In Favor Of “Flip-Floppers”

Today President Obama announced that he has changed his mind about gay marriage and now favors it.  Opponents of the move called him a “flip-flopper.”  Presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney has modified his position on certain issues over the years.  He’s been criticized as a “flip-flopper,” too.

I don’t get the “flip-flopper” criticism.  I think it’s common for people to reassess their views about issues.  I certainly don’t adhere to every belief I held when I was 20, or 30.  Life experiences have shaped my views, and circumstances have, too.  I don’t want a President who is so rigid in his thinking that he is unwilling to reexamine his position, even when events strongly suggest that his position is wrong or ill-advised.  Why wouldn’t we want a President who is flexible and open-minded enough to react to new information or new developments?

It’s worth remembering that perhaps the greatest “flip-flop” in American political history involved Abraham Lincoln.  Lincoln was morally opposed to slavery, but also was opposed to the notion that the government could, or should, simply order that slaves be freed.  He favored voluntary emancipation by slaveowners, who would be compensated as a result.  Military and civil conditions during the Civil War, however, caused Lincoln to revisit his position, and the Emancipation Proclamation was the result.  Although some people opposed the Proclamation, I don’t remember that people reacted by shrieking that Lincoln was a “flip-flopper” or an unprincipled hack.  Now, does anyone care that Lincoln’s views on the issue changed over time?  The important point was that Lincoln’s ultimate position clearly was the right position.

The lesson of Lincoln, I think, is that we should focus on whether we agree with the politicians’ stated positions, without worrying overmuch about how they finally got to those positions.  In the case of same-sex marriage, I agree with the President.  If a gay couple wants to make the commitment of marriage, and to assume the rights and legal obligations that accompany that status, I think they should be permitted to do so.  Why should a gay couple be treated any differently from another couple simply because of their sexual orientation?

I recognize that other people will disagree with this position because of their religious or cultural beliefs.  Such disagreements are the stuff of which political campaigns are made.  The important point, for purposes of this posting, is that the issue of same-sex marriage be considered and debated on its merits.  Whether a politician’s position on the issue has changed doesn’t advance the debate, and indeed just distracts from it.