united states project

Obama ‘evolves,’ Romney ‘flip-flops’

As the candidates’ positions change, reporters construct differing narratives
May 8, 2012

NEW HAMPSHIRE—Are Barack Obama and Mitt Romney so different after all? Despite the media’s portrayal of Romney as a uniquely craven politician, the recent controversy over Obama’s views on gay marriage highlights the ways that both candidates—like nearly all politicians—have adjusted their positions over their careers for political reasons.

On Sunday’s Meet the Press, Vice President Joe Biden made unexpected news by saying he is “absolutely comfortable” with gay marriage—a remark that seemed to contradict Obama’s stated opposition to same-sex marriages. Though Obama adviser David Axelrod promptly denied that there was any difference between the two men’s views, many observers interpreted Biden’s statement as the latest example of the administration’s hedging of its position on the issue. President Obama indicated support for gay marriage in a questionnaire as a state senate candidate in Illinois but has opposed it since his 2004 US Senate campaign. As public support for gay marriage increases and the Democratic base’s demands grow more insistent, the President has acknowledged their concerns, stating last year that his views were “evolving” and that he “struggle[s]” with the issue.

In the wake of Biden’s comments and Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s open declaration of his support for gay marriage, White House spokesman Jay Carney was battered during his press briefing Monday by reporters who are frustrated by the administration’s doubletalk on the issue.

What’s striking, though, is the way in which the controversy has been framed. While reporters acknowledge the political concerns facing the administration, few have personalized the issue as providing some insight into Obama as a person. In Monday’s Boston Globe, for instance, correspondent Callum Borchers notes that Obama’s “position on same-sex marriage has vacillated over the years,” but does not portray the issue as one that reveals some weakness in the President’s character. Borchers even adopts the administration’s preferred framing of Obama’s changing views in the kicker to his report (though perhaps derisively), stating that “Some Democrats have called on Obama to include support for same-sex marriage in the party’s presidential platform,… [b]ut Obama campaign officials have given no indication that the president’s policy on the subject will evolve further before November.”

The second wave of coverage of the debate Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning was more critical (see, for instance, this report from the AP’s Julie Pace), but with the exception of The Huffington Post’s Sam Stein, journalists still generally refrained from framing the issue as providing some insight into Obama’s character or psyche. (Disclosure: I sometimes blog for HuffPost.) If anything, Obama has been faulted not for his shifting views, but for failing to flip on the issue before the election (ABC’s Jake Tapper: “Why not just come out and say [that he supports gay marriage] and let voters decide?”).

By contrast, the press has treated the changing positions of Romney, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee, far more harshly. Consider the Globe, which has probably written more about Romney than any other publication due to his stint as Massachusetts governor. Reporter Glenn Johnson, for instance, has written of “the numerous flip-flops undertaken by Romney before, while, and since he served as governor of Massachusetts,” and suggested that they raise “character questions” about Romney. Like most of the press, the Globe thus gave significant coverage to the reference to “an Etch a Sketch” by Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom despite the ambiguity of the statement in question. Johnson himself wrote that “the Etch a Sketch comment affirmed… basic truths about the candidate, his staff, and the nature of the campaign they have run for the nation’s highest office,” including the fact that “there appear to be few core beliefs that bind Romney to any governing or political philosophy.”

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Why have Obama and Romney’s “evolutions” been covered so differently? As Joshua Green of Bloomberg Businessweek noted on Twitter, the difference between the candidates is far less clear than the media coverage would suggest. In both cases, electoral incentives are the primary factor shaping the positions that candidates publicly profess. When those incentives change, so do their positions.

The reason is that it’s necessarily difficult to win election if you hold unpopular views. Our political system selects for candidates who have appealing messages and platforms and creates incentives for them to further adapt those messages to the preferences of the electorate. When candidates don’t adapt—e.g., Jon Huntsman in the most recent Republican presidential primary—they lose. (Which is not to say that they are consciously lying: politicians also face strong incentives to sincerely adopt the views that are necessary to receive a major party nomination and/or win a general election.)

In this case, Obama and Romney each adopted an initial set of positions that were helpful in seeking office given the constituencies to whom they were appealing—primary voters in a liberal state senate district (Obama) or general election voters in a Democratic state (Romney). As they ran for higher office, they changed and adapted those positions to better match the preferences of primary and general election voters at the state and national levels. The mismatch between Obama’s state senate district and the national electorate was quite severe, but he was protected by the fact that his position changes were mostly made under relatively little scrutiny during his freakishly easy campaign for the US Senate in 2004 and were considered old news by 2008. By contrast, Romney has been forced to revise his initially moderate positions under the hot lights of the 2008 and 2012 presidential primary campaigns, which caused him to develop a reputation as a flip-flopper with no “core.”

The difference in their circumstances—and Romney’s lack of skill at glossing over his changed views—help explain the disparity in media coverage. The underlying problem, though, is the media’s authenticity fetish. Reporters should of course fact-check false and misleading claims from political figures and pressure candidates and their surrogates to be truthful. Journalists have an important role to play in pushing back when candidates dissemble about their opponents or their policy proposals. But in a system in which politicians must adapt their own views to a shifting electorate, the media’s focus on discovering the “real” person behind the candidate’s public statements frequently produces pathological coverage. The straight-talking politician who always says what he thinks and never changes his mind for political reasons is a fiction. In a democracy like ours, true honesty is the price of representation.

Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at brendan-nyhan.com and tweets @BrendanNyhan.