Here’s What Bernie Sanders Didn’t Tell His Crowd About Gay Marriage


As independent Vermont Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders stumps for votes in California, he has become mired in a feud with HIV/AIDS activists who are insufficiently grateful for all he’s done for them. Although Sanders’ campaign website still maintains a bullet point on the issue, it’s not included in his California stump speech, but he does have an interesting chunk on gay marriage. In the state with the largest LGBT population in America, Sanders asks his crowd to imagine a time when marriage equality wasn’t even an absurd dream, but a seeming impossibility:

If we were here just ten years ago, no time at all, somebody jumps up and says “You know, Bernie, I think that gay marriage will be legal in every state in this country by the year 2015,” if somebody said that, the person next to her would have said “You’re crazy, that can’t happen. Too much homophobia, too much hatred, it won’t happen.”

That’s an interesting hypothetical there, especially the time frame. Imagine if we could take a DeLorean ride back to 2006 and see what that would have been like, to see what Bernie Sanders thought about gay marriage being legal in every state in this country in 2006:

Stewart Ledbetter: Do you think that gay people ought to have the right to get married outside of Massachusetts, be able to file joint federal income taxes and so forth?–if you do, would you sponsor legislation to that effect?

…Sanders: I was a strong supporter of civil unions, I believe that, I believe voted against the DOMA Bill. I believe that the Federal Government should not be involved in overturning Massachusetts or any other state, because I think, Stewart, the whole issue of marriage is a state issue, that’s what it is, so that is my view on that.

That was from an October 23, 2006 debate with Republican Richard Tarrant, and it shows that if Sanders had been in that imaginary space he references in his current stump speech, his answer would have been no, it won’t happen because I won’t let it.

As it turns out, Bernie was ahead of the curve, because it would be another five years before President Obama would invoke the same awful “states’ rights” argument. But when asked if his own state of Vermont should adopt marriage equality in 2006, Bernie said no.

We have all witnessed the laborious “evolution” of President Obama’s views and positions on marriage equality, which has tracked pretty closely with Hillary Clinton‘s, right down to the poor ad hoc handling of it. As an LGBT ally, the whole mess was a frequently disappointing exercise in pragmatism masked as principle, but in the end, most people recognize that both Hillary and Obama have long records of expanding rights for LGBT people, and took the positions they did in order to stay in the “sweet spot” that would help them remain in positions to continue doing so.

Therefore, I would be hard-pressed to condemn Bernie Sanders for taking a similar path, and an arguably better and earlier path, but for the fact that Sanders has spent a good deal of time attacking Hillary Clinton by claiming “I was there” on gay marriage all along. It’s true, he was ahead of Hillary and Obama for the most part, and has a long record of standing up for LGBT people when it wasn’t popular, but on the specific issue of marriage equality, he hasn’t really earned the right to slam others on the same team who rounded the same bases a little more slowly.

For example, just as Obama and Hillary hid behind what I would characterize as fallacious religious convictions to make their support for civil unions more palatable, Sanders’ 1996 opposition to DOMA was coated with a states’ rights candy shell:

“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.”

Ironically, that was the same year that Barack Obama first expressed support for full marriage rights for same-sex couples, which he later adjusted to the more palatable civil unions position.

As disappointing as it was, and as galling as it was to see Republicans hide behind the Democrats’ gyrations, the political analyst in me can’t fault Obama, Hillary, or Bernie for making those judgments. If they’d leaned too far into the issue, Bernie, Hillary, and Obama would be popular cable news guests right now instead of guiding the direction of our country. I don’t believe for a second that any of them ever had some deeply-held objection to marriage equality, although the states’ rights argument was a particularly disgusting shield.

The difference is that this is part of a pattern with Bernie Sanders, wherein he insists things get to be “complicated” for him, but not anyone else. He demands understanding for the crime bill he voted for, while condemning an opponent who never voted for it, and whose support was tepid and obligatory.  He wants a pass for shielding gun manufacturers from liability because he realized later that the flaws in the bill outweighed the benefits, which, again, sounds a lot like the defense he dismisses when it comes from the Clintons. He asserts, without evidence, that Hillary Clinton is compromised by political donations, while his own message and campaign are rigidly held captive by a small army of white middle-class donors whom he dares not cross. Nuance for me, but not for thee.

This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.

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