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“Searching Her Own Soul”: Hillary Clinton’s Evolution On Marriage Equality Shows How Change Happens, And Why Parties Matter

Over the last few days, Chris Geidner of Buzzfeed has been documenting Hillary Clinton’s evolution on the issue of same-sex marriage, an evolution that may now finally be complete. First Geidner posted some interesting documents from the 1990s showing Clinton and her husband explaining their opposition to marriage rights, then he got the Clinton campaign on record saying that she now hopes the Supreme Court will rule that there is a constitutional right to marriage for all Americans, which is actually a change from what she was saying just a year ago, when her position was that this was an issue best decided state by state.

So does this all tell us that Hillary Clinton is a chameleon willing to shift with the political winds, lacking in any moral core? Not really. Like every politician, she’ll tell you that her shift on this issue was a result of talking to people and searching her own soul, not some political calculation. If that’s true, then it mirrors how millions of Americans have changed their own minds. But even if it isn’t true, it doesn’t matter. She is where she is now, and if she becomes president, her policies will reflect her current position, whether it’s sincere or not. That’s how change happens.

We spend a lot of time in campaigns trying to figure out if politicians are honest or authentic or real, and one of the supposedly important data points in that assessment is whether they’ve changed their positions on any important issues. “Flip-floppers” are supposed to be feared and hated. But most of the time, that judgment is utterly irrelevant to what they would actually do in office.

For instance, few party nominees had in their history the kind of wholesale ideological reinvention that Mitt Romney went through. But what does that actually mean for the kind of president he would have been? Does anyone seriously believe that had he been elected, Romney would have flipped back to becoming a moderate Republican, just because deep down he’s a flip-flopper? Of course he wouldn’t have. Romney changed when his sights moved from liberal Massachusetts to the national stage, which also happened during a period when his party became more conservative. He would have governed as the conservative he became.

When public opinion on an important issue is in flux, politicians are emphatic followers. They figure out what’s happening, particularly within their own party, and then accommodate themselves to that change. It often looks like they’re leading when what they’re actually doing is taking the change in sentiment that has occurred and translating it into policy change. For instance, Barack Obama has taken a number of steps to expand gay rights, like ending the ban on gays serving in the military and pushing the Supreme Court to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act. But he did all that after public opinion demanded it, not before.

In the end, what’s in a politician’s heart may be interesting to understand, but it doesn’t make much of a practical difference. Does it matter that Lyndon Johnson was personally a racist who spent his early career as a segregationist? No, it doesn’t: When his own party and the American public more broadly moved to support civil rights for African Americans, he passed the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act and became an advocate for equality.

It’s possible that Hillary Clinton believed in marriage equality all along, but didn’t have the courage to advocate it publicly until she finally did so in 2013. Or maybe every shift in her public stance was a perfectly accurate reflection of her views at that moment. Either way, now that the Democratic Party is firmly in support of marriage equality for everyone in every state, that position is going to guide her if she wins.

And let’s not forget that almost every major Republican politician has gone through their own evolution on this issue as well. The first time it was a major issue in a presidential race, in 2004, Republicans advocated a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage everywhere. Most of them even opposed civil unions. But today, the opinion supported by every presidential contender who has been explicit on the topic is that the decision should be left up to the states, meaning it’s OK with them if some states have marriage equality while others don’t. A few do advocate a constitutional amendment—but not one to ban same-sex marriage nationwide, just one to preserve the ability of individual states to ban it if they choose.

That’s where the Republican Party is now, so that’s what the next Republican president’s policies will reflect. Until they evolve again.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect, April 16, 2015

April 19, 2015 Posted by | GOP Presidential Candidates, Hillary Clinton, Marriage Equality | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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