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.