Barack Obama wants to carry the states he won in 2008, when he was still the blank slate that voters wrote on. One of those states is North Carolina, the hand-picked site of his party's convention, which on May 8 passed a constitutional amendment against gay marriage, as other swing states had done before.
But Obama wants even more to reap millions from his wealthy gay backers, who, weary of his hesitations on the gay marriage issue, were becoming tightfisted of late. Thus it was that on May 9, Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage (though not to the point that he would promise to put it in his party's platform or try to force it on states). In the eyes of the press, he "evolved" in good order, having done what the press wanted, but another interpretation is that he caved under pressure, or flipped.
"Flipping" is bad, but it is a charge that Mitt Romney can't use against him. Romney has "evolved" himself many times over, and for much the same reasons: For politicians who run on the national level, the social issues -- such as gays and abortion -- are nothing but absolute hell.
Why are these matters such unrelieved torture, whereas the "big" ones, like war, peace and taxes, are not? In 1960, these issues didn't exist. Culture began to get partisan in the late 1960s, when the civil war among Democrats over war policy spilled over into the civic arena. The proponents of this battle called it liberation; its opponents called it an assault upon morals. It blew both of the parties apart. The election of 1976 would be the last one in which the Democrat was to the right of the Republican on the cultural issues. By 1980, the lines of the parties were set: The feminists and other race/gender warriors sealed the ascent they began under George S. McGovern, and their opponents, who had to go somewhere, found their way into the opposition party, becoming one leg of Ronald Reagan's famous three-cornered stool. Previously, both parties had equal numbers of pro-life and pro-choice voters and holders of office; but in the next several years, the politicians would be either forced out or forced to convert under pressure, while among voters pockets of pro-life Democrats and pro-choice Republicans remained. This is a problem for both major parties, as is the fact that large swathes in the center dislike the activists on all sides of these issues.
One consequence is that a Democrat from a "red" state or Republican from a "blue" one often has to flip before he goes national, and all politicians must assume an uncomfortable straddle, assuring the base they are fervently with them, while at the same time sending signals to the center that they really aren't with them that much. They need activists or they can't win; they also need skeptics, or they can't win, either. What's a poor flipper to do?
They don't find it that painful to hedge on these issues if, like Rhett Butler, they don't give a damn. "Almost no major politician really cares about it," Rich Lowry wrote of abortion in 2007. Weeks earlier, E.J. Dionne noted: "Candidates are rarely willing to say outright what's true for so many ... they do not consider abortion the most important issue in politics and ... it is not the reason they entered public life." They surely care less than they do about their careers, and their chances to work on the issues they care for, such as small matters like war, peace and taxes. To them, this appears the higher morality. Is it that easy to say they are wrong?
Examiner Columnist Noemie Emery is contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of "Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families."