Reversals in politics are typically cast as character blights. So for politicians preparing major flip-flops, the best defense is often a character-defining offense. Mitt Romney loves to tell a story about his principled realization that abortion should be outlawed–despite his previous promise to keep it legal–as a tale of his own moral enlightenment. On Monday, when Barack Obama’s campaign reversed its previous pledge to keep a distance from big-spending independent expenditure groups known as super PACs, campaign manager Jim Messina tried to spin it as a tough-guy equality thing. “We Will Not Play By Two Sets Of Rules,” ran the headline of the blog post announcing the switch.
But there is more in common between the two flip-flops than just the spin. In both cases, the changes in position hit a hard to find political sweet spot: They were both politically expeditious and more intellectually defensible than each politician’s previous position.
Let’s start with Romney. He ran for Senate in Massachusetts saying that he was personally anti-abortion, but respected the decisions of women who choose otherwise. This works from a distance, but the issue of life is a hard one to meet halfway. He never publicly wrestled with the questions his position raised: Was an unborn fetus in the first trimester an independent life? Did Romney therefore believe that some lives can be taken? By reversing course, he settled this problem, and smoothed his path as a national Republican.
Obama’s previous position on super PACs was also intellectually dicey. In 2007, Obama argued that John Edwards had the power to shut down an independent campaign run on his behalf in Iowa by former aides. “The fact is this is someone who worked for John Edwards, for the last who knows how many years, who’s a good friend and colleague of Edwards, who’s now running a 527 that is running ads on behalf of John Edwards,” Obama told reporters at a diner in West Des Moines. “You are telling me he has no influence over him? That’s not true. If Robert Gibbs started running a 527 and I called Robert and said, ‘Stop running ads on my behalf,’ are you suggesting I would have no influence over Robert Gibbs?”
This is almost exactly the situation that Obama now found himself in with Priorities USA, a super PAC founded by Gibbs’ former right-hand man, Bill Burton. By making a show of opposing Burton’s effort, Obama opened himself up to the same question he posed to Edwards: Why not call Burton and tell him to shut it down?
Now that problem is solved. Obama officially likes what Burton is doing–at least the part that discloses its donors. Obama’s flip-flop had made him more consistent.