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Democrats and Gay Marriage: No Profiles in Courage

Democrats and Gay Marriage: No Profiles in Courage

By Carl M. Cannon - June 27, 2013

The Supreme Court’s predictable 5-4 rulings bolstering the cause of gay marriage hadn’t even been out long enough to read when the semi-personalized press release from the Obama Campaign in Perpetuity pinged into a million email accounts.

“Carl M. -- For decades LGBT activists and allies have been working toward one thing: equality in the eyes of the law,” read the message sent to me from Joe Carson, executive director of the permanent Obama campaign (its formal name is Organizing for Action).

“Now, the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional -- meaning that all couples will be equal in the eyes of the federal law,” it continued. “And California’s Prop 8 is dismissed, clearing the way for same-sex couples in California to marry once again. I know how much today means to all of us who care about equality -- congratulations.”

I’d be inclined to accept the man’s congratulations. I’m from California myself, and gay marriage is one of only two public policy issues I’ve endorsed in a 35-year journalism career. Yet the allusion to gay rights activists “and their allies” leaves me a little cold. I’m thinking that with friends like the Democrats, civil libertarians don’t need enemies.

“This fight goes on,” Joe Carson informs us. “I know OFA supporters are ready for it -- and we'll be there every step of the way, fighting like hell to see it through until everyone has the right to marry the person they love.”

Funny, that’s not how I remember it. Although “marry the person they love” is a talking point, it’s also a noble sentiment. But “fight like hell” is not what Barack Obama or his political party did on this issue. Quite the contrary: “Headed for the hills” is a more apt description.

The political battle over gay marriage became a national issue during Bill Clinton’s first term. It’s a matter of historical record that President Clinton’s response consisted of doing nothing for gays and lesbians that might cost him a second term. It was, in the main, the response of Clinton’s political party, too.

Yes, there was always something Orwellian about thrice-married Republican Rep. Bob Barr naming his hurriedly cobbled together 1996 bill the Defense of Marriage Act. It came in response to the belief that Hawaii’s state Supreme Court was on the verge of requiring state officials to allow same-sex marriage.

This led to panic in some circles, as social conservatives deduced that the U.S. Constitution’s “full faith and credit clause” would require every other state to honor the decision in far-off Hawaii. As a concept, same-sex marriage was considered by most Americans either unsavory or abstruse, and it did not poll well. And Bill Clinton, who was up for re-election that year, read public opinion surveys quite carefully. So did his fellow Democrats in Congress.

Both houses of the 104th Congress were controlled by Republicans, but DOMA passed with huge majorities in both parties: The vote was 342-67 in the House, and 85-14 in the Senate.

Every Senate Republican in the upper chamber supported DOMA. The Democratic tandems in four deep “blue” states (Hawaii, California, Illinois, and Massachusetts) opposed it. Those eight “nay” votes were supplemented by six others, but 32 Democrats supported it, including Joe Biden, and two future Senate majority leaders, Tom Daschle and Harry Reid.

It was signed into law by Clinton, who recanted -- sort of -- earlier this year in a Washington Post op-ed. Clinton being Clinton, he didn’t cite the mealy-mouthed explanation favored by Biden and Obama. He didn’t say his thinking had “evolved.” No, the former president cited a line from a friend-of-the-court brief filed in March by four ex-senators, including Daschle.

One reason for voting for DOMA, the four claimed in their appeal to the Supreme Court, was that it forestalled any move to pass a constitutional amendment codifying marriage as being between a man and a woman, “which would have ended the debate for a generation or more.”

This is gibberish. That amicus brief (its authors were Daschle, Chris Dodd, Bill Bradley, and Alan Simpson) mentions several other rationales for voting for DOMA. They range from restrained views of federalism to concern for traditional marriage to outright hostility to gays and lesbians -- and “a willingness to exploit such feelings for political gain.”

But they left out the predominant reason Democrats voted for this knee-jerk legislation: fear of losing an election. They supported it because it was expedient. This point was brought home in 2004 when John Kerry -- one of the 14 Senate Democrats who opposed DOMA -- was privately urged by none other than Bill Clinton to outflank George W. Bush from the right on gay marriage. As later reported by top Kerry adviser Bob Shrum, “this was a flip-flop too far for Kerry.”

The other Massachusetts senator to oppose DOMA was Edward M. Kennedy. His brother, then a future president, won a Pulitzer Prize for a thin volume called “Profiles in Courage.” It details the mettle shown by eight senators, ranging from John Quincy Adams to Robert Taft, who followed their consciences and took politically unpopular stands.

They all paid a price. Some, like Edmund G. Ross, lost his Kansas Senate seat. Taft compromised his chances of being the 1948 Republican presidential nominee. Here’s the contrast: In our time, on gay marriage, what most Democratic officeholders did was wait for the winds of public opinion to shift. Those winds have shifted now, and rapidly, and it can certainly be argued that this is how elective democracy is designed to work.

My own view is different. I believe the Republican Party is wrong on this issue. I also believe that there are worse things than being wrong. One of them is being craven. I waited a long time to interview the first Democratic member of the Senate (or the House) who forfeited a place in Congress over the principle of gay marriage.

I’m still waiting. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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