In 1996 Bill Clinton signed the Defence of Marriage Act which defined marriage as being between a man and a woman, a signature that gay rights activist Michelangelo Signorile called "an indelible stain" on his presidency. Earlier this month, Bill recanted in an op-ed in the Washington Post. He said his motives had been noble. He actually wanted to protect lesbians and gays from a "constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, which would have ended the debate for a generation or more." But he admitted the law itself had ended up being "discriminatory" and he urged the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn it.
Barely a week later, his wife Hillary came out in full-throated support of same-sex marriage via video. Gays and lesbians are "full and equal citizens and deserve the rights of citizenship. That includes marriage," she said in a five-plus minute video for the Human Rights Campaign.
This announcement was not regarded as a stroke of political hara kiri. Instead it's being interpreted as the opening salvo of a possible 2016 presidential bid. Democrats had once gone to their traditional constituencies -- unions, black churches and the NAACP, Latino groups -- to make the big speech that signaled higher political ambitions. Or they had made a foreign policy speech to give themselves some presidential gravitas.
Now wooing the LGBT community has emerged as the takeoff point for a presidential campaign. "I'm sure she's been there for awhile now, and politically it's imperative for a Democratic Presidential aspirant," Democratic consultant Steve Murphy told the Washington Post blog, The Fix.
This was not true, even four years ago.
When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, Proposition 8 was on the ballot in California. Candidate Obama walked a fine line. He opposed that proposition as "divisive and discriminatory" but didn't come out in favour of marriage equality. It was the classic Democrat gay dodge -- their version of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. If you asked them about marriage, they told you about civil unions. Obama didn't make any production out of his announcement either. He just stated his support for gay rights in a letter to the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club in San Francisco. That letter was simply read out at the club's annual breakfast meeting.
Hillary's splashy video shows that just as four years ago no American politician serious about running for high office could afford to publicly support same-sex marriage, now for a Democrat it has become a requirement. The video is, indisputably, a sign of how far America has come and how quickly. Yet it's also telling that the reaction to what once would have been seen as a landmark statement of moral courage, has ranged from a yawn -- "I kinda forgot that Hillary Clinton wasn't already for gay marriage," tweeted Josh Barro -- to outright snarky. "Outside the annual Christmas messages from Queen Elizabeth to the Commonwealth, you will struggle to see a more regal broadcast than the video of Hillary Clinton released today, announcing her conversion to the cause of gay marriage," sneered the blog Lexington's notebook on The Economist.
The problem isn't what Bill Clinton faced during the Don't Ask Don't Tell debacle when he tried to end the ban on gays in the military -- breast beating about the end of civilization and cultural wars. At the rate we are going, same-sex marriage might well become part of the "family values" platform soon. Hillary's problems lie elsewhere.
Timing, timing timing She has, as The Economist puts it, arrived "late to the wedding party." Several potential contenders for the Democratic ticket in 2016 have long been out about their support for same-sex marriage. Her successor as Secretary of State, John Kerry, is open about his support, and it was not an issue in his nomination. Her support is welcome but the video makes a big production out of something her supporters take for granted by now. Now even a conservative Republican senator, Rob Portman, has done a U-turn on the issue after his own son came out. The Republican National Committee has said his decision will not affect his financial support from the committee "at all."
Hiding in a video By issuing a video, rather than doing an interview, she sounds as if she doesn't want to deal with tricky questions like what she had meant in 2000 when she said "Marriage has got historic, religious, and moral content that goes back to the beginning of time and I think a marriage is as a marriage has always been, between a man and a woman." Hillary said, like many others, that her views have "evolved" on this issue. But a Rob Portman can point to a gay son for his change of heart. Barack Obama can say watching gay parents of his daughters' friends have changed his mind. Politicians look charmingly human and personable when they admit to learning from their children. But Hillary can hardly hide behind the long-supportive Chelsea. So she pointed vaguely (and rather self-importantly) instead to "people I have known and loved, by my experience representing our nation on the world stage, my devotion to law and human rights and the guiding principles of my faith."
The numbers game Her announcement now just feeds into the notion that she's being opportunistic because the numbers have changed. A Washington Post/ABC News poll shows support for marriage equality at a record 58 percent among Americans, up five points from even last year. Among 18- to 29-year-olds, that support climbs to 81 percent. As the Supreme Court weighs the issue, Signorile writes on The Huffington Post that with "mainstream America embracing gay rights," many in the Republican Party secretly hope that the Supreme Court will just "take the issue off the table entirely" by just "giving gays full equality."
Whatever happens with the court, two things are clear. The day of gays as whipping boys to rally the conservative vote is increasingly a strategy of diminishing returns. It also means that the fight against antiquated sodomy laws, whether in Washington, D.C. or in New Delhi, is inevitably the first step in a long journey towards equality in all spheres. And when that happens we can stop talking about gay marriage as if it was some special sub-species of marriage. It will just all be about marriage, as it should always have been.