As Pete noted yesterday, the talk about the evolution of President Obama’s stand on gay marriage tends to gloss over the fact that rather than a straight path to enlightenment, it has been a typical cynical politician’s approach to controversy. Since he supported it while running for the State Senate, opposed it while running for the Senate in 2004 and for the presidency in 2008 and now supports it again in 2012, we can see that his position was not principled but the product of careful analysis about the needs of the voters he was facing in each case. This is hardly shocking, but I suspect the president won’t be branded as a flip-flopper by his adoring fans in the mainstream press.
That’s significant not so much because it reveals the media’s bias on social issues but because it shows the different standard to which Mitt Romney has been subjected for his stands on social issues by some of the same outlets that are celebrating Obama’s statement today. Though Democratic strategists are currently attempting to paint Romney as a right-wing extremist, for most of the last year they and their allies in the press regularly lambasted Romney for being a serial flip-flopper. But in the wake of Obama’s politically motivated zigzag path to support for gay marriage, isn’t it time to acknowledge there is no difference between that and Romney’s equally tortured route to opposition to abortion?
Social conservatives roasted the GOP standard bearer in the past year for having supported abortion rights while running for office in Massachusetts in 1994 and 2002. Liberal kibitzers were happy to chime in when right-wingers doubted the sincerity of Romney’s conversion to a right-to-life position just before he began preparing to run for president. Though the Republican candidate claims he had a genuine change of heart, both liberals and conservatives are to be forgiven if they think it had more to do with the fact that a supporter of abortion had no chance of winning a national Republican race while the opposite was true in Massachusetts.
But the same calculations apply to Obama’s stands on same-sex marriage. He supported it while running for office in Chicago but said the opposite when he was looking to win a statewide race in Illinois and the presidency at a time when such a stand would have cost him votes. Now that his pollsters — and Hollywood contributors — tell him that changing his tune will be popular, he’s flipped again. Which makes him every bit the phony that Romney’s detractors say he is. The only difference is that the liberal press will always treat a candidate who moves to their position on an issue as having evolved but speak of one who moved away from their beliefs as a cynical flip-flopper.
To be fair to Romney, it should be noted that on the one issue which might have cost him the Republican presidential nomination, he refused to change his stand when doing so would have helped his candidacy. Romney’s Massachusetts health care bill was his greatest electoral liability heading into the GOP primaries. It was rightly perceived as resembling if not inspiring ObamaCare. Republican rivals said that Romney’s support of government health care would undermine the party’s chance to use the issue against the president in 2012.
But rather than distance himself from his record, Romney doubled down on it repeatedly, insisting that while he opposed Obama’s bill, the Massachusetts legislation was not a mistake. Doing so may have cost him some votes and may yet hurt him in the fall. But he did not waver.
Looked at in this light, it’s clear that though Romney’s record contains its share of flip-flops, he needn’t blush when compared to Obama. Neither can claim to be consistent on social issues. The only difference is that the media calls one a phony and gives the other accolades for similar behavior.