The Washington Post

Why Bill Clinton signed DOMA

Former president Bill Clinton has published a mea culpa of sorts in Friday's Washington Post, saying the Defense of Marriage Act he signed in 1996 is "discriminatory" and "incompatible with our Constitution." The Supreme Court, he says, should overturn the law.

Why did he sign it in the first place? On the New Yorker Web site, Richard Socarides, an adviser to the Clinton White House on gay issues, explains:

As Republicans prepared for the 1996 Presidential election, they came up with what they thought was an extremely clever strategy. A gay-rights lawsuit in Hawaii was gaining press coverage as an initial series of preliminary court rulings suggested that gay marriage might be legally conceivable there. Clinton was on the record opposing marriage equality. But Republicans in Congress believed that he would still veto legislation banning federal recognition of otherwise valid same-sex marriages, giving them a campaign issue: the defense of marriage.

Instead, worried about his reelection prospects and scarred by the battle over Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Clinton signed the bill. Socarides argues that, given the large congressional majorities behind the legislation, lawmakers likely would have overriden a veto anyway.

It was part of Socarides's job at the time to explain the vote to gay and lesbian voters. He has been criticized himself for defending Clinton's position.

"I think that for him, it is a very principled decision," he told the Advocate in 1996.

It's a defense that has gotten Socarides himself some grief from gay-rights activists.

Rachel Weiner covers local politics for The Washington Post.

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