Who better deserves the gay Democrats’ vote—Clinton or Obama?
Who’s better for gay equality, Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama? The answer depends on a consideration of three main factors: the issues, actual legislative records, and likely commitment.
On the issues, both Clinton and Obama broadly support equality for gay Americans. Both support a hate crimes law, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, a repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT), and same-sex domestic-partners benefits for federal employees. Both oppose a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
There’s only one difference between them on gay issues. Clinton supports repeal of the section of the Defense of Marriage (DOMA) that bars federal benefits for same-sex couples who get married or enter civil unions in their own state. Because it prohibits the federal legal protections that would otherwise be available to tens of thousands of gay families in several states, repealing this section of DOMA is a top priority.
Obama goes one step further. He would repeal DOMA in its entirety, including the section of the law that authorizes states to refuse to recognize gay marriages and civil unions performed elsewhere.
While this sounds important, its practical effect is minimal. Even without DOMA, states may refuse to recognize gay marriages from other states. All but five have done so. Still, the interstate provision in DOMA discriminates against gay couples and should be repealed.
Clinton defends her position by saying that DOMA was a valuable political tool in defeating a federal constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. That’s doubtful. She even goes so far as to say that DOMA was originally passed as a way to head off a federal amendment. That’s dishonest. When her husband championed DOMA in 1996 it was not as a favor to gays, but as a way to maximize his chances for reelection.
On the issues: slight advantage to Obama.
A candidate’s positions on the issues matter little if they aren’t translated into legislative action. Legislative success depends, in turn, on actual legislative ability and commitment to the cause.
On legislative ability, we don’t have much of a record for either candidate. Obama has been an undistinguished first-term senator, neither more nor less impressive than most others in a legislative body where seniority is power.
In an open letter to gays issued shortly before the Texas primary, Obama touted his co-sponsorship of legislation banning antigay discrimination when he served as an Illinois state senator. He also mentioned his co-sponsorship of a couple of pro-gay bills in the U.S. Senate.
Yet co-sponsoring bills involves nothing more than formally declaring support for them; it’s not a test of legislative skill. What matters is lobbying colleagues for the bill, securing hearings on the need for it, compromising and horse-trading, and getting an actual vote.
While Obama talks a good game of bringing Republicans and Democrats together for positive change, his actual legislative record demonstrates little ability to do so. That might change when he becomes president, and a president’s role is different than a legislator’s, but so far we have little to go on other than hope. GOP support will be needed in the Senate to overcome filibusters of pro-gay legislation.
Clinton’s legislative record is somewhat more impressive. She has surprised and delighted her Republican colleagues with her bipartisanship and work ethic.
On legislative record: slight advantage to Clinton.
Finally, which of the two is likely to be more committed to gay equality as president? Commitment is critical. Recall that Bill Clinton came into the presidency with all the right stands on gay issues for a man of his time. He also had an impressive record of legislative accomplishment as a governor. The problem was that he utterly lacked commitment to gay equality, wilting at the first sign of resistance. As Melissa Etheridge put it at a Democratic debate last year, he threw gays under the bus.
Neither Obama nor Clinton is perfect. Obama campaigned last fall with a homophobic minister. Both hesitated when confronted with the remarks of Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Peter Pace that DADT is justified because homosexuality is immoral. As if testing the political winds, they denounced Pace only after Senator John Warner (R-VA) flatly declared that homosexuality is not immoral.
But Obama speaks movingly of gay equality, and not just before gay audiences. He has raised the issue among white farmers and in black churches, where the message is both unwelcome and needed.
Hillary Clinton, by contrast, rarely raises the issue on her own, never does so before unfriendly audiences, and seems reluctant even to say the word “gay.”
Obama “gets it” in a way that no previous candidate for president has. Part of this is generational, but it is nonetheless real.
On commitment: strong advantage to Obama.
Lyndon Johnson changed forever the tone of the debate over racial equality when he told the nation, “We shall overcome.” Gay Americans need a transformative moment like that. Obama understands the importance of using the “bully pulpit” of the presidency to be a moral leader as well as a legislative one.
That’s no guarantee he’ll be a great president for gay equality. On the biggest issues, like repealing DADT and DOMA, it’s doubtful any Democratic president will succeed in a first or even second term. Obama may prove just as cowardly, weak, and perfidious as that previous
And gay issues are by no means the only ones that matter in this election. But on gay equality, Obama’s the better bet.
Writing from the conservative side, Dale Carpenter began his column for OutSmart in 1994, when he lived in Houston. Now residing in Minneapolis, Carpenter is a University of Minnesota Law School professor.