The ongoing stampede of politicians rushing to embrace gay marriage — Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey joined up Monday — prompts me to wonder: What's the difference between a "flip flop" and an "evolution?" 

Most press accounts say that Senators Claire McCaskill, Jon Tester, Mark Warner, Jay Rockefeller, Kay Hagan, Mark Begich and Casey have all "evolved." Delaware Sen. Tom Carper even invoked the e-word on his own behalf early today, when he announced on Facebook that he too supports gay marriage after formerly opposing it: "As our society has changed and evolved, so too has the public's opinion on gay marriage - and so has mine."

But isn't it just as accurate to call their shifts of position a "flip flop?"

Defining the terms

Words matter, because words that describe essentially the same thing can have entirely different connotations. An "evolution" sounds like something good. It connotes deep thinking and wise contemplation over a long period of time - whereas a "flip flop" sounds inherently bad, a sudden act by a craven operator who lacks core convictions.

Naturally, politicians prefer to be called evolvers, not flip floppers.

Senator Lisa Murkowski, the Alaska Republican who is currently moving ever so carefully toward gay marriage, said the other day: "The term 'evolving view' has been perhaps overused, but I think it is an appropriate term for me to use." President Obama felt the same way. Two years before he finally endorsed gay marriage - after having opposed it as a senatorial candidate and as a presidential candidate - he pre-spun his changing state of mind: "Attitudes evolve, including mine."

Fortunately for Obama, and the aforementioned senators, they've been credited with evolving, as opposed to flip flopping. Hillary Clinton got the same deal. Back in 2003, she said in an interview that the definition of marriage "should be kept as it historically has been," but when she changed positions last month, to get herself in sync with the zeitgeist and keep herself viable for 2016, she was greeted with the USA Today headline, "Hillary Clinton's Evolution on Gay Marriage."

By contrast, Mitt Romney was widely rebuked for flip flopping, as opposed to evolving, when he subsumed or shelved his various moderate positions in order to run in the right-leaning Republican primaries. And back in 2004, John Kerry got fatally tagged as a flip flopper during his failed bid to unseat George W. Bush.

Different treatment

So, why do some politicians get the benign evolver label, while others get the pejorative flip-flopper label - when the bottom line is that all politicians recalibrate for reasons of political expediency or exigent circumstance?

It depends in part on how deft the politician is. Romney and Kerry were notoriously clumsy about explaining themselves; as candidates, they seemed incapable of favorably spinning their position shifts. They lacked the master's touch. The master, of course, was Bill Clinton, who flip flopped (or evolved) all the time when he was president - perhaps most famously in 1993, when he engineered a tax hike, then told a Texas audience that he may have raised taxes too much - but he usually escaped unscatched because, as the saying went, he had the gift of being able to talk a dog off a meat truck.

But, for the most part, a politician gets the evolver label if he or she is shifting in favor of a broadly popular position.

Gay marriage has become a broadly popular position; so has gun reform, especially the expansion of background checks. This is why Senate leader Harry Reid's new support for gay marriage (after long insisting that "marriage is between a man and a woman"), and for modest gun reform, is being characterized as an evolution, not as a flip flop. To wit, yesterday's New York Times: "Washington has observed in Mr. Reid an evolution - less flip flops than slow dances to the left - that reflects shifting attitudes..."

Maybe commentator John McWhorter is right when he says in The New Republic magazine that "evolving" politicians are getting off too easy; he argues, "We are witnessing the recruitment of a noble word as a fig leaf for political opportunism." But maybe, rather than quibble over how best to describe a change in position, we would be wiser to just acknowledge the obvious, which is that all politicians (like most people) are wont to be fundfamentally flexible from time to time.

Historical perspectives

Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigned for the presidency by promising fiscal conservatism and a balanced budget; after he won, he launched the New Deal. Richard Nixon made his bones as a vociferous foe of communism; as president, he went to China and broke bread the communists. Barack Obama the candidate opposed the idea of requiring all Americans to buy health coverage; Obama the president embraced it....The list is endless.

Are these shifts of position "evolutions" or "flip flops?" We can debate that one forever. Maybe we're better off if we simply agree with what journalist-essayist-satirist H. L. Menken said nearly a century ago: "A politician is an animal which can sit on a fence and yet keep both ears to the ground."

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