Beware the politician who won’t flip-flop

BRUCE J. SCHULMAN, a professor of history at Boston University, is the author of "The Seventies."

IN AMERICAN politics, the flip-flop can be fatal.

In 2004, for instance, President Bush dramatically transformed the voters’ view of his Democratic opponent, Sen. John F. Kerry, by assailing him for changing positions on issues that were “fundamental,” the kinds of things that “you believe in your core, in your heart of hearts.”

For the record:

12:00 a.m. April 8, 2007 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 08, 2007 Home Edition Current Part M Page 2 Editorial Pages Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Flip-floppers: An article in the April 1 Current about political flip-floppers inaccurately stated that Mitt Romney had changed his position on same-sex marriage from pro to anti. He never supported gay marriage. The article also stated that then-Sen. Bob Dole challenged President George H.W. Bush in 1992. Dole competed against Bush in the 1988 presidential primary.

“You cannot lead,” Bush said, “if you send mixed messages. There must be certainty from the U.S. president.”

Bush’s strategy was extremely effective, as it has been for candidates many times in the past. And now, as the 2008 presidential election approaches, voters should get ready to hear it again. 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.


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.

It’s certainly possible that some of these candidates legitimately gathered new information that caused them to change views, or that they simply grew older and wiser and rethought their positions.

But few voters believe that. 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.

But are all flip-flops really so objectionable? Isn’t it equally fair to argue that a willingness to shift, often abruptly and fundamentally, in response to changing circumstances is a venerable tradition in American governance? Indeed, the willingness to compromise is a crucial ingredient of serious leadership. 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.

Thomas Jefferson, for instance, hated public debt. In 1798, he wished for a constitutional amendment that would strip the federal government of its power to borrow.


But in 1803, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte offered to sell the United States his vast possessions in the North American West. 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. “Is it not better,” he asked in justifying his reversal, “that the opposite land of the Mississippi should be settled by our own brethren and children than by strangers of another family?” It surely was.

Three score years later, Abraham Lincoln made an equally stunning about-face on the greatest issue of his day. On the campaign trail in 1860, Lincoln repeatedly promised no federal interference, directly or indirectly, with slavery in the states where it existed. He repeated that pledge in his inaugural address and went on to affirm states’ rights, “especially the right of each state to order and control its own domestic institutions according to its own judgment exclusively.” And Lincoln explicitly denounced invasion by armed force as “the gravest of crimes.”

But when Southern states began declaring their independence, the president quickly dispatched the army to the rebel states. And as the military and diplomatic situation shifted, 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.” The president eventually welcomed ex-slaves into the Union army.

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.” Although critics called him an opportunist -- one journalist complained that “if [FDR] became convinced tomorrow that coming out for cannibalism would get him the votes he so sorely needs, he would begin fattening a missionary in the White House backyard” -- Roosevelt made pragmatism his governing philosophy. “It is common sense to take a method and try it,” he explained. “If it fails, admit it frankly and try another.”

Accordingly, FDR pledged in 1932 to balance the federal budget, but he ran a deficit when it turned out to be the best way to combat the Depression. His first economic recovery program offered businesses protection from antitrust suits. When that didn’t work, he reversed course and prosecuted them aggressively under the same laws.

Roosevelt’s flip-flops saved U.S. capitalism, established the nation’s social safety net and defeated Nazism. Seeking reelection in 1940, he promised “your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign war,” even as he prepared the nation to enter World War II. He navigated to and fro, in the words of his secretary of Labor, guided by “his feeling that nothing in human judgment is final. One may courageously take the step that seems right today because it can be modified tomorrow if it does not work well.”

More recently, George H.W. Bush changed his mind in response to changing circumstances. He famously declared in his acceptance speech at the 1988 Republican National Convention: “Read my lips. No new taxes.” As the federal deficit soared, however, he reversed course in 1990 and signed a package of tax increases. The political costs proved high: a conservative challenge from Sen. Bob Dole and religious broadcaster Pat Robertson in the 1992 presidential primary and an election-year recession. But Bush’s flip-flop stabilized the federal budget and helped lay the economic foundation for the 1990s boom.

Jefferson and his successors learned that changing circumstances sometimes require compromising your principles. Had he and the others steadfastly clung to their positions, would the country be better off?

The deteriorating events in Iraq offer a legitimate explanation for Edwards’ and Clinton’s change of mind on the war -- and it is disingenuous to accuse them of a self-serving flip-flop. Their “new” positions are reasonable responses to the changed circumstances. They should own up to them.

On the other hand, the circumstances surrounding abortion and gun control have changed little in recent years. What has changed is that Romney and Giuliani are no longer running for office in the liberal states of Massachusetts and New York, respectively. They are trying to court the conservative Republican voters who overwhelmingly turn out for presidential caucuses and primaries.

Like Kerry’s reversals on ethanol and affirmative action in 2004, and Clinton’s recent moves to the center on abortion rights, their flip-flops seem strictly calculated to achieve short-term political gain.

Near the end of his career, economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who served four presidents, reflected on the qualities that he believed defined the nation’s greatest chief executives. First among them was what he called the “pragmatic accommodation to whatever needed to be done.” If “you ever hear a politician say, ‘I’m going to adhere strictly to principle,’ ” Galbraith warned, “then you should take shelter, because you know that you are going to suffer.”

American voters should heed his warning and remember that not all flip-floppers are venal and cynical -- just some of them.