How 'evolved' got to be the new 'flip-flopped' in presidential campaigns

Many of the 2016 presidential candidates could be said to have 'evolved.' Marco Rubio and Scott Walker once supported a limited path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, but now they don't.

David Goldman/AP
Republican presidential candidate Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker speaks at the RedState Gathering Aug. 8, 2015, in Atlanta.

“Evolve.” Politicians’ euphemism to explain their shifts on issues when public opinion changes.

Politicians, of course, never want to admit to having been wrong. “Evolve” helps them portray themselves as serious, enlightened, and open-minded, while putting a considerable distance between themselves and what they once believed.

“The use of ‘evolve’ as a euphemism continues a long tradition among public figures, namely, framing uncomfortable revelations in a way that diminishes their own role in them,” New York Times political writer and “This Town” author Mark Leibovich observed.

Of the 2016 White House hopefuls, tycoon Donald Trump has been the most open evolver. At last week’s presidential debate, co-moderator Megyn Kelly of Fox News pressed Trump on just when he actually became a Republican – considering that he has donated tens of thousands of dollars to Democratic candidates, that Hillary Clinton was a guest at his (third) wedding, and that he had switched his views to opposing abortion rights, among other policy changes.

“I’ll tell you what: I’ve evolved on many issues over the years. And you know who else has? Ronald Reagan evolved on many issues,” Trump replied, showing his the-best-defense-is-a-good-offense approach to campaigning.

The most blatant evolution of recent years has been President Obama’s change of heart over same-sex marriage – which, before it occurred, inspired progressive champion Elizabeth Warren and many others on the left to publicly prod him. “I want to see the president evolve because I believe that is right; marriage equality is morally right,” said Warren in 2012, when she was running for the US Senate in Massachusetts.

Many of the other 2016 candidates could be said to have evolved. Sen. Marco Rubio (R) of Florida once favored at least a limited pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrations, but he reversed course under pressure from Republican activists. Or consider Bobby Jindal, who as Louisiana governor flipped his approach to Common Core federal education standards. Louisiana adopted them in 2010 with Jindal’s blessing. But he later disowned the initiative as the presidential race loomed and likely conservative primary voters expressed vehement opposition.

But perhaps in an attempt to avoid sounding too much like Obama, those candidates appear to be staying away from actually saying the word. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), for one, was extremely up front about his shift on immigration policy.

Walker had, for more than a decade, supported at least some form of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, but he took a different tack when his presidential bid got under way. “My view has changed; I’m flat-out saying it,” Walker told host Chris Wallace in March.

Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark write their "Speaking Politics" blog exclusively for Politics Voices.

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