The Flip-Flop Obsession

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It’s hard to remember now, but there was once a time when “flip-flop” was not the scarlet letter of presidential politics. I remember getting off the train in Boston, on my way to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, only to find two young Republican activists dressed like human-sized sandals. It took me a moment to understand that they were calling John Kerry cheap footwear. And I thought to myself, well that’s cute, but it will never really work.

Oh, but it did, not only with the sandals, but the windsurfing back and forth. The most frustrating thing is that the flip-flop charge that most stuck–Kerry voted for war funding before he voted against it–was almost entirely without merit. It had nothing to do with Kerry waffling on a key issue, and everything to do with a complex voting process in the Senate. It was exactly the kind of “flip-flop” that does not mean what it seems to mean. His bigger problem–he had once supported the Iraq war, but by then opposed it–was the sort of “flip-flop” that politicians should be proud to make. Would we rather that they stubbornly stick with what they view as mistakes just so they could avoid the flip-flop charge?

But the legacy of Bush/Cheney ’04 remains, and Democrats have apparently learned their lesson. The core message of the Obama/DNC campaign is that McCain has flip-flopped on all his old maverick image. The key message of the McCain/RNC campaign is that Obama is an opportunist who will flip-flop when it helps him politically. And so it goes. Every day, flip-flop charges bang up against the political press like moths on a screen door. And we let some of them in, sometimes with the unexamined conceit that any shift in position is a window into the candidate’s lack of character, toughness or principle.

So how do we cull the moths to separate bogus flip-flop charge from valuable one? Does it matter that in Obama’s new ad he is boasting of promoting welfare reform that he originally opposed? Should it matter that McCain’s call for offshore oil drilling contradicts his past positions? What about Obama’s shifts on public financing or the DC gun ban? Or McCain’s reversal on the 2001 Bush tax cuts? Or Obama’s shift on the FISA bill? Or the unending emails I get about specific votes that prove Senator X or Senator Y has been on two sides of every issue, even though every Senate bills often bundle together a dozen issues forcing Senators to vote yes for things they don’t like and no for things they like?
(My answers, sort of, after the jump.)

The answers, unfortunately, are not easy. The three questions that matter most are these: Is the change substantial, or superficial? Was it done for political expediency? Was it done to fool the voting public? If you just watch the Youtube montages attacking the candidates as rudderless, which flatten any shift into an outrage with selective quotes, you are likely to be misled. For example, it seems to me a much bigger deal that McCain now supports the Bush tax cuts he once railed against, than it is that he decided to support the G.I. Bill, even though he fought against key parts of it before it passed. In the same way, I am not sure it matters so much that Obama opposed welfare reform in the mid-1990s, and now supports it. (It worked, after all, say most experts.) But it might be a real concern that he is now boasting of welfare reform in his ads, as if he had always supported it, and this shows what a visionary he is.

The bottom line to an otherwise overlong blog post is this: Both of these candidates are now pandering heavy to the general election body politic, just as they pandered heavy to the primary public. (On this point, see my last story about McCain’s immigration dance.) But all panders are not created equal, and not everything that can be called a flip-flop is a mark of shame. The world is not so simple that every politician should always stick by their old positions, regardless of the world’s changes around them. If anyone needs evidence of this, they need only look so far as the stubborn failures of the current White House occupant.