Former President Bill Clinton may have signed into law two anti-gay measures — “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the Defense of Marriage Act — that took years for the LGBT community to undo, but Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is calling the initiatives “defensive” actions.
Hillary Clinton made the remarks Friday evening during a wide-ranging interview on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show.” Maddow pointed out those measures stayed in place until they were lifted during the Obama administration and asked the candidate if her approach to civil rights would be different from her spouse’s.
The 2016 hopeful said her “take on it is slightly different” and sought to give context to the situations in which former President Clinton signed the anti-gay measures into law.
For DOMA, the candidate said her spouse signed the measure into law because in 1996 there was enough “political momentum” in the Republican-controlled Congress to enact a more draconian measure that would have amended the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriage entirely.
“And there had to be some way to stop that,” Hillary Clinton continued. “There wasn’t a rational argument because I was in on some of those discussions on both ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and on DOMA, where both the president, his advisers and occasionally I would chime in and talk about, ‘You can’t be serious. You can’t be serious. But they were.”
When Hillary Clinton called DOMA “a line that was drawn that was to prevent going further,” Maddow chimed in by asking if the candidate would call it a defensive action. Hillary Clinton apparently liked the term, calling DOMA a “defensive action.”
“The culture rapidly changed so that now what was totally anathema to political forces — they have ceded, they no longer are fighting except on a local level and rear guard action,” Clinton added. “And with the U.S. Supreme Court decision, it’s settled.”
For “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Hillary Clinton pointed out former President Clinton before he agreed to the legislation campaigned in 1992 in favor of openly gay military service.
When Maddow recalled the political firestorm that ensued over the idea, Hillary Clinton recalled, “It was the most astonishing over reaction by the military, by the Congress. I remember being on the edge of one of those conversations and so ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ again became a defensive line.”
“I’m not in any way excusing them; I’m explaining them,” Clinton added.
Maddow had also asked about Bill Clinton signing in 1994 the Violent Crime Control & Law Enforcement Act, which included a federal “three strike” provision the former president himself has acknowledged made mass incarceration worse.
Hillary Clinton said the situation with that law is the same, saying it “was the result of a lot of reaction, particularly from poor communities, communities of color to the horrific crime rates of the 1980s.”
“There was just a consensus across every community that something had to be done,” Clinton said. “That went too far. The first speech I gave in this campaign was about mass incarceration and about reform of policing practices.”
Hillary Clinton summed up action on those laws by her spouse as a choice of the lesser of two evils at the time of his administration.
“I think that sometimes as a leader in a democracy you are confronted with two bad choices and it is not an easy position and you have to try and think what is the least bad choice and how do I try and cabin this off from having worse consequences?” Hillary Clinton said.
Hillary Clinton added the choice in the 2016 election will be about “fundamental rights” issues much like the civil rights issues these measures addressed, such as the right to abortion, defending Planned Parenthood and same-sex marriage, continued discrimination against LGBT people and voting rights.
“We are going to have a very vigorous debate in this election because the Republicans are all on record as trying to reverse and rip away the progress that has occurred,” Clinton said.
Hillary Clinton’s remarks that passing DOMA was necessary to avert enactment of a U.S. constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage are similar to what she said during a testy interview on National Public Radio last year.
The notion DOMA was passed for that reason has been disputed by Hillary Clinton supporter and former Human Rights Campaign chief Elizabeth Birch, who wrote an op-ed saying “there was no real threat” of a Federal Marriage Amendment in 1996.
Hillary Clinton supported DOMA through her first U.S. Senate campaign in 2000. By the time she was undertaking her first presidential run in 2007, she backed only repeal of Section 3 of DOMA. Then-candidate Barack Obama at the time campaigned on repealing all of DOMA.
It has been suggested in some circles within the LGBT community — such as by the grassroots LGBT group GetEQUAL — that Bill Clinton should apologize for DOMA and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Bill Clinton came out against the measures before they were lifted, but never formally made an apology.
Heather Cronk, co-director of GetEQUAL, said Hillary Clinton’s assertion “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and DOMA were signed into law because they were the lesser of two bad choices is “astonishing.”
“She is campaigning for president in the midst of one of the most inspiring and creative movement moments we’ve seen in decades — and if she isn’t willing to use her husband’s record as president as an illustration of how conventional politics have failed us, then I don’t see how she wins the White House,” Cronk said.