McCain on Gay Marriage

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Since I've been defending Governor Mitt Romney (R-MA) from flip-flop charges, and since he's my favored candidate for the Republican nomination for president for 2008, some might conclude that I'm just saying what I can in favor of him and would then say what I can against his opponents for that nomination. Not so. I think it's important to represent every candidate fairly and accurately, whether the person is my favored candidate or not. For that reason I feel compelled to respond to one of the lamest flip-flop charges I've ever seen, worse even than some of the pretty poor ones leveled against Senator John Kerry (D-MA) in the 2004 race (not that all the charges against Kerry were baseless, but some were just awful, particularly when it comes to his position on abortion, which I think is immoral but is certainly consistent even if he didn't always explain it well).

In several places I've seen people charging Senator John McCain (R-AZ) with flip-flopping on gay marriage not across some long period of time in separate decades (as is the case with the Romney charges) but within minutes, indeed even from one side of a commercial break to another. I'll limit my linking to just the Evangelicals for Mitt posting, since there's a video of it there. As far as I can tell, anyone making this charge is outright misrepresenting the senator or completely incapable of understanding what he said, because I see exactly one position before the break and after it.

Here are Senator McCain's words before the break:

I think, I think that gay marriage should be allowed if there's a ceremony kind of thing, if you want to call it that. I don't have any problem with that, but I do believe in preserving the sanctity of the union between a man and a woman."

Here are his words after the break:

On the issue of gay marriage, I believe that if people want to have private ceremonies that's fine. I do not believe that gay marriage should be legal.

Now isn't it completely unfair to portray Senator McCain as, as some have put it, having been in favor of gay marriage before he was against it? I see these two statements as offering one, completely consistent and very popular view. The only difficulty lies in an ambiguity in the term 'gay marriage', an ambiguity that McCain is trying to clear up in both statements. He isn't as clear as he could be, as is usually the case with any politician.

His position is clear enough. If by the term 'gay marriage', you mean gay people having ceremonies and getting married, he has no problem with that. He's a social libertarian, and people should be free to do what they want to with that sort of thing. If rather you mean that the U.S. government or state governments should recognize such unions as the same thing as marriage between a man and a woman, he doesn't favor that. He is against legalizing that, but he has no problem with the ceremonies themselves being legal. Both statements say exactly that, and the only difficulty is that he's trying to clarify himself to an audience that his advisors think must be too stupid to realize that he's doing that. Judging by the commentary on this, I think it's rather the political talking heads who are too stupid to figure out that this is his position.

Now at best there's a charge that Senator McCain isn't good at making fine distinctions in a way that people who want to jump on everything he says can understand them. Of course, the same is true of most politicians. I happen to think McCain is way out of touch with the conservative base and is certainly not motivated by what motivates social conservatives, even if he's officially toeing the line he thinks social conservatives would expect. But this isn't evidence of that at all. What happened here has nothing to do with what motivates his views but is simply about how hard it is to state the view succinctly while emphasizing both points he wants to make. It certainly doesn't mean he's flip-flopping, and those who are using this to make him out to be one ought to be ashamed of themselves. I think those who see this as evidence of his insincerity on social conservative issues are also barking up the wrong tree. There may be evidence of that in the public record, and I do think it's probably true, but this isn't such evidence.

Update: Nancy French, the author of the Evangelicals for Mitt post, has possibly changed her mind on McCain's views before and after the commercial break. She doesn't say I'm right, but she thinks I might be right and directs her readers to evaluate for themselves after reading this post.

4 Comments

In the first statement he says: I think gay marriage should be allowed if...

In the second he says: I do not think gay marriage should be legal.

He contradicted his first statement. Marriage is a legal thing. How could he allow it and make it illegal? He verbally flip-flopped, probably at the advice of a campaign adviser. I quite like the fact that you highlighted both of his statements. It was so much easier to see his BS.

It's pretty obvious that the content of "gay marriage" that he'd allow in the first statement is the same thing his second statement would allow. It's also quite clear that the content of "gay marriage" that he doesn't allow in the second statement is not the same as what he does allow in the first. Your argument depends on a classic equivocation. If you assume that what he calls gay marriage is the same in both statements, then of course there's a problem, but it's clear in context that he doesn't. He in fact defines the term in each sentence, and he defines it very differently in each case. So there's no reason at all to think he's contradicting himself any more than there is if someone said, "I'm opposed to banks if you mean financial institutions where you store your money, but I have no problems with banks if you mean sandy beaches alongside rivers."

I believe people should not be attacking John McCain for his position (or the lack there of) on gay marraige bedause Barack Obama has had the same issue when asked about gun control.

You're right that those who push inconsistency arguments or flip-flop arguments should be equally willing to push them on both candidates. But I don't see how Obama on guns is in the same category as McCain on this issue. Obama has much less to stand on when you make that particular comparison. Obama actually changed his position on gun control at least twice, though. He once thought it was ok to ban all guns. Then he thought states and cities should be able to ban guns if they want to but not have to if they don't, insisting that the D.C. ban was perfectly ok. Then he thought the Supreme Court made the right decision by saying the D.C. law was a bad ban. That would all be fine, except that he says his position was constant through all this.

I don't know if McCain has changed his position on gay marriae once, never mind twice, and I also don't know if he's claimed never to have changed his mind on it. The example in this post certainly isn't an indication that he changed his position or that he's confused on the issue.

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