This editorial originally appeared in the June 11 Chicago Tribune.
During the 2004 presidential campaign, you could buy a pair of flip-flop sandals bearing the image of John Kerry. The product was a droll dig at the Democratic nominee’s penchant for changing his positions — on the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, NAFTA and more. The senator didn’t help himself with a line about funding to rebuild Iraq: “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”
Republicans — and some Democrats — may now be wondering what size flip-flops to order for Joe Biden. He provoked a hail of criticism within his party by saying he supported the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of federal funds to pay for abortion, except in case of rape, incest or danger to the mother’s life.
Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and other rivals in the Democratic primary race for president immediately reiterated their opposition to the rule. The issue “should be nonnegotiable for all Democrats,” said Kirsten Gillibrand.
Biden’s position was an old one, going back to that forgotten era when Democrats comfortably tolerated dissent on abortion. Sensing serious trouble, he soon did an about-face, stating, “If I believe health care is a right, as I do, I can no longer support an amendment that makes that right dependent on someone’s ZIP code.”
A sudden reversal on a major issue under heavy pressure can be taken as a symptom of spinelessness. It can also be taken as a shrewd recognition of campaign realities, or even as a welcome sign of open-mindedness on policy. But whatever it reveals, the practice is hardly unique to Biden. Just about all politicians change their positions on some things sooner or later.
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Sanders voted against federal background checks in 1993, but in 2016 he embraced requiring them for all firearm purchases. Gillibrand got an “A” from the National Rifle Association when she was representing an upstate New York district in the House but an “F” in the Senate. Harris, who opposed legalization of recreational marijuana as attorney general of California, supports it now.
None of these switches should be taken as disqualifying. When public opinion changes — on gun control, pot or anything else — elected officials and candidates have an obligation to take notice, both as a demonstration of intellectual humility and in deference to the need to stay in step with constituents.
Sometimes concrete developments call for reexamining one’s views. Sanders and Gillibrand can cite any number of mass shootings as grounds to make it harder for dangerous people to buy guns. The experience of Colorado and Washington after they allowed recreational cannabis may have been reassuring to Harris.
Republicans are hardly immune to this temptation. Donald Trump used to favor abortion rights and a ban on “assault weapons,” neither of which he supports now. Mitt Romney pounded Barack Obama for a federal health care program that was based on the Massachusetts program created under a governor named … Mitt Romney.
If pressed, Biden and others can always fall back on the wisdom of Winston Churchill, who switched parties not once but twice and exhibited no regrets. “Those who never change their minds,” he declared, “never change anything.”
Expecting politicians to arrive at the right policy is expecting a lot. We would not want to be too hard on those who take a detour getting there.