Clinton’s New Challenge: The Millennials

By Kerry Eleveld

Originally published on Advocate.com September 03 2014 3:00 AM ET

If there’s one thing no one expected, it’s that Hillary Clinton would make one of her first campaign missteps over the gays. But there it is. Clinton went after NPR’s Fresh Air interviewer Terry Gross in June during a seven-minute exchange about same-sex marriage, DOMA, and whether Clinton had an actual change of heart on marriage equality or simply changed her political calculation as voter attitudes shifted.

Not all seven minutes were a disaster. Clinton lost her cool only in the last minute and a half. It’s also not clear that her main offense was substance so much as it was tone, though some publications, such as The Atlantic, argued otherwise. But after Gross tried several times to nail down Clinton’s true motivations for changing her marriage position, Clinton’s patience waned.

“You know, I have to say, I think you are being very persistent, but you are playing with my words, and playing with what is such an important issue,” Clinton said.

Gross pressed gently forward. “I’m just trying to clarify so I can understand — ” Then came Clinton’s worst moment.

“No, I don’t think you are trying to clarify,” she charged. “I think you’re trying to say I used to be opposed and now I’m in favor and I did it for political reasons. And that’s just flat wrong. So let me just state what I feel that you are implying and repudiate it. I have a strong record. I have a great commitment to this issue. And I am proud of what I’ve done and the progress we’re making.”

Up to that point, Clinton had played the happy warrior most of the way through the marriage questioning, telling Gross “I think we have all evolved” and “I’m proud of our country.”

The interview was sliced and diced and reinterpreted to death by the Beltway media. It was, in fact, interesting to see Clinton stumble on a key issue involving a constituency that has mostly adored her for years. After all, a November 2007 poll by Hunter College found that lesbian, gay, and bisexual likely voters preferred Clinton (63%) over Obama (22%) and Edwards (7%), which roughly corresponds to what 2008 exit polls in New York and California wound up showing.

Most interesting is the media’s fascination with Clinton’s past positions on LGBT issues — as if this movement’s aims are complete and all that remains is to explore the subject in historical terms. Clinton’s past is the least interesting part of her positions and probably the least of her worries on same-sex marriage and LGBT issues.

What lies ahead could very well be a marriage case at the Supreme Court in either 2015 or 2016. If people think questions about Clinton’s previous stances were thorny, try these: Do you support full marriage equality across the nation? As president, would your administration write an amicus brief supporting the freedom to marry nationwide? Now that ENDA is on the outs, do you support an amendment adding gender identity and sexual orientation to the Civil Rights Act of 1964?

If your only audience is the LGBT community, the answers are easy: Yes to all. But from Clinton’s perspective, answering that way on the marriage questions could give a mainstream audience pause. In fact, during her interview with Gross, Clinton reiterated her 2008 stance, saying, “for me, marriage had always been a matter left to the states.”

That answer may have worked in 2008 in the shadow of a proposed federal amendment that would have banned same-sex marriage nationwide. But it won’t seem appealing to queer rights activists today, and it’s uncertain from the interview whether Clinton thinks any differently now than she did then.

The question about the Civil Rights Act, meanwhile, is still gaining traction in the LGBT community and has yet to debut with the broader Democratic base — in particular, African Americans. So just as people wondered in 2008, How do you plan to repeal DADT?, this election cycle they will wonder, How do you plan to secure employment and housing protections for LGBT Americans?

The difference between LGBT issues in 2008 and now is that the answers are less clear-cut. And there isn’t complete consensus within the LGBT community on the path forward. Additionally, Clinton isn’t yet running amid a pack of other candidates, so she doesn’t have the cover of comparisons to her opponents. She is being judged against herself.

In the last contested Democratic presidential campaign, for instance, as early as June 2007, all eight Democratic candidates supported repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell.” And by August 2007, the big three — Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama — had settled comfortably into a consensus of supporting civil unions, repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell,” passing ENDA, and overturning the Defense of Marriage Act. Trying to differentiate between their policy positions was a matter of splitting hairs. For the candidates, that meant that wooing the LGBT community was largely about outreach and access; it was more tonal than substantive.

Now we’re in uncharted territory as the LGBT movement pushes past the remnants of its 2008 issues. And Clinton, for the time being, must confront the dual challenges of tone and substance.

The question now becomes, is it possible for her to be a leader and a candidate at the same time? Candidates typically don’t lead. They follow...the polls. They take positions that both they and a majority of the public can feel good about. Then they work on being likable and instilling confidence in their ability to run the country. Obama, for instance, didn’t provide a road map to change in 2008; he offered a vehicle — himself — and asked the nation to trust him.

Beyond name recognition, Clinton’s head start in 2016 clearly lies in her ability to govern. The only candidate who comes close to matching her grasp of foreign and domestic policy or her 360-degree view of Washington from the White House to Congress to the federal agencies is Vice President Joe Biden. Yet even he doesn’t have the benefit of having served as Secretary of State.

But Clinton still needs to inspire people to jump on her bandwagon in the same way Obama did in 2008. And insofar as LGBT issues are concerned in 2016, one of her biggest audiences won’t simply be the queer community; it will be millennials who voted for Obama at a rate of 66% in 2008 and 60% in 2012. If Clinton is to re-create Obama’s voting blocs in the general election, she needs to win their vote by large margins, but she also needs to inspire them to turn out at the polls in numbers similar to 2008 and 2012, when they made up 18% and 19% of the electorate, respectively.

If Clinton wants to do that, LGBT rights is the place to start. Fully 51% of millennials consider themselves supporters of gay rights, according to the Pew Research Center, as opposed to just 37% of Gen X’ers and about a third of older adults. In fact LGBT rights is one of the most galvanizing issues for millennials. By comparison, 49% describe themselves as patriotic, just 36% as religious, and only 32% as environmentalists. This group matters for Clinton in both the primaries and the general election. In Iowa in 2008, Obama took 57 percent of voters under 30, shocking the Democratic establishment with a win that would fuel his eventual victory.

Though some gays are intent on rehashing the ’90s, the millennials likely won’t be. They’ll be looking for authenticity on the issues of today, as will many LGBT Americans. And while LGBT voters have a long history with Clinton, millennials are still just getting to know her. She needs to give them a reason to go to the polls, and looking like a leader on LGBT issues is one way to do it.

It’s unclear that relying on the states’ rights fallback on marriage equality is going to fill the bill. And sooner or later, journalists will start asking the marriage question in a way that forces Clinton to choose between states’ rights and full federal equality.