Flip-flopping has long been perceived to be a negative in American politics. Mitt Romney was for abortion rights before he was against them. He was for Romneycare, but is against Obamacare. For these changes of heart (or shifts with the political winds) he has been labeled a flip-flopper.
Barack Obama was for gay marriage before he was against gay marriage. Now, once again, he is for gay marriage. But he is not a flip-flopper. Why not? Because his view on gay marriage has been “evolving.”
Of course cynics will say they knew all along that the president favors gay marriage. They will say that he was just trying to avoid taking a public position in the face of uncertainties about the likely impact on his re-election campaign. On the one hand, coming out in favor of gay marriage would secure the gay and lesbian vote and boost fundraising. But would those folks really vote for the other guy who is an avowed opponent of gay marriage? On the other hand, there are 30 state constitutions limiting marriage to a man and a woman, and just this week 60% of North Carolina voters voted to ban gay marriage in their state.
But the president assures us he was not talking with his political consultants. No, his evolving thoughts reflected conversations with friends, his wife and his young daughters. It’s just a coincidence that his evolutionary thinking brought resolution only a few days after Vice President Joe Biden announced his support for gay marriage. One can’t dictate the emergence of evolved thoughts.
Now that he has arrived at thinking he supports gay marriage, is that the end of it? Wouldn’t it be reasonable for voters to ask whether the president’s thinking on the subject is still evolving. After all, it evolved from support for gay marriage when running for the Illinois State Senate in 1996 to opposition when running for the U.S. Senate in 2004. So it seems perfectly possible that his thinking might evolve full circle yet again.
But the point is that the president is not a flip-flopper. He is a thoughtful guy, capable of recognizing and acknowledging his previous errors and raising his thoughts to a higher level. This is not about just changing your mind. This is about going from wrong to right. Evolutionary thinking is linear thinking — like a one-way ratchet — from uninformed and uncaring to humane and progressive.
On second thought, that must have been a flip-flop from favoring gay marriage in 1996 to opposing it in 2004. But the younger Obama was less principled and more political than the man who would be our president for another four years. He is now having evolving thoughts. He is past opportunistic flip-flopping.
Meanwhile, Mitt Romney is condemned to being labeled a flip-flopper whenever he changes his mind or adjusts his position in response to political realities (though one might expect that elected representatives would sometimes adapt their positions to the views of the people they represent). Because he is a pro-business, wealthy Republican, Romney is by definition self-interested and uncaring. He is not capable of evolving, even if he occasionally has a “progressive” thought. In fact, it is on those occasions, more than any others, when he is most assuredly engaged in opportunistic flip-flopping.
Thank goodness we have a president who can rise above politics and just do what is right. Although one suspects that Mr. Obama was hoping that his thinking on gay marriage would evolve more slowly — say maybe sometime after the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.
Jim Huffman is the dean emeritus of Lewis & Clark Law School, the co-founder of Northwest Free Press and a member of the Hoover Institution’s De Nault Task Force on Property Rights, Freedom and Prosperity.