The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why ‘evolution’ is a win for gay marriage

Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz), the father of a gay son, explained his opposition to gay marriage by saying he hasn't "evolved to that stage.”

He may not be joining same-sex marriage supporters. But he's adopting their vocabulary. (Remember the evolution of Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, California Sen. Barbara Boxer, and Secretary of State John Kerry, among others.) Now Republicans looking for breathing room on gay marriage are joining in. How did "evolving" become so prevalent?

While a Hillary Clinton spokesman did say back in 2003 that "this issue is in a state of evolution,” President Obama gets the credit here. His 2010 comment that on gay marriage "attitudes evolve, including mine," -- followed by repeated White House confirmations that the president was "evolving" -- made evolution the verb of choice. Reporters and gay advocates pressed the White House for years -- had Obama evolved yet? At a June 2011 White House reception, columnist Dan Savage wore a button that said "Evolve Already."

Obama obviously chose "evolve" as a way to buy himself time with gay supporters. And he may have inspired a lot of eye-rolling among those supporters by doing so. But he stumbled on a word that has come to help them as much as it helped him.

Evolution implies forward movement and change; once a politician starts to evolve, the implication is that he or she won't stop. So for Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to describe herself as "evolving" implies that she will come to one day support gay marriage. Likewise, for Salmon to say he hasn't evolved implies some failing on his part.

"Back when President Obama was still evolving, there were an awful lot of individuals who were criticizing him for the use of that word, and I always thought it was genius," said Fred Sainz, spokesman for Human Rights Campaign. "Evolution kind of captures that journey in that many good-hearted people are on."

A reminder of how many Americans have "evolved" on this issue since 2004, when the less-complimentary "flip-flop" was in vogue:

When politicians say they've evolved, it not only gives them political cover; it flatters voters who have changed their views but don't want to be told that they were ever wrong. Both pols and plebeians get to cast themselves as deep thinkers rather than wishy-washy trend followers.

There are still detractors. John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University, called the use "a weaselly business ... the recruitment of a noble word as a fig leaf for political opportunism."

Maybe so. But it's working. More proof: Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), trying to push his party on immigration, suggested they "evolve."