Evolution. It’s always a doozy.
We as a species may or may not have done it, depending on what state your science textbook hails from. But politicians’ views on issues would do Mr. Darwin proud. These views are always to be seen crawling up out of swamps on four legs, shedding their gills and ascending the trees at a rapid gait.
Take Hillary Clinton, who had an oddly tense interview on the subject of the Defense of Marriage Act and gay marriage with NPR’s Terry Gross on Thursday.
All in all this has not been the greatest possible interview fortnight for Clinton, from her insistence that she was broke on leaving the White House (unfortunately, this was the fancy, expensive kind of broke that most of us cannot ever hope to achieve; it’s the household budget equivalent of the difference between distressed jeans that cost hundreds of dollars for someone else to rip for you, and distressed jeans that you distressed yourself by sitting down abruptly on a nail and could not afford to replace) on down.
On Thursday, she got to engage in such fun activities as defending DOMA (“What DOMA did is at least allow the states to act. It wasn’t going to yet be recognized by the federal government but at the state level there was the opportunity. And my husband was the first to say, that you know, the political circumstances, the threats that were trying to be alleviated by the passage of DOMA, thankfully, were no longer so preeminent and we could keep moving forward and that’s what we’re doing”), criticizing people who thought they had “a direct line to the divine” and repeating that she was an American.
Take a listen:
It all starts with the question: “So what’s it like when you’re in office and you have to do all these political calculations to not be able to support something like gay marriage, that you actually believe in. Obviously you feel very committed to human rights and you obviously put gay rights as part of human rights but in doing the calculus you decided you couldn’t support it. Correct me if I’m reading it wrong.”
Then ensue seven awkward minutes.
Among the worse lines:
“Just because you’re a politician doesn’t mean you’re not a thinking human being.”
“One of my big problems right now is that too many people believe they have a direct line to the divine and they never want to change their mind about anything. They’re never open about new information and they like to operate in an evidence-free zone. I think it’s good if people continue to change.”
“I think I’m an American. (laughter) I think that we have all evolved.”
“Because I said I’m an American so of course we all evolved and I think that’s a fair conclusion–”
“I have to say, I think you being very persistent, but you are playing with my words and playing with what is such an important issue.”
“No, I don’t think you are trying to clarify. I think you are trying to say that I used to be opposed and now I am in favor and I did it for political reasons. And that’s just flat wrong. So let me just state what I feel like I think 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 were making.”
“I did not grow up even imagining gay marriage, and I don’t believe you did either.”
So actually what Clinton is saying is: she used to be opposed, and now she is in favor, but NOT for political reasons. Rather, because she is an American. And, as an American, she evolved.
But this is actually a more interesting question. When you and your opinions have had to exist in the public eye as long as Clinton and her opinions have, this does put you in a fun position on this particular issue where it is hard to have and eat your cake simultaneously.
Gay marriage really has been the subject of an almost unprecedented and fairly seismic shift in public opinion. In 1996, only 27 percent of people thought that gay marriages should be recognized as valid under the law, according to Gallup polls. Even leaving marriage out of it, in 1993, only 48 percent of people thought that homosexual relations between consenting adults should be legal. 44 percent thought they should not be. Contrast that to the 66 percent support today. The default position is just wildly different than it was in 1993.
And unlike a candidate who is just now bursting onto the scene, Clinton has been Living History right through it all. So, what’ll it be? Were you always secretly on what people now think of as the inevitable right side of history? Or were you part of what in 1993 felt like a fairly overwhelming majority and now seems dated and bigoted? Neither choice is great. Were you hiding what you felt because we weren’t ready? Or were you not ready, yourself? Er, let’s talk about Benghazi more.
It could be worse. She could be Rick Perry.