July 11, 2008
McCain's non flip-flop on marriage
Posted by: Chris
This year's presidential election will be putting old-line journalism to the test, seeing as how both parties have nominated media darlings from the primaries. Supporters always complain their opponent is escaping media scrunity, but this year the charge may hold weight -- in both directions. We'll see whether traditional media will wake up to their responsibility or further tarnish a reputation left in tatters by failures post-9/11 and in the run-up to the Iraq War.
So supporters of John McCain are no doubt right to complain that Barack Obama has gotten largely glowing press treatment, but it's also true that a fawning press corps lets McCain get away with murder. Leave it to the blogosphere to fill the gap, especially on this McCain meme that Obama is a "flip flopper."
Obama has, of course, been moving to the middle, in substance as well as in rhetoric, and it's certainly fair game for McCain to point it out -- especially since Obama has set a higher standard for himself and his "new politics." But McCain is still the pot calling the kettle black -- no, I'm not a racist -- on the issue, considering his own extreme makeover from party "maverick" to line-toeing standard-bearer.
The Carpetbagger Report has done a nice job of doing what the mainstream media has not -- compiling McCain's flip flips -- on more than 60 important issues of domestic and foreign policy. Some items on the list are actual flip-flops more than others, but it caught my eye that gay marriage made the list:
This one turns out to be more inartful rhetoric than a flip-flop, and the list compiler knows it since both the "allowed" and "shouldn't be allowed" links relate to a single McCain appearance back in 2006 on MSNBC's "Hardball" college tour.
A February 2007 profile of McCain captures his political highwire act that day, complete with backstage tactics:
“Should gay marriage be allowed?,” Matthews asks.
“I think that gay marriage should be allowed, if there’s a ceremony kind of thing, if you want to call it that,” McCain answers, searching in vain for the less loaded phrases he knows are out there somewhere, such as “commitment ceremony” or “civil union.” “I don’t have any problem with that, but I do believe in preserving the sanctity of the union between man and woman.” It may not be clear just what McCain is trying to say, but it’s easy to see how his words could be skewed in a direction that the Republican right might not like at all.
Fast-forward to the next commercial break, during which McCain and Matthews reposition themselves from the stage to the auditorium floor to take questions from the students. McCain’s longtime political strategist, John Weaver, a lanky, laconic Texan, moves in to whisper some advice. The next question is about the pending federal farm bill, and McCain repeats his long-standing opposition to certain agricultural subsidies.
But then, out of nowhere, he adds, “Could I just mention one other thing? On the issue of the gay marriage, I believe if people want to have private ceremonies, that’s fine. I do not believe that gay marriages should be legal.” There: he said it, the right words for his right flank. It might seem that this audience, the sons and daughters of a socially conservative and culturally traditional bellwether state, would accept, if not approve of, what McCain has just declared. But they are the Wi-Fi wave of the future, and they can smell a pander bear as surely as they can a hog lot. They erupt in a chorus of deafening boos. “Obviously some disagreement with that last comment,” McCain says tightly. “Thank you. It’s nice to see you.”
Moments later, McCain remounts the stage for the program’s final segment, and he bores into Weaver, standing quietly in the wings, with a cold look that seems to mingle irritation at Weaver’s whispered advice with regret that he took it, and demands, almost hisses, “Did I fix it? Did I fix it?”
The problem is with Matthews' original question, which taken literally is asking McCain whether the government should be able to prohibit gay couples from conducting private marriage ceremonies that have no legal significance. McCain answers it literallly and then has to circle back to make semi-clearer that he was referring to civil marriage, not private ceremonies.
McCain's original answer to Matthews, left out of the Vanity Fair piece, is really more about having it both ways than it is about flip-flopping:
On the issue of gay marriage, I do believe, and I think it’s a correct policy that the sanctity of heterosexual marriage, a marriage between man and woman, should have a unique status. But I’m not for depriving any other group of Americans from having rights. But I do believe that there is something that is unique between marriage between a man and a woman, and I believe it should be protected.
You can be for limiting marriage to heterosexual couples and you can be against "depriving any other group of Americans from having rights," but you can't be both -- because limiting marriage to straights is, of course, depriving gays from having the same rights.
An earlier Carpetbagger post also calls McCain inconsistent for opposing a federal marriage amendment while supporting an even more draconian version in his home state of Arizona. The two positions are fully consistent, however, when you remember that McCain's only problem with the federal amendment is that it violates the principles of federalism, under which marriage is defined at the state level -- including by draconian amendments to a state's constitution.
Ironically, John McCain has, in fact, flip flopped on gay marriage -- just not in the way Carpetbagger suggests. His full-throated opposition to the federal marriage amendment back in 2004 as "antithetical in every way to the core philosophy of Republicans" -- meaning states' rights, not non-discrimination -- has since given way to wishy-washiness:
If the Supreme Court of the United States rejects the Defense of Marriage Act as unconstitutional; if state legislatures are frustrated by the decisions of jurists in more states than one, and if state remedies to such judicial activism fail; and finally, if a large majority of Americans come to perceive that their communities’ values are being ignored and other standards concerning marriage are being imposed on them against their will, and that elections and state legislatures can provide no remedy, then, and only then, should we consider, quite appropriately, amending the Constitution of the United States.
Although flip-flop isn't really a fair characterization of McCain's gay marriage views, it does seem to be an example of how he avoids reversing himself by taking multiple positions on the same issue simultaneously.
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