Mt. Rushmore

For those of you who missed Bruce J. Schulman’s perceptive and fascinating op-ed “Beware the politician who won’t flip-flop” in the LA Times a few weeks ago, the Boston University history professor argues that flip-flopping has a long, venerable (!), and necessary (!!) history among even some very renowned presidents and, when it reflects flexibility or the good of the nation, can be very beneficial indeed:

‘In American politics, the flip-flop can be fatal. […]

‘Nearly all the major presidential candidates are already scurrying — more than a year and a half before the election — to defend themselves against charges that they have reversed themselves on fundamental issues of policy in a shameless pandering for votes.

Schulman provides a useful thumbnail sketch of todays’ candidates’ turnarounds:

‘Among the leading Republicans, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has switched sides on abortion, gun control and same-sex marriage (all from pro to anti). Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has chas on partial-birth abortion and gun control (both from pro to anti). And Sen. John McCain has flip-flopped on Bush’s tax cut (from no to no problem), and late last month, he appeared to waffle in his support for creating a legal path to citizenship for undocumented workers.

‘On the Democratic side, it’s all about hypocrisy on Iraq. Critics recently scorched Sen. Barack Obama for repeatedly voting for Iraq appropriations while claiming unwavering opposition to the war — he wants, they said, to have it both ways. Former Sen. John Edwards renounced his 2002 vote for the war, and though he’d like to say it was a matter of principle rather than convenience, not everyone agrees. And Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton turns rhetorical cartwheels in her continuing effort to distance herself from her vote to authorize the Iraq war without technically repudiating it. […]

‘In election years, voters have a tendency to look past the issues at the character of the candidates; they want to support a candidate they can trust and whose values they feel they understand. They fear that a candidate who changes position is one who is pandering, poll watching or abandoning long-held views for short-term political gain. […]

Schulman’s exploration of the historical record is illuminating, especially since his three non-contemporary examples who have ultimately lent their likenesses to coins we handle every day:

‘[But] the nation’s most respected presidents, from the founding generation to modern times, have proudly and, in some cases, defiantly flip-flopped on important issues. […]

Jefferson brushed aside his constitutional views about limited federal power and his abhorrence of public debt and acquired the Louisiana Territory, even using borrowed money to finance the deal. […]

‘…Lincoln flip-flopped on the slavery issue, considering plans for compensated emancipation and ultimately issuing the proclamation that slaves in the territory under rebellion would be “forever free.” […]

‘No American statesman flip-flopped more artfully than Franklin D. Roosevelt. His 1932 presidential rival, Herbert Hoover, ripped him as a “chameleon in plaid,” denouncing FDR’s frequent policy reversals. Nevertheless, Roosevelt boasted about his commitment to “bold, persistent experimentation.” … “It is common sense to take a method and try it,” he explained. “If it fails, admit it frankly and try another.” […]

‘Roosevelt’s flip-flops saved U.S. capitalism, established the nation’s social safety net and defeated Nazism. […]

‘Jefferson and his successors learned that changing circumstances sometimes require compromising your principles.’

In Schulman’s opinion, Giuliani and Romney have been worse flip-floppers than the Democrats on Iraq because the situation there has changed much more profoundly than guns or gay marriage over the time period it took each respective candidate to switch positions. That is a partisan view, though, and Reality Check is determinedly independent from any candidate, party, or agenda.

More philosophically interesting is his insight that consistency is not always necessarily best for a candidate or for the nation, even if it can often serve as a useful proxy for strong personal beliefs. George W. Bush, whose approval ratings hover below 40%, has been so famously commited to his chosen courses of action (if not always rhetoric) that during his infamous White House Press Corps remarks Stephen Colbert joked that Bush will believe the same thing on Wednesday that he did Monday, no matter what happens on Tuesday. Despite the American electorate’s proven aversion to flip-flops, over 60% of them are less than thrilled with someone who steadfastly refuses to flip-flop on an unpopular war, a plan for comprehensive immigration reform that is rejected by both sides, and his support for beleagured Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez even after many prominent Republicans have called for his resignation.

As we indicate in our mission statement, Reality Check has nothing against flip-flopping, reframing, rethinking, or whatever word candidates will choose to describe their changes of heart in the most self-serving way. Our only beef is when candidates mislead the public by trying to hide or deny their records. Politicians have every right to change whatever position they think will prove best for their campaigns and/or the nation, and Reality Check is here to make sure that they’re accountable for it.

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