Presidential candidate claims vote was an effort to stave off a constitutional amendment that had not even been talked about then
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson went into immediate damage control following the GLBT presidential debate on LOGO on Aug. 9, after bungling the question of whether homosexuality was a choice. Richardson said “yes,” and later explained that he was tired and confused.
But the candidate arguably made a far worse mistake in answering a different question, one from Jonathan Capehart on why Richardson voted for the Defense of Marriage Act as a congressman in 1996.
“Well, I was the chief deputy whip at the time,” Richardson said. “President Clinton was president. And at that time, the objective in passing DOMA was to fight a huge assault for a constitutional amendment in the Congress to ban marriage. It was sort of a cheap political way to decimate a bad initiative.”
While GBLT pundits pounced on the suggestion that being gay is a “choice,” no one called Richardson to task for what can only be described as a flat out lie.
In fact, there was no constitutional amendment pending in Congress in 1996. There was no discussion of such an amendment. There was not even a hint of an amendment. Indeed, the debate over DOMA focused solely on the looming possibility that Hawaii courts would legalize same-sex marriage, opening the door for same-sex couples to marry, return to the other 49 states, and press their new status.
Nor were Democrats strategizing behind the scenes on how to advance the cause of gay rights. The Defense of Marriage Act passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in an atmosphere suffused with anti-gay sentiment.
A full five years went by before a little known conservative activist Matt Daniels advanced the unorthodox idea of amending the federal constitution to enshrine the definition of marriage as one man and one woman. Daniels, who founded the Alliance for Marriage in 1999, proposed the marriage amendment in 2001, when as USA Today reported, “he was greeted mostly with yawns as he looked for sponsors in Congress.”
It was not until 2004, after the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, that Republican leaders sent the marriage amendment to the floor of the House and Senate for a symbolic vote.
With Democrats arrayed against the measure, and with a two-thirds majority required for passage, it was clear that the amendment would not have the support to advance.
The maneuver, however, forced Democrats to take an unpopular stand in advance of the national election. Republicans repeated the tactic in 2006, when the amendment again failed to win a super majority.
Under these circumstances, Richardson’s answer deserved a follow up.
Hillary Clinton, in turn, never claimed that DOMA was a ruse to undermine a constitutional amendment, but she did make an odd connection between the two measures, telling the debate questioners that DOMA “has provided a great protection” against subsequent efforts to pass a marriage amendment.
Sure, many lawmakers who opposed the amendment in 2004 and 2006 were able to say that the measure “was not necessary” because we “already have a federal law defining marriage.” In that sense, DOMA provided an excuse and a talking point.
But the law was certainly not envisioned as a buffer against future attacks on the GLBT community. Nor would any self-respecting activist want the law to survive in order to “provide great protection” against unfriendly legislation that might lurk around the corner.
Strangeness aside, the Democratic candidates are all on record one way or another as favoring the repeal of the worst section of the Defense of Marriage Act, the language that defines marriage as the union or a man and a woman for all federal purposes.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 17, 2007