Tuesday, January 29, 2013

You say you want an evolution

Our understanding of how politicians "evolve" is, I think, evolving.

As Obama moved through his slow dance toward embracing gay marriage, the word became obvious code for "I'm picking my moment to change my position" -- i.e., "reveal my true attitude," which had been on record since 1996. He first set the clock running in October 2010 (all Obama quotes below are taken from this ABC 5/912 timeline):
“I have been to this point unwilling to sign on to same-sex marriage primarily because of my understandings of the traditional definitions of marriage,” President Obama said during an interview with liberal bloggers. “But I also think you’re right that attitudes evolve, including mine. And I think that it is an issue that I wrestle with and think about because I have a whole host of friends who are in gay partnerships.”
By the time he went the last yard more than a year and a half later, his "evolution"  had become a punchline. The process was at once disingenuous, since the conclusion was foregone, and candid, in that he did describe a mental process that in some sense and at some time probably did take place:

“I probably won’t make news right now, George. But I think that there’s no doubt that as I see friends, families children of gay couples who are thriving, you know, that has an impact on how I think about these issues” (October 2011).
What's on display there is a growing sense of the absurdity of pretending that there's any substantive reason to deny that gay marriage works, and hurts no one.  Obama also at times implicitly blended the process of his political coming out and the movement of public opinion:
“I think what you’re seeing is a profound recognition on the part of the American people that gays and lesbians and transgender persons are our brothers, our sisters, our children, our cousins, our friends, our co-workers, and that they’ve got to be treated like every other American,” he said. “And I think that principle will win out. It’s not going to be perfectly smooth, and it turns out that the president — I’ve discovered since I’ve been in this office — can’t dictate precisely how this process moves.”
Because Obama's shift on this subject was by any measure successful -- he won a surge of support from the gay community, paid no measurable political price as he won reelection, and was hailed from various quarters as a world-historical figure-- it may be that he wrote something of a new playbook on how to flip-flop, licensing a half-acknowledged blend of political calculation, acknowledgment of a shift in public attitude, and change in his own thinking, influenced in part by those factors.  Evidence that this performance will be emulated comes from a political enemy, Sean Hannity -- whose rapid-fire post-election evolution on immigration reform seems to lack irony:
“We've got to get rid of the immigration issue altogether.It’s simple to me to fix it,” Hannity said. “I think you control the border first. You create a pathway for those people that are here — you don’t say you’ve got to go home. And that is a position that I’ve evolved on. Because, you know what, it’s got to be resolved
Clumsy imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

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