Candidates should change their minds about important public policy issues as they learn things about the effectiveness of existing policies. Few do - probably because we award stability and "stick-with-it-ness." We think this signals strength and fortitude or a deep knowledge of what will really work. All of this is to say that I'm all for candidates learning - and ultimately changing their positions on important issues. In fact, as a researcher and scholar, I applaud it.
With great ease on Thursday night, Sarah Palin changed her position on gay equality.
On Thursday night, Palin said "[N]o one would ever propose, not in a McCain-Palin administration, to do anything to prohibit, say, visitations in a hospital or contracts being signed ...".
Really? I couldn't believe what I was hearing. My colleague and friend Tim Groseclose described it as a great moment for Anthony Downs, an Economist who modeled party behavior in terms of the median voter theorem. In Downs's world, party positions on issues converge to the position of the median voter as candidates compete for votes. In Downs's world, parties care about winning elections, not about policies. Somehow, I don't think that's true for McCain/Palin.
But, it made me curious, so I looked. What is the position of the median American on gay equality? The National Election Study (NES) asks Americans to rate the LGBT population on a "feeling thermometer" (a tool that asks people to represent their warm or cold feeling for a group or a person by rating them on a 0 to 100 point scale). The first rating for homosexuals (the NES wording, not mine) comes in 1984, when the average ranking was 30 (rather cold). Today, with the same wording, the average temperature is about 50 - a decidedly neutral feeling. Coincidentally, the proportion of people who rate gays and lesbians at zero (the coldest possible rating) has declined steadily over the last 25 years, reaching a contemporary low of about 11 percent (down from 25 percent in the 1980s).
What is even more striking is the increase in support among Americans in support of equal employment rights for gay and lesbian applicants. The NES shows that in 1977 only 55 percent of the population thought gay and lesbian job applicants should be treated equally. Today, there is overwhelming support for this proposition: over 90 percent of the population supports employment non-discrimination for the LGBT population. Further evidence from Gallup shows that 79 percent of Americans think "Don't Ask/Don't Tell" should be repealed and 63 percent support changing existing federal hate crimes legislation to include crimes against lesbian and gay people.
Hmm ... so the candidates of both parties have a way to go before converging to the median.
So, I assume Palin was describing the McCain administration's position on gay equality as she did because she knows that public sentiment on this issue is lopsided and the majority is on the other side from she and McCain. Most people favor extending civil rights equality to same-sex couples (and indeed all non-married but committed couples). But the instrumental nature of Palin's change in position on this issue bothered me. The problem was, I didn't actually believe Palin. In fact, just last year, Palin told Newsweek magazine that she would support expanding Alaska's anti-gay constitutional amendment to ban benefits for gay couples--a stark contrast to her newly adopted gay-equality position announced on Thursday.
Palin plainly told Newsweek in 2007 that she would pursue an amendment to the state constitution if that were what it took to deny same-sex couples the benefits that legally married couples enjoy. No equality there.
To be clear, we are talking about things like allowing the life-long best friend and partner of a dying person to be allowed to enter the ICU of a hospital to visit his or her partner who is fighting for life. Anyone who has ever sat by the side of a hospital bed and watched someone they deeply care about die knows how hard it is to get through these days. Anyone who has ever been sick in the hospital knows how difficult it is to deal with being unwell, with the inability to sleep, and with the slow passage of time through the hours and days. To deny people the chance to be together at the ends of their lives seems cruel and insensitive to me. To be frank, I don't understand it at all.
Palin tip-toed around her true positions on this issue and then, when pressed to be clear by the moderator, she plainly and obviously answered a different question. One after another, her answers to these questions were instrumental to the point of offending me. Perhaps it was her self-congratulatory, immodest smile that slipped to her face as she recognized that she was "besting" Gwen Ifill by completely ignoring her direct question. Clever.
Perhaps Palin hedged because she is embarrassed by her true positions. If so, good for her, she should be. More likely, she was trying not to offend the majority of the American population who support gay equality because she wants to be the next vice president of the United States. I realize politicians do things like this with some regularity, but the manner in which she did it and the nature of this issue affected me in a way that makes it hard for me to write it off as "typical campaigning." On sensitive moral and cultural issues involving civil rights, it seems to me that American candidates need to be thoughtful, honest, and sensitive in their rhetoric and presentation.
Unfortunately for Palin, the past is the best predictor of the future, and smart, efficient voters understand that the best indicator of what a politician is likely to do in office is what they have already done in office.
No wonder Palin wants us to stop thinking about the past. Hers is quite unattractive.