Hillary Clinton still evolving

If anyone needs more ammunition for the argument that Hillary Clinton is planning to run for president, add her silence on the issue of gay marriage as the subject monopolized the news last week.

Were the secretary of State to endorse gay marriage, she would be the third Obama Cabinet secretary to do so: Education’s Arne Duncan and HUD’s Shaun Donovan have gone public with their support. And likely more will follow. Still, I’ll wager that Clinton will continue to search her soul until after the last vote is counted on Election Day 2016 or, at the latest, until after the last dance with First Gentleman Bill at the inaugural ball in January 2017.

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Coming out for gay marriage could hamper Clinton’s last chance to be president. Her long-held position for civil unions could give her a boost in a 2016 field that might include her fellow senior citizen, Joe Biden — who preempted his boss by declaring himself “absolutely comfortable” with gay marriage and so forced President Obama to end his evolution on the matter. Then there’s New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, another strong 2016 Democratic contender, who pushed a same-sex marriage bill through his state’s legislature in 2011.

Clinton being uncertain about the merits, the rightness of gay marriage is about as believable as Obama, for the lion’s share of his presidency, struggling to square his religious beliefs with same-sex nuptials.

The secretary of State obviously has other concerns on her mind. For starters, there’s the Iowa caucus in 2016. When Clinton the “inevitable” lost Iowa in 2008, she never recovered. She won’t be making that mistake again.

While Iowa, the proverbial swing state, has legalized gay marriage, it remains a volatile issue there. In 2010 voters there removed three Iowa Supreme Court justices who upheld the 2009 unanimous decision to allow same-sex marriage. Clinton can certainly see as well as anyone that Obama’s personal support of gay marriage could hurt him in Iowa this time — he easily won Iowa four years ago — and even possibly cost him the election.

When Clinton addressed a United Nations human-rights group in Geneva in December 2011, she said, movingly, “…. being LBGT does not make you less human. And that is why gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.” But she specifically did not mention gay marriage in the United States or elsewhere. 

Her own husband, who signed the Defense of Marriage Act — which defines marriage as a “union between one man and one woman” — into law in 1996, shortly before his reelection day in 1996, now supports same-sex marriage. I have no doubt that he wants Hillary to be president — mostly, in my opinion, to further burnish his own legacy, and to get back into the co-driver’s seat. If Bill Clinton could run for a third term, he’d also still be evolving.

Clinton is far from alone in having to pretend to be not quite ready to say she believes in something she obviously believes in — has anyone ever heard so many strong Democrats advocate states rights? 

Tim Kaine, running against Republican George Allen for the Senate seat in Virginia, can’t come out for gay marriage if he hopes to win; neither can Bob Kerrey, or at least not completely — he said that he supports “marriage equality” but it should be left to the states — who’s running for the Senate in Nebraska and whose last major job was president of the decidedly edgy and progressive New School in New York; neither can Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, who’s running a tough race for reelection. She can only go so far as to say it’s a matter best left up to the states.

 And then there’s Democrat Joe Donnelly, up against Tea Party darling Richard Mourdock for Sen. Dick Lugar’s seat in Indiana. Donnelly opined that marriage should be between a man and a woman. 

It’s worth noting that the ever-strategic Clinton did seem last year to endorse New York’s gay-marriage law, though she offered no country-wide endorsement, appearing to advocate that New York is unlike the rest of the country and that when it came to the state she represented in the Senate, she did not need to be stuck in quite the same quandary as her president. 

If reporters have been pressing Hillary Clinton on her view in light of her boss’s change of position, I haven’t seen it. I guess we’re giving the obviously overworked, overscheduled soon-to-be-former secretary of State a pass — for now.

Felsenthal, a journalist based in Chicago and author of Clinton in Exile: A President Out of the White House, is a contributor to The Hill’s Pundits Blog.


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