One Man’s Flip Is Another Man’s Flop

The Bush campaign has been remarkably successful at getting the press to buy the notion that John Kerry is a flip-flopper. The president’s attempts to keep reapplying the label, and Kerry’s efforts to shake it off, have become an established campaign narrative.

But reporters have been much less quick to look at various Bush reversals of policy through the same lens.

Richard Stevenson of the New York Times passed on an opportunity to do so today in an “analysis” piece titled “Bush Refines His Position on a Measure Banning Gay Marriage.” Stevenson reports that Bush yesterday reiterated his support for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, but that the president noticeably softened his tone:

“What they do in the privacy of their house, consenting adults should be able to do,” Mr. Bush said during a campaign stop in Pennsylvania on Friday, seeking to distinguish between private behavior and giving legal sanction to same-sex marriages. “This is America. It’s a free society. But it doesn’t mean we have to redefine traditional marriage.”

That’s not a reversal on the issue of gay marriage. But it is a reversal by Bush of his stance on the state’s role in banning private sexual activity. Neither Stevenson, nor any of the other media outlets that reported the president’s remarks Friday (including the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and MSNBC [link expired]), have pointed out that the president’s comments yesterday represented a 180-degree turnaround on the issue from earlier in his career.

As has been widely reported, when Bush ran for Governor of Texas in 1994, he affirmed his support for the Texas law banning sodomy that the Supreme Court struck down last year. At the time, Bush promised to veto any legislative effort to remove the law, calling it, “a symbolic gesture of traditional values.” That position clearly contradicts his new view that consenting adults can do whatever they want in private.

One can’t help thinking that had John Kerry undergone a similar transformation, the flip-flop theme would find its way into press coverage of the issue.

This isn’t because the press is “biased” in favor of Bush. Rather, it’s because the press is biased towards pre-existing storylines — and because it allows itself to be unduly swayed by negative attacks made by the campaigns. If the GOP is more aggressive than the Democrats in drawing reporters’ attention to possible instances of their opponent flip-flopping — and they are — then those instances will receive more press attention. Thus the press ignored Bush’s about-face, both because Democrats haven’t made an issue of it, and because it doesn’t fit the accepted image of the president as “strong but stubborn.”

But it would be nice if reporters did a little spadework themselves, instead of waiting for their daily bulletins from the spinners.

Zachary Roth

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Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.