Backbone, Consistency and Standing Your Ground

BY Gwen Ifill  March 23, 2012 at 3:54 PM EDT

I’ve spent a fair amount of time this week pondering what it means to stand one’s ground.

The term has taken on a new, disturbing meaning as the story of the shooting of an unarmed Florida teenager took on a life of its own. I don’t know anyone who’s ever loved a boy who was not unnerved by this. Florida’s self-defense law, known as “Stand Your Ground,” allows citizens who feel they are in imminent danger to protect themselves — with a gun, if need be.

The idea of protecting oneself, one’s family and one’s property from intruders is so appealing that 21 states have adopted some version of the law. In this case, the protections of the Florida law appeared to have allowed 28-year-old George Zimmerman to escape immediate arrest and prosecution for shooting 17-year-old Trayvon Martin dead late last month. Martin was walking through a gated community with candy and a can of iced tea.

The uproar consumed the blogosphere, talk shows, newspaper front pages, black radio and innumerable kitchen table conversations. Does standing one’s ground mean defending oneself no matter what? And when civil rights leaders in Sanford, Fla., later declared “the line has been drawn in the sand,” weren’t they too standing their ground?

Standing one’s ground sounds great. It signals courage and backbone. Politicians have been trading in this currency forever. They call it leadership, and voters usually agree.

Standing one’s ground has political — as well as social — consequences, as we have seen this week, and that brings us to Mitt Romney. As I have written in this space before, the former Massachusetts governor and still likely GOP presidential nominee cannot shake his chief weakness — the perception that he is too flexible.

This reputation, rooted in his days as the Republican governor of a notoriously blue state, has dogged him throughout the primaries. Fueled by the determined pursuit of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, the Romney-as-unreliable meme has now become a recurring topic on the trail.

And just when he seemed to regain the sense of inevitability that he wore as a frontrunner’s cape by scoring a decisive win in Illinois, his chief spokesman reminded everyone of his candidate’s chief weakness.

Appearing on a CNN talk show, strategist Eric Fehrnstrom responded to a question about whether Romney would be able to veer back toward the center during a general election campaign after repeatedly trumpeting his conservative bona fides during the primary season

“Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign,” he said. “Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and start all over again.”
Let us pause here to say this made the folks at Obama headquarters in Chicago very, very happy.

By the end of the day Wednesday, Romney was trying to clean up the day’s mini-storm by stating flatly that his issues would be “exactly the same” in the fall general election. But by then, the Romney campaign had — not for the first time — committed another unforced error, and on the very day he should have been celebrating his win in Illinois and a Jeb Bush endorsement. Gingrich and Santorum promptly got hold of Etch A Sketches to brandish on the campaign trail. A Santorum aide even raced to a Romney event in Maryland to hand out the toys to reporters.

We cannot resist a toy. And we cannot resist a kerfuffle that plays into a preconceived notion.

But we do like consistency. I was reminded of that this week when I sat down on Capitol Hill to interview retiring Sens. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M. As we chatted before the interview began, it hit me how long it had been since I had been able to get senators of opposing parties to sit down next to each other for a joint interview. At best, we are only able to get Republicans and Democrats to sit down “back to back,” rather than engage each other directly.

Bingaman and Snowe, of course, who represent the vanishing middle in their parties, are on their way out of the Senate. Their consistency is rooted in a firm belief in the value of bipartisanship. But Democrats on the left and Republicans on the right have come to treat the search for common ground as a sign of unreliability.

“There’s not much of a center,” Snowe told me. “And we have to decide that the institution has to not only solve problems, but the American people have to give rewards to those people and individuals who are willing to work across party lines. There are no political rewards for that today.”

So often our ideals clash with our actions, whether in life or in politics or in standing your ground.

Gwen’s Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.