To Err Is Human, to Flip-Flop Divine
President Bush is working hard to convince the American people that John F. Kerry has a fatal flaw: He changes his mind. Or, in the current political lexicon, he “flip-flops.” But isn’t a willingness to change course -- even to admit error -- an asset in a leader?
Throughout U.S. history, important decisions, some of monumental proportions, came about because presidents changed their minds. In his first political statement, in March 1832, the 23-year-old Abraham Lincoln said, “Upon the subjects of which I have treated, I have spoken as I thought.... So soon as I discover my opinions to be erroneous, I shall be ready to renounce them.” And he stuck to that principle. After Ulysses S. Grant finally captured Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, Lincoln, who before the battle believed his general was making a tactical mistake, wrote, “I now wish to make the personal acknowledgment that you were right, and I was wrong.”
The ability to admit error led to Lincoln’s most important decision as president. During the early part of his term, Lincoln consistently said that he had no intention of freeing the slaves; he was furious at even the limited emancipation granted to Missouri slaves by Gen. John C. Fremont in August 1861. But, by the summer of 1862, presented with evidence that emancipation was necessary to win the war, he altered course, pushed the measure through -- and suffered politically for his change of heart.
Ronald Reagan, after taking measure of reality, also didn’t hesitate to change course. What people remember most is Reagan’s legacy as a tax cutter. But that’s only a part of the story. After pushing through deep cuts in income taxes and seeing the budget deficit balloon as a consequence, Reagan ultimately repealed at least a third of the 1981 tax reductions that he had signed into law.
Presidents who have refused to acknowledge their errors, who have been blinded by ideology, haven’t fared well. Take Herbert Hoover, whom presidential scholar Richard Neustadt described as a man with “a sense of purpose so precise as to be stultifying.” Hoover’s faith in private enterprise and his belief that the government should maintain a hands-off approach to the economy left him incapable of responding to the economic crisis brought on by the 1929 stock market crash. He was blinded by his ideology that government should stay out of relief efforts, arguing that people “should be given a chance to show whether they wish to preserve the principles of individual and local responsibility and mutual self-help before they embark on what I believe is a disastrous system” of federal assistance. Unwilling to commit the federal government to a new course, Hoover failed his country and was ultimately voted out of office.
Today, Bush’s unwillingness to admit a mistake or change course has put the country -- and his own political future -- at risk. Despite mounting casualties, an Iraqi population hostile to U.S. troops and a failure to find weapons of mass destruction, the president seems unwilling to say he erred in initiating a war based on falsified or inaccurate intelligence.
On the home front, despite massive budget deficits largely spawned by tax cuts that went overwhelmingly to the richest, the president still tells the story of how his tax cuts for “the middle class” (most of whom received an average of only $300) are contributing to an economic recovery. He won’t admit publicly that the large tax cuts will necessitate painful social spending cuts in coming years -- pain he could avoid inflicting by admitting that the tax cuts were ill advised and, then, reversing course.
We have come to a dangerous place in politics where political leaders cannot stand up and say “I goofed.” It encourages crimes, and cover-ups of the crimes, to hide mistakes. Indeed, changes of heart and admitting mistakes would have saved a lot of careers for politicians whose failure to change course made them one-term presidents -- or worse, spawned cover-ups and deceits that ultimately overwhelmed presidencies, tarnishing legitimate accomplishments. As Robert Dallek observed in his book “Hail to the Chief,” “The minefield of national politics is strewn with presidents who were too ideological to bend and make concessions.”
So Kerry should not be defensive when asked about flip-flopping. He should claim his flexibility as a strength. When the inevitable question comes in the presidential debates, Kerry should turn to the president and say, “Yes, I do change my mind,” and use the question to explain both his life experiences and what makes a good leader.
Not only would Kerry land a devastating blow by inviting the public to make the obvious comparison between him and the incumbent, he would also signal that leadership in the 21st century cries out for people who understand that the world is complex and who are comfortable enough with that complexity to acknowledge, as Richard Nixon never could, not just that “mistakes were made” but that “I made a mistake.”