Changing Stances

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More and more observers who keep score on politicians, especially as they approach campaigns for office, have been chronicling changes on some of the issues most would describe as basic. In each case, the chronicles point to movements that we would have to call "about-faces" or "180-degree turns." That repositioning goes on in politics every day is an everyday observation, so it would not normally inspire curiosity. But when defining issues get redefined, commentators take note, and not necessarily in order to play "Gotcha!" or to cry "Fraud!" though some may do so. They do it to discern what are the hot issues, the sticky sticking points – why they are, and what can change. In my files is an example from columnist Steve Chapman in the Chicago Tribune, one December day.

Chapman first feels for Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, the staunch Mormon who should be as good as his word – his early word as well as his recent word. For years Romney courted Massachusetts liberal voters by siding with them; he was pro-Roe v. Wade, and said, "I believe abortion should be safe and legal." Now he hungers for a Republican nomination where the base is rooted in opposition to "safe and legal" and Roe v. Wade. He backtracked and reversed himself and gave reasons for his about-face: "I'm in a different place than I was probably in 1994." Critics watch his decisions and say that yes, indeed, he has changed, and his acts show it.

Chapman cited early and later Ronald Reagan, who signed a liberal abortion law in California and then went against his younger self. George H. W. Bush did the same. To keep things even, Chapman shows how Democrats Jesse Jackson and Al Gore did something similar, and Bill Clinton does not escape Chapman's Reversal-Meter standards either. The early and the later stands may both be sincere, and there can be good reasons for people to be on this side or that side of an issue, and even to convert. Chapman is suspicious about the timing and quality of the shifts. He's a pro-lifer who is sure that Romney is sincere and, with wit breaking through on this one, adds: "I have complete confidence that he will be there until he isn't."

While changes by leaders in both parties in the matter of support for the Iraq War "then" and "now" tend to be relative, and economic issues allow for large varieties, the two issues that draw most fire and do most defining of the base, abortion and gay marriage, are pictured as absolutely set apart – by scripture, say some, by theological ethics, and by ideologies about freedom. Yet moves from the ideology that holds the base together might also lead observers to conclude that the "absolute" side of these has been overplayed. Most successful American politicians are pragmatists, broken-field runners; they are out of character when they feel constrained to recertify themselves all the time.

Can their back-and-forth motions also suggest that there is some fluidity even on this putatively solid-rock front, and that we may see some compromises and reconfigurations in the years ahead? If Romney and Gore, Reagan and Jackson could switch in times of climate change, who's next and what's next?

This article originally appeared on January 8, 2007.

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Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com. Original Source: Sightings – A biweekly, electronic editorial published by the Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.