Election 2016

Does Clinton's DOMA Lie Matter? Does Trump's Immigration Lie Matter? Do Any Lies Matter?

Is honesty relevant in an election about punishing the enemy?


"Jim Webb had integrity. How'd that work out for him?"
Credit: WisPolitics.com / photo on flickr

In what is the most exhaustive debunking of Hillary Clinton's failed attempt at revisionist history, BuzzFeed's Chris Geidner sorted through thousands of documents from the Clinton Presidential Library and found absolutely no evidence that Bill Clinton's White House had any concerns about a possible anti-gay constitutional amendment when they passed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). In reality, at the time, both Clintons did not support same-sex marriage recognition. They were in the majority back then. It was nowhere close to politically popular:

For the most part, White House staffers assumed Clinton would eventually support DOMA once the bill's introduction was certain. Bill Clinton had already stated his opposition same-sex couples' marriage rights. In 1996, Clinton repeatedly marked his approval of talking points on same-sex marriage, as it is referred to in the documents and will be referred to throughout this report, and DOMA; the talking points included his opposition to same-sex marriage and opposition to providing federal benefits to same-sex couples.

While some of the few out gay employees and their strongest straight allies worked in the spring of the year to find a way to keep Clinton from supporting DOMA, the internal conversation surrounding the bill mostly concerned when Clinton would announce his support.

And Clinton ended up announcing his support sooner rather than later. On May 23, 1996 — less than three weeks after the bill was introduced in Congress — Clinton announced that he would sign the bill if it came to him as he understood it.

Through it all, though, no one discussing the bill in the Clinton administration — from the White House senior staff to gay staffers and their strongest allies to the press office to Justice Department lawyers — ever mentioned any concern about a federal constitutional amendment.

So no, contra to any claims from both Bill and Hillary Clinton, the president did not sign DOMA to protect gays from a constitutional amendment banning same-sex recognition. And it's insulting to everybody's intelligence for them to say that he did.

Unfortunately, the larger question is: Does it even matter? If you look through comments at sites that post about this admittedly small scandal, you'll find lots of defenses along the lines of "But Bernie Sanders evolved on gay marriage, too"; "The Republicans are lying about 20 things while you're complaining about this"; and, of course, "KOOOOOOOOOCH BROTHERS!" The lying isn't important. What matters is that they beat the Republicans! This is an election about punishing the enemy, both domestic and abroad.

But that the Clintons had no reason to lie about this in the first place is what makes the lie so strange and worthy of paying attention to. The Clintons "evolved." Obama "evolved." A lot of Democrats and not a small number of Republicans "evolved" on gay marriage. As I said when I wrote about this lie earlier, Clinton seems to be trying to disprove accusations that the Clintons hold positions on the basis of shrewd political calculations and is doing so in a way that's very obviously politically calculated. Apparently the Clintons have decided that it is important that they are seen as leaders and protectors on gay rights, even though they weren't back then. The only logical explanation is that Hillary Clinton is really worried about Bernie Sanders. But getting caught out like this only highlights the Clintons' well-established flaws to primary voters. Ironically enough, it shows that Clinton hasn't "evolved" when it comes to her reputation for dishonesty. And she can't blame this one on Trey Gowdy.

But Clinton isn't the only one getting caught in flat-out lies that will probably lead to no consequences whatsoever. In Wednesday's debate, Donald Trump insisted that he hadn't criticized Sen. Marco Rubio's immigration reform proposals by calling him "Mark Zuckerberg's personal senator." Except he had. On his own website. It's still there, in a section calling for a very unconservative forced increase in the minimum wage for certain types of immigrant employees in order to encourage companies to hire American citizens.

Unfortunately, because the debate moderation was such a disaster and perceived as hostile to the candidates, Trump appeared at first to be a victim of a failed gotcha attempt. Exacerbating the problem was that his lie caught moderator Becky Quick flat-footed and unprepared. She didn't know where the information came from (and stupidly asked Trump, permitting him to throw it back in her face as a media concoction). It wasn't until after a commercial break that CNBC was able to find the source and confront a completely unrepentant Trump with it. It didn't matter anymore. The moderators had completely lost control of the debate and they had lost their credibility. Trump simply talked about his own immigration plan. Several media folks monitoring the debate tweeted out links to the truth, and it was mentioned in some stories, but the absurd and completely unnecessary lie from Trump did not have any staying power. Nobody seemed to care.

Actually, the people who already don't like Trump and Clinton care a lot, but they're "the enemy." And as I said before, this appears to be an election increasingly focusing on punishing "the enemy," whether they're immigrants, terrorists, rich people, corporations, or the other party. When Clinton was caught out on her lie by activists, her campaign's response was just another variation on "What difference, at this point, does it make?"

Politicians lie, obviously, of course, especially during elections. Even when they don't lie, they make promises they don't know whether they can keep, they mislead, they deflect criticism rather than address it. There's a significant voter undercurrent that seems to be embracing it, because the important thing is that those terrible other people—whose lies are so much worse—don't win the election.