For a politician—or, really, for anyone—all the most interesting and revealing questions are the ones that come not from your enemies, but from your friends. It’s easy enough for someone who doesn’t like you to attempt to catch you in a contradiction or make you look like a fool. But when someone in basic agreement and sympathy with your views manages to trip you up and put you in a defensive crouch—well, now we’re getting somewhere.
That is essentially what occurred recently when Hillary Clinton faced Terry Gross in an interview on National Public Radio, and the subject turned to same-sex marriage. On this, Gross asked Clinton what can only be characterized as a straightforward and obvious question: Did Clinton’s present support for gay marriage, which she announced in March 2013, come about organically or as a consequence of political calculations? Did her views “evolve” gradually or did she, in fact, privately support equal marriage rights long before saying so publicly?
Clinton’s history on the subject is as follows: In 1996, her husband, President Bill Clinton, signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act, which prevented same-sex couples from being recognized as legal spouses by the federal government. Hillary, for her part, publicly supported DOMA for at least the next seven years, both as first lady and as a New York senator, even as she spoke in favor of “domestic partnership measures” for gay people and introduced legislation to that end.
Her view, in effect, was that same-sex unions should be equal to opposite-sex unions in everything but name. (Never mind that DOMA made even this compromise impossible.)
Clinton still opposed gay marriage rights during the 2008 presidential race, although she did repudiate Section 3 of DOMA in a 2007 questionnaire. Her overall position—anti-marriage, pro-civil unions—remained more or less consistent until March of last year, when she joined Team Gay, fully and unequivocally, at last.
A reasonable conclusion to draw from this narrative, when considered piecemeal and in full, is that Hillary Clinton has always regarded homosexuals as morally equal to heterosexuals, and therefore would probably have openly supported same-sex marriage—the concept and the word itself—many years earlier than she did, had the issue not been made such a radioactive “wedge” from the mid-2000s onward. (Only 42 percent of Americans favored gay marriage in 2004; support didn’t reach 50 percent until 2011.)
Because the subject has been so politically fraught, the theory goes, Clinton made the strategic decision to postpone a formal endorsement of marriage rights until the opinion polls made it politically safe to do so—even though this meant suppressing deeply-held convictions that, after all, placed her firmly on the right side of history.
This, in so many words, is what Terry Gross was attempting to get Clinton to acknowledge. That even the defense of basic civil liberties is not immune to political calculations, and that Clinton, of all people, understands that there is a political component to everything, and has learned to act accordingly.
Realistically, Clinton had two possible ways to respond. First, by affirming the charge with some version of, “Yes, I was in favor of gay marriage before 2013, but didn’t think it prudent to get involved in a domestic debate while being secretary of state.” Or second, by rejecting the whole premise and insisting her private and public views are, and have always been, one and the same.
How did she actually respond? With good old option number three: By becoming paranoid and evasive, and accusing the interviewer of the lowest possible motives. In this case, by accusing Gross of “playing with my words” and “trying to say that […] I used to be opposed and now I’m in favor and I did it for political reasons.” (Gross did no such thing. There is a big difference between timing your public views to suit political realities and inventing public views from whole cloth.)
And so I humbly ask: Presented with a direct question, to which the only possible answers are A and B, what are we to make of someone who responds with anything other than A or B? If the true answer to, “Are your stated views on gay marriage genuine?” is “Yes,” then what exactly is the disadvantage to simply saying so and moving on? Why does the probe require an indignant straw man speech and an assumption of bad faith?
If you’re being defensive about something that (according to you) you have no reason to be defensive about, are we not duty-bound to infer a guilty conscience of one kind or another?
The issue here, finally, is not gay marriage, as such, but rather Hillary Clinton’s behavior when faced with a not-so-challenging line of inquiry, along with her apparent inability to level with the American public about any number of things, and her tendency to make enemies when there is no earthly reason to do so.
By no means should these troubling qualities prevent her from becoming president, as many of the previous 43 officeholders would affirm. But nor should they prevent us from wondering if they would impinge upon her ability to be a good one.
Being led by a paranoid, calculating liar can, on occasion, have a downside.