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How Bernie Made Hillary a Better Candidate for LGBT People

How Bernie Made Hillary a Better Candidate for LGBT People

Bernie Sanders once famously suggested that someone ought to run against President Obama during his reelection in 2012. The thinking went that Obama would then have to fight for Democratic votes and would be drawn more in line with progressive voters.

Now Hillary Clinton is the nominee, and arguably the long campaign has brought her closer to LGBT causes, thanks to Bernie Sanders.

From the start of his campaign, Sanders defined himself as a candidate who fought for LGBT people from the earliest points in his career — even before social tides changed. His claims largely held up: In 1983, when he was mayor of Burlington, Vt., he signed a Gay Pride Day proclamation. He was one of only 67 members in the House of Representatives to vote against the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 and oppose the "don't ask, don't tell" policy in 1993. Both eventually passed under President Bill Clinton, becoming two of the worst pieces of legislation in American history for LGBT people.

Even on marriage equality, Sanders made the case that his track record should count double against Clinton's later support, arguing it's evidence of his better judgment. Sanders indeed supported civil unions for same-sex couples in Vermont in 2000 and came out publicly in support of marriage equality in 2009 — four years before Hillary Clinton declared her support via YouTube. Sanders perhaps said it best in an interview with The New York Times last year: “I’m not evolving when it comes to gay rights. I was there.”

Sanders talking about his record was like Obama, on a different scale, noting during his 2008 primary fight with Clinton that he'd voted against the Iraq war. It became Clinton's job to counter the distinction Sanders was making — and counter she did.

Clinton competed hard for LGBT votes and won. A national poll of LGBT voters taken in February showed Clinton leading with 48 percent and Sanders with 41 percent. Clinton advertised heavily in New York on LGBT websites (including this one) while canvassing for LGBT votes in her home state, and hosting LGBT fundraisers. She went to the Human Rights Campaign even before winning its endorsement to give a policy speech outlining at least 10 promises (we counted) made to LGBT voters for her presidency. Clinton's ads seemed to regularly include same-sex couples. There were even those "Yaaas, Hillary" T-shirts. You could chock all of that up to having an out gay campaign manager in Robby Mook — a major first on its own — but it might be that Clinton felt she needed to fight for the queer vote, and that turnout could help tip the scale in her direction in a race that often felt close. 

In other areas, mainstream media have noted how Sanders dragged Clinton to the left. She wound up cheering on a $15 minimum wage, railing against corporate influence, and opposing the Keystone Pipeline and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It's not that she isn't genuine about those beliefs, but she might never have needed to discuss them if it weren't for Sanders's rising challenge.

Sanders has also been there as a reliable check and balance. When Clinton said during a Rachel Maddow interview that she supported her husband signing the Defense of Marriage Act because it was actually an effort to head off an amendment to the Constitution banning same-sex marriage, Sanders was quick to call her out from stage at a rally for revising history. That lent a more prominent stage for complaints from activists who said they didn't remember events that way at all. Instead, Bill Clinton signed DOMA because he was worried about reelection and then touted his signature in campaign ads. 

It happened again when Hillary Clinton in March made another rent with LGBT voters over her revisionist take on the history of AIDS in America. Following the death of former first lady Nancy Reagan, Clinton told MSNBC that Nancy Reagan "started a national conversation" when "no one wanted to do anything about it." The Clinton campaign released two public apologies afterward. Amid the firestorm, Bernie Sanders got the history right again: 

“In fact there was demand all over this country for President Reagan to start talking about this terrible tragedy and yet he refused to talk about it while the AIDS epidemic was sweeping this country. So I’m not sure where Secretary Clinton got her information. I’m glad she apologized, but the truth is it was not President Reagan and Nancy Reagan who were leaders in talking about this issue. Quite the contrary. They refused to allow that discussion to take place. They didn’t get involved in it while so many fellow Americans were getting sick and dying.”

While some — including veteran reporter Karen Ocamb at The Huffington Post — have written that Sanders’s criticism of Clinton was needless and that she was actually quite involved in AIDS activism during the most pivotal years, the damage had already been done. What's important is it was very quickly addressed. After all, no candidate can risk losing the LGBT vote in a tight Democratic primary.

Now Sanders is doing it again. Sanders and Clinton met Tuesday night for a private tête-à-tête to discuss how the party should go forward, and according to comments in the media from the candidates' aides, the meeting was tense. According to The New York Times, Sanders is refraining from releasing an official endorsement of Clinton in order to urge the front-runner to consider the goals of his campaign: increase minimum wage, lower the financial strain on students, invite young people into the political milieu, and make the Democratic nomination process more open.

Sanders didn’t bow out of the race tonight during a live address to his supporters over the internet. Instead, he said he looks forward to more conversations with Clinton on how the Democratic Party can incorporate his ideas and will act on them.

The speech turned out to be an early draft of the dream Democratic Party platform that he’s very publicly seeking, including a mention that we “must protect the right” to same-sex marriage. (Donald Trump says he wants to appoint Supreme Court justices who will overturn it.) And Sanders noted that Orlando “has made crystal clear” our need to ban assault weapons, to support universal background checks, and to close the loophole that lets people on terrorist watch lists purchase guns.

The question now is whether withholding his endorsement actually means the Democratic Party must work for it, and along the way whether the Democratic Party improves.

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