Hillary Clinton does not seem to see passage of the Defense of Marriage Act or the "don't ask, don't tell" policies of the '90s as mistakes. Rather, they were types of "defensive action," she told Rachel Maddow during a lengthy interview on Friday night.
When asked directly whether she differs from her husband Bill Clinton — who is responsible for legislation that stopped same-sex couples from marrying and banned LGBT people from open service in the military — Hillary Clinton characterized them as necessary steps.
"I’m not in any way excusing them. I’m explaining them," she said.
Maddow had asked a question that's been on her mind and that of other LGBT Americans for a long time. ("I have wanted to ask Hillary Clinton that question for years now," Maddow later told viewers.)
First, Maddow pointed out that "the civil rights achievements of this administration have actually been undoing things that were done in the Clinton administration." She listed the Defense of Marriage Act and "don't ask, don't tell" as legislation that "did a lot of harm for a very long time." And she asked, "I know that you and President Clinton are different people, and I know that you’re not responsible for what he did as president. But is your approach to civil rights issues the same as his, or is it different?"
While Clinton didn't answer the question directly, she portrayed herself in alignment with her husband. And Clinton said she wasn't merely an observer as first lady. "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 – you know — chime in and talk about, 'You can’t be serious. You can’t be serious.'"
Clinton described the Defense of Marriage Act, which banned the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages, as a way of stopping a larger effort she said was underway to pass an amendment to the Constitution that would have banned same-sex marriage. Clinton called DOMA "a line that was drawn that was to prevent going further."
"On Defense of Marriage, I think what my husband believed – and there was certainly evidence to support it — is that there was enough political momentum to amend the Constitution of the United States of America, and that there had to be some way to stop that," she told Maddow.
To be clear, though, neither she or her husband publicly supported full marriage equality at the time. Both favor it now.
Clinton's opponent in the Democratic primary for president, Bernie Sanders, was in Congress when the Clinton administration passed DOMA. But he voted against it.
Sanders also came out for marriage equality long before Clinton. And he voted against "don't ask, don't tell" back in 1993.
Clinton described DADT as an "astonishing overreaction" by the military and members of Congress to her husband's 1992 campaign pledge to let gays and lesbians serve openly. "It’s what he intended to do," Clinton said.
"I remember being on the edge of one of those conversations, and so 'don’t ask, don’t tell,' again, became a defensive line," she said. That compromise policy let gays and lesbians remain in the military but also led to thousands of dishonorable discharges for those who didn't remain closeted or were outed.
In a speech earlier this month at the Human Rights Campaign, Clinton promised to retroactively upgrade the discharges of those who had been kicked out of the military. But also in that speech, Clinton didn't apologize for the harm those policies did to LGBT Americans' lives. The interview with Maddow shows that while Clinton doesn't like the policies, and supported reversing them, she also doesn't see them as mistakes.
The bottomline answer to Maddow's question — of whether Hillary Clinton would approach civil rights in the same way as Bill Clinton did as president — appears to be, yes, President Hillary Clinton would compromise on civil rights if necessary.
Clinton expects that as president she will, like her husband, have to make "the least bad choice."
"I think that sometimes, as a leader in a democracy, you are confronted with two bad choices," she told Maddow, after defending her husband's crime bill, which led to mass incarceration. "And it is not an easy position to be in, and you have to try to think, OK, what is the least bad choice and how do I try to cabin this off from having worse consequences?"
Watch the exchange with Maddow below: