For a candidate seeking elected office, allegations of flip-flopping on issues can be deadly. Hillary Clinton is frequently targeted for her opposition to gay marriage rights as recently as 2004, and her opponent Bernie Sanders is likewise singled out for his moderate record on gun control. It is understandable that we expect our leaders to be consistent and principled, and that votes are cast by this measure of a candidate’s character. Yet this also results in criticism and dismissal of those who appear to be calculating, who seem willing to say anything to get elected. Not only is this reasoning severely restricting, but it is also illogical.
Liberals are quick to applaud representatives who have fought for progressive policies long before they became trendy. Sanders regularly receives praise for his support of the LGBT community in the 1980s, when doing so nationally was akin to political suicide. But in liberal Vermont, Sanders was re-elected time and time again. However, had the Clintons done the same and voiced opposition to the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, their careers would have swiftly come to an end decades ago, with no chance of revival even if the times caught up with them. This attitude continued all the way to the 2008 election, when, in accordance with public opinion, the major candidates of both parties, including President Obama, refused to support gay marriage rights.
In last week’s Democratic presidential debate, Sanders was left scrambling to defend his past stance on gun control. He credits this to the damage a liberal view on guns can do in a rural state like Vermont, and the facts back him up. Though Sanders was mayor of Burlington for most of the 1980s, he lost in statewide elections six times, finally winning in 1990 with the help of the NRA. Similar transformations by candidates can be seen regarding the Iraq war, crime bills, free trade and more. These are not merely afterthought issues, but front-and-center ones, and they reveal a paradox in the minds of voters. We expect legislators to do the right thing no matter public opinion, yet crush them at the polls if they act against the wishes of their constituency. As a lawmaker, to bravely stand up when the majority is wrong — a judgment only possible in hindsight — is to be doomed to irrelevance in the next election.
Candidates can give speeches or run ads to convince citizens to think one way, but ultimately, every politically significant figure today has, at one time or another, pandered to the 51 percent. This is not disappointing; it’s reassuring. Instead of demanding from them apologies for prior shortcomings, we can find comfort in our considerable influence over policy, and that as our views evolve, so too will our representatives.
Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.
Email Akshay Prabhushankar at [email protected]