Flaws and Flip-Flops

28 Apr, 2011

By Doug Pinkham
Public Affairs Council President

April 28, 2011

As a growing number of Republicans line up to announce they are considering the very real possibility of maybe running for president, media pundits and political opponents have been quick to point out their weaknesses. Some candidates have personal flaws that are hard to defend – Newt Gingrich’s marital infidelity, Michele Bachmann’s fact-challenged speeches and Donald Trump’s entire life’s work come to mind.

But others’ most serious crime has been a tendency to “flip-flop” on key political issues. Mitt Romney passed health care reform in Massachusetts but now opposes the Affordable Care Act.  Tim Pawlenty reversed his stand on cap-and-trade legislation. Mike Huckabee raised taxes numerous times while governor of Arkansas, but is now against tax hikes.

The flip-flop charge is a staple in political campaigns; Republicans and Democrats use this strategy to denigrate opponents – even those from their own party. (Early in the 2008 presidential primaries, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker column listed the “Top 10 Flip-Flops” for Obama/Clinton and McCain/Romney.)

Flaws and flip-flops are fair game in politics. But some flaws are more serious than others. And, depending on the circumstances, a record of flip-flopping may reflect a willingness to be open to new ideas.

Matthew Cooper, in the April 21 National Journalsays flip-flops often represent evolved thinking:

Somewhere along the way, the charge of flip-flopping became one of the deadliest in politics-the shorthand for a lack of character. By contrast, a politician who didn’t change his or her mind, or who vowed to be uninterested in polls, was considered to be of a higher caliber. But there is a case for flip-flopping, or what might be called being human. After all, almost anyone with common sense has probably evolved on some position or another. A new poll from CNN shows that 51 percent of Americans now think that same-sex marriage ought to be legal. Is that flip-flopping, or growth? Instead of excoriating pols who change their mind, we should be asking why they did-and if their new positions are better than their old ones.

Cooper points out that Franklin Roosevelt supported a balanced budget when he ran for president, but endorsed deficit spending to keep the economy going. At the start of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln did not favor ending slavery in the South, but just wanted to preserve the Union.  It took two years for him to call for immediate abolition.

While I’m not ready to compare Romney to Lincoln, both clearly had a change of heart on major policy issues. What’s important is whether Romney and other modern-day candidates made their policy switches sincerely or opportunistically.

Crass opportunism is easy to spot. In early March, as news of Gaddafi’s attacks on civilians in Libya surfaced, Gingrich told Fox News the United States should “exercise a no-fly zone this evening.” After the U.N.-authorized intervention began two weeks later, he told NBC that, as president, he “would not have used American and European forces, bombing Arabs and that country.”

But is it opportunism for Romney to defend the Massachusetts health care plan while attacking the Affordable Care Act? “My experience has taught me that the states are the place where health care programs for the uninsured should be crafted, just as the Constitution provides,” he said in a speech last month. In other words, he defended the Massachusetts law as a states-right issue, which gave him room to call for repeal of the federal law.

Fair enough – and this defense may make Romney acceptable to GOP voters. Romney’s approach also illustrates which tactics work when one is accused of opportunistic flip-flopping.

USA Today’s Susan Page lists the strategies candidates often use to counter their weaknesses. Romney uses an “explain and defend” strategy, she says, because his health care law has long been considered his greatest policy achievement. Huckabee has taken the same approach when explaining why, as Arkansas governor, he commuted the prison sentence of a teenager who later killed four police offers.

Pawlenty, on the other hand, chose to apologize in various appearances for his misstatement in January that he “never did sign a bill relating to cap-and-trade.”  His mea culpa won positive commentary from conservative writers, Page writes.  Haley Barbour, meanwhile, used other strategies to try to offset his weaknesses. But given Barbour’s announcement this week that he won’t run for president, it appears nothing has worked.

It’s too early to tell whether Romney, Huckabee and Pawlenty will fare better than Gingrich or Barbour. (Romney carries the added burden of having shifted his positions on abortion, gun rights and gays in the military – prompting John McCain to call him a “serial flip-flopper” in the last campaign.)

But no matter what the issue, people prefer candor over defensiveness and denial. When someone admits mistakes, but also explains how his or her views have evolved, the candidate sounds like a thoughtful leader, not a pandering politician.

To err, after all, is human – but so is to flip-flop.

Comments? Email me at http://pac.org/contact/blog.