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Clinton's Gay Marriage Interview Was Controversial Because Of Substance, Not Tone

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WASHINGTON -- Hillary Clinton's interview last week on National Public Radio drew heavy interest, and no shortage of pre-2016 theatrics, for her sharp exchange on the issue of same-sex marriage.

Terry Gross, the host of "Fresh Air," pressed the former secretary of state on when she changed her mind and decided gay couples have a right to legally wed -- something she publicly opposed until leaving the Obama administration last year. When Clinton gave a vague answer, Gross persisted, wondering if Clinton had always supported the rights of same-sex couples, even when her public position was otherwise.

But for all the ink spent writing about the tone of the exchange, the substance of Clinton's response was what spurred attention and, in some corners of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender community, concern. Speaking about her own evolution on gay marriage, Clinton suggested the issue should be resolved at the state level instead of in federal courts.

"So, for me, marriage had always been a matter left to the states," Clinton said. "And in many of the conversations that I and my colleagues and supporters had, I fully endorse the efforts by activists who work state by state, and in fact that is what is working."

"We are at a point now where equality, including marriage equality, in our country, is solidly established," Clinton added later. "Although there will be places … Texas, just to name one, where that is still going to be an ongoing struggle."

For leaders in the LGBT community, including some Clinton backers, her answer gave the impression that she doesn't see a constitutional right to marry for same-sex couples.

"I know her heart, but it is terrible framing," said Hilary Rosen, a longtime gay rights advocate and ally of the Clintons. "Since this is going to the Supreme Court potentially on that question, I was surprised at her 'old school' framing of that. Since she has 'evolved,' why not just get rid of that old red herring, too?"

A spokesman for Clinton did not return a request for comment on whether she viewed marriage as a constitutional right -- the legal question raised by the Supreme Court case argued by legal stars David Boies and Ted Olson. The Huffington Post was, however, referred to several LGBT advocates. who praised Clinton's work on gay rights throughout her career.

"There has been no secretary of state that has done more for LGBT issues than Secretary Clinton," said Jon Tollefson, the former head of Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies. Tollefson listed Clinton's accomplishments, including making it so that the State Department recognizes same-sex partners as family members, speaking at an LGBT Pride event at the department, changing the department's Equal Employment Opportunity statement to include gender identity, and instructing U.S. ambassadors to find ways to support LGBT equality overseas.

“It is remarkable how much of a champion she was for LGBT rights," Tollefson concluded.

No one interviewed for this article questioned Clinton's commitment to LGBT rights. Her endorsement of same-sex marriage in March 2013 came later than President Barack Obama's, but it was in the same time frame as the majority of the Democratic Party. Associates who have worked with Clinton echoed Tollefson's point about her personal attitudes and professional treatment of LGBT issues.

“If she runs, there isn't a gay person alive that isn’t going to cry with joy that she's running,” said one LGBT rights advocate who found her NPR remarks "problematic on a few levels.”

But the question raised by Clinton's interview is how she thinks strategically about litigating the future of same-sex marriage. And on this, she appears to have placed herself in the less aggressive camp.

"We very much see marriage equality as a federal issue," said Fred Sainz, vice president for communications and marketing for the Human Rights Campaign, which has worked closely with Olsen and Boies. "While it’s certainly true that the regulation of marriage has traditionally been an issue left to the states, the denial of marriage equality is most certainly a federal issue. That’s why federal claims -- lack of equal protection and due process -- are being made in federal courts and federal judges are agreeing.

“Advocates have always thought that the issue would be settled by the Supreme Court,” Sainz added. “We’re looking for a 50-state solution and it’s not acceptable for any state to be left out."

Richard Socarides, a Clinton ally who served as an LGBT adviser in Bill Clinton's White House, said he suspects that the former secretary of state supports the Olson-Boies argument and that her leave-it-to-the states comment was more a political observation than a statement of philosophy.

"I do believe that she fully supports the idea that the U.S. Supreme Court should declare that the federal Constitution gives every American the right to marry the person they love regardless of sexual orientation," said Socarides. "Her position is similar to President Obama’s, who has said that he favors states moving forward individually and changing their laws. I don’t think it is inconsistent to say, on the one hand, that individual states, as they feel they are ready for it, should move forward on their own timetable and still believe that the federal Constitution guarantees everybody the right to marry."

Others acknowledged that Clinton was somewhat off-message in the NPR interview, but gave her the benefit of the doubt.

“Some of her answers were not artful and not clear,” said Evan Wolfson, president of Freedom to Marry, a campaign focused on making same-sex marriage legal nationwide. “What is clear is that the freedom to marry is guaranteed by the Constitution. I would expect that Secretary Clinton would understand that as a smart lawyer and as someone who understands what 20 out of 20 federal judges have said in the last year.”

Asked if it bothered him that Clinton seemed to make the case for state’s rights to regulate marriage, Wolfson said only, “I hope there will be other opportunities where she would be clear that the Constitution guarantees the freedom to marry.”

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