Well, I think we saw some of that in the mosque controversy, where the president first set out a very clear and ringing principle, and then retreated from it significantly.

Saturday, when he qualified his unqualified endorsement of Friday night, was that helpful? No.

The first quote is from Michael Gerson and the second is from Mark Shields, both speaking Friday evening on PBS. Having the two of them “face off” is PBS’s idea of controversy. In other contexts, I have called this “politics between the 45-yard lines.”

But the narrowness of the differences is not my point here. My point is that neither seems to understand a principle. The Friday night speech that Shields referred to was one in which Barack Obama defended property rights and the freedom of religion. He expressed his view that people who own property have a right to build a mosque on it. On Saturday, he said that he would not comment on the wisdom of building a mosque.

In no way did Obama back down from his principled defense. Yet neither Gerson nor Shields could see that. One can defend someone’s right to do something without saying that doing that thing is good, right, or desirable. Notice that here, by the way, even the MSNBC headline writer showed an inability to make the distinction. The headline, “Obama Defends Plan to Build Mosque Near Ground Zero” is inaccurate. At no point in his speech on that Friday night did he defend the plan. Instead, he defended people’s right to carry out the plan.

It’s not really surprising that neither Shields nor Gerson nor the headline writer understands the difference between defending someone’s right to do something and defending the doing of it. This same confusion occurs frequently in political discussion. So, for example, if I defend someone’s right to buy a yacht, I can be accused, inaccurately, of saying that it’s a good idea for that person to buy a yacht. Etc.

Now, if only Barack Obama would become a consistent defender of property rights, that would be impressive.