nick Gillespie, who states that Portman’s switch is a signal that the fight over same sex marriage is all over but the shouting. I also agree that Portman’s switch was far more courageous—and potentially far more consequential—than the switches of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama:
Portman’s conversion on the issue comes after high-profile flips by Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, whose announcements carried at least a whiff of politicial [sic] opportunism to them (Obama’s came during a presidential campaign when he needed to shore up LGBT support among Democrats and Clinton’s came a decade-plus after he signed the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act). Even with those caveats, they were still powerful indicators that the wheel has turned definitively in one direction. When a Christian conservative Republican signs on to the same basic policy shift, it’s a fait accompli.
I would be remiss if I didn’t reference this amicus brief submitted on behalf of a host of Republicans from varying spots on the political spectrum arguing that same sex marriage should be found constitutional. My biggest problem with the brief is that I didn’t have the chance to put my name on it.