The New Era of Evolution Helps Pols Switch Stance on Issues from Gay Marriage to Immigration

Politicians used to get creamed for changing their positions. Howard Kurtz on the semantic dodge that now lets them get away with it.

Farewell to the age of flip-flopping politicians.

Once it was all so blatant. Some calculating pol, realizing that his position had become unpopular or untenable, would execute a backflip off the high board. The press would blow the whistle on this naked opportunism, and the flip-flop police would beat him senseless.

Not anymore.

Now the slippery officeholders and aspirants simply announce that they are “evolving.” I mean, who could be against that?

Evolving suggests a certain intellectual process as the person in question grapples with new evidence. It is part of a continuing quest to sort through the nuances and reach a modern conclusion in these turbulent times. It is practically professorial rather than a shameful cave-in.

If only John Kerry had been aware of this linguistic escape hatch.

When the 2004 Democratic nominee said “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it,” he wound up being mocked in a windsurfing ad that showed him tacking this way and that. If Kerry had the foresight to say he had once supported the military funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but now was evolving on the matter, he might have been spared the humiliation.

These days, just about everyone in public life is using the E-word.

Sean Hannity said right after the election that he had “evolved” on dealing with illegal immigration. Watching the Republicans get clobbered among Hispanic voters apparently hastened the process.

Or take Barack Obama on the subject of same-sex marriage. After the shellacking of the 2010 midterms, the president said: My feelings about this are constantly evolving. I struggle with this.” He was still supporting civil unions for gay couples.

But when Obama needed to energize gay voters in the spring of 2012, his evolution was suddenly complete. He backed same-sex marriage, and opened the door for others to flip—ah, evolve along with him.

Bill Clinton, who signed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, is now singing another tune. In a Washington Post op-ed, he said “it was a very different time” when he signed a law decreeing that marriage was between a man and a woman. Now, “I have come to believe that DOMA is contrary to those principles and, in fact, incompatible with our Constitution.”

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What happened? How did his own law become unconstitutional? “President Clinton has evolved on this issue just like every American has evolved,” Chad Griffin, a former Clinton aide who now runs the Human Rights Campaign, told The New York Times.

Oh, and Hillary Clinton has also changed her position from what it was way back when she ran for president in 2008. Now even Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski says her views on gay marriage are “evolving.”

Forgive me if I sound a note of skepticism. Does anyone believe the 42nd president, who was burned by trying to allow gays to serve openly in the military, was trying to ensure anything other than his reelection when he signed DOMA (and is now attempting to remove the stigma)? Does anyone really believe that Obama and Hillary didn’t privately favor gay marriage in 2008, but that the politics of the moment required them to fudge?

It’s not so much that they have evolved as that they have seized a politically safe moment to do what they already wanted to do. Or, to put it more gently, they had to wait for the country to evolve before they could come out of the policy closet and embrace gay marriage.

But it has worked. The press, which generally favors immigration reform and same-sex marriage, isn’t harping on the change of position. And the use of Darwinian language smoothes the edges off what might otherwise be seen as a hard sell. It’s all a matter of evolution.