Sen. Bernie Sanders has been attacking Hillary Clinton for her stance on gay marriage and framing himself as a longstanding advocate for gay rights, but Sanders' support has not always been so steadfast.
On Saturday, Sanders accused her of seeking to “rewrite” history by explaining her support of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act as a “defensive” mechanism meant to protect against a Constitutional amendment on marriage. He has framed himself as an early supporter, telling the New York Times, “I’m not evolving when it comes to gay rights. I was there.”
But Sanders’ history with gay marriage was by no means an unwavering show of support. Indeed, even his opposition to DOMA was not a clear expression of support for gay marriage. At the time, his wife and chief of staff said he opposed the bill on Constitutional grounds.
“We’re not legislating values. We have to follow the Constitution,” Jane Sanders said. “And anything that weakens the Constitution should be (addressed) by a constitutional amendment, not by a law passed by Congress.”
Evan Wolfson, the founder and president of pro-gay-marriage group Freedom to Marry, said Sanders “deserves applause” for that vote, as he was one of just a few dozen lawmakers to oppose the bipartisan bill. But he said Sanders has exaggerated his record on gay marriage.
“Senator Sanders, at points, has implied that he has been a strong and consistent supporter of the freedom to marry — but at crucial junctures, at least publicly, he was not,” Wolfson said.
News reports from the early 2000s reveal a senator reluctant to embrace gay marriage even when his own relatively liberal state was going through its own debate on the issue. Sanders issued a statement “applauding” the Vermont Supreme Court for ruling that gay couples should be afforded the benefits of marriage — but not explicitly the right to marry — in 1999.
But the court sent the issue to the legislature to decide, and there Sanders initially refused to take a position.
As a well-respected columnist for the Vermont independent newsweekly Seven Days wrote in 2000, sussing out Sanders’ stance on gay marriage at the time was like “pulling teeth…from a rhinocerous.”
Gov. Howard Dean, Sen. Jim Jeffords and Sen. Patrick Leahy all took a position, all in opposition to gay marriage. Other Democrats in the state, including the two candidates for Senate and Sanders’ successor as Mayor of Burlington, spoke out in favor of gay marriage.
Sanders, meanwhile, won the Vermont delegation’s “Wishy-Washy Award,” the columnist wrote, for his “carefully crafted non-statement” on the issue.
“By all accounts the legislature is approaching this issue in a considered and appropriate manner and I support the current process,” the statement read.
It was a stance the paper decried as being informed by “gut-level paranoia” and a fear of saying “something that might alienate his conservative, rebel-loving rural following out in the hills.”
After the legislature passed a civil unions bill, Sanders expressed support for that, but he stopped short of pushing for gay marriage to be recognized.
Six years later, when the George W. Bush Administration was pushing an amendment to the Constitution to define marriage as between one man and one woman, Sanders dismissed the move as “divisive.” But asked by a reporter whether Vermont should legalize same-sex marriage, Sanders said “not right now; not after what we went through.”
He explained his stance on gay marriage during a U.S. Senate debate that year as considering it a states’ rights issue — a stance that runs in stark contrast to his proclamation to the Times that he “was there” when it comes to gay rights.
“I believe the federal government should not be involved in overturning Massachusetts or any other state because I think the whole issue of marriage is a state issue,” he said during the debate.
His refusal to back gay marriage during his Senate run drew him a rebuke from MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow during an interview Monday night. She accused him of "the same kind of tactical thinking...for which you criticized Secretary Clinton” when Sanders acknowledged during the interview that he felt Vermont needed “a little bit of time” because the issue was so divisive.
Sanders did come out in favor of gay marriage in 2009, about four years before Clinton expressed support, but both statements came at politically-convenient times — Clinton’s, after most of the Democratic establishment had expressed their support; Sanders’, after the Vermont legislature voted to legalize gay marriage.
It’s a checkered history that, Wolfson says, should at the very least render the back-and-forth over who was first on the issue a moot point.
“Neither one of them needs to be getting bollixed up with bad history when they could simply say, ‘We moved, just as the freedom to marry campaign moved the majority of Americans, and we are now both where we need to be,’” he said.