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October 28, 2012 6:05 PM In Defense of Flip-Flopping

By Simon van Zuylen-Wood

When it comes to attacking Mitt Romney, team Obama has shuffled between two portrayals. On one hand, it paints him as a radical hell-bent on rolling back reproductive rights, financial regulation and the entire New Deal legacy. On the other hand, it makes him out to be an unprincipled flip-flopper. The two strategies can’t really coexist, and of late, the Obama campaign seems to be sticking with the latter, exemplified by its recent “Romnesia” campaign. But as Bill Clinton told the Obama campaign last year, it’s a weak tactic: When Republicans tried to paint him as a flip-flopper, voters didn’t care, confident that “he would simply do what was right.”

There’s another reason the strategy is a foolish one. Hypocrisy in politics is not only inevitable, but a very necessary evil. To condemn it as a high political crime is to ignore the virtues of ideological malleability. Cass Sunstein, whose post at OMB consisted of high-level cost-benefit analysis, rather than doctrinaire policy-making, praised hypocrisy in a recent column.

In politics, turncoats make sensible compromises possible. If Democrats and Republicans are sharply divided on a question of economic policy, and no one is willing to break ranks, an agreement might be unachievable… Turncoats also break down echo chambers. If conservatives or liberals are listening only to those on their side, they tend to become more confident, more unified and more extreme.

Nixon went to China, Clinton enacted welfare reform, Roberts upheld Obamacare, as Sunstein writes. If the past is any indication, his party will eventually come around to Roberts’s way of thinking, as with Nixon and Clinton, after their supposed heresies. Few castigate Obama now for flipping on the individuate mandate, a policy he vehemently opposed (for conservative reasons) in his primary fight with Hillary Clinton. Moreover, Obama, whose entire 2008 candidacy was based on finding middle ground, demonstrates the necessity not only of embracing flexibility in our politicians, but in practicing it ourselves. Those progressives who still condemn Democrats for giving up on a public option to his health care law, for instance, are interested less in political process—the art of the possible—than in political revolution. Indeed, historian Martin Jay wrote in 2010, after candidates ‘etch-a-sketch’ out of their primary campaigns, “we give them a pass because we know that a genuine consensus based on rational deliberation is highly unlikely, and yet democratic politics requires building a winning coalition…truth-telling is not always the best policy in even the most democratic of political contexts.”

There’s something not only political unfeasible, but morally worrisome about demanding complete ideological coherence from our candidates. The capacity to switch gears reflects the ability to make clear-headed, rather than doctrinaire, judgments. “The ‘big truth’ - ‘the absolute, univocal truth, which silences those who disagree with it and abruptly terminates discussion’,” wrote NYU political theorist Jeremy Waldron in a 2011 review of Jay’s book The Virtues of Mendacity in the London Review of Books “may be as oppressive and inimical to human freedom, plurality, and the vigour of debate as the ‘big lie.’” Political math aside, we’d rather have Romney tack to the center than hang back with the ideologically pure Tea Party puritans, right?

Obviously, there are bad political lies. As Jay points out, Leo Strauss’s belief in deceiving the rabble for its own supposed good—exemplified by his Neoconservative acolyte Paul Wolfowitz during the Iraq war—is manipulative and undemocratic. Likewise, Romney’s own fudges don’t reflect ideological flexibility so much as his unyielding desire to hoodwink every possible constituency into voting for him.

In that way, Romney has lived up to half of Mark Twain’s famous dictum on proper truthlessness. The key, Twain wrote, was to lie “for others’ advantage, and not our own; to lie healingly, charitably, humanely, not cruelly, hurtfully, maliciously; to lie firmly, frankly, squarely, with head erect, not haltingly, tortuously, with pusillanimous mien, as being ashamed of our high calling.”

Head erect, firmly, frankly? Sure. For others’ advantage? Not so much.

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a writer for Philadelphia Magazine.

Comments

  • candideinnc on October 28, 2012 6:21 PM:

    You cannot, with a straight face, call Mittens' behavior "flexibility." His tactics are simply blatant pandering for votes--and , more importantly, power. A change of opinion on minor issues when confronted with political realities, such as Obama on the mandate, is flexibility. What Romney has demonstrated on innumerable issues is a total lack of principle or basic honesty. If the American people can abide this deception and vote for an unrepenting prevaricator, they are playing with fire.

  • Webster on October 28, 2012 6:30 PM:

    Is the Obama campaign accusing Romney of flip-flopping?
    It seems to me that they're simply pointing out Romney's recent attempts to hide his extreme positions.

  • c u n d gulag on October 28, 2012 6:48 PM:

    Our MSM will be the ruin of us.

    When you have billionaires, and the corporations they own, paying the 6-and-7-digit salaries to "reporters," people need to realize how little we can trust the people who report on 'what's what,' to us.

    There is no one less inclined to speak the truth, than a person whose paycheck depends or his/her towing the company line.

    I hate what this country has become.
    And I'd move in a nanosecond.
    Unfortunately, there's no market for over-weight, mid 50 year-old, Customer Service Trainers.

  • Doug on October 28, 2012 7:17 PM:

    Methinks someone has confused "hypocrisy" with compromise and "flip-flopping, aka pandering" with someone who has changed their position for some reason OTHER than gaining votes.
    There IS a difference...

  • Celui on October 28, 2012 7:27 PM:

    Romney 'flip-flops' in the name of political expediency, not compromise. To compromise doesn't mean that one gives up his principles or his plans, but that he recognizes intersections of commonality, and that these commonalities will, perforce, lead to the greater common good. But Romney's "I'll say what you want me to say today" and couch my real directions (if, in fact, they may even exist) for the future when I may actually be forced to articulate a plan and work to enact it, leads me to believe that the man simply is devoid of commitment for the common good. Seems that he'll say and do anything at all-anything!!-to get elected, and after that, he'll be in a position to have to propose and act. We already know that his plans for social welfare, education, healthcare and tax policies all MUST reflect the Randian concepts of his running mate, made even worse by the GOP's blind adherence to Norquist's demagoguery. Romney's waffling, wavering, and wimpering on social issues (those that are likely to be made real in the case of a SCOTUS appointment) tell me that he once again is driven by political ideology that has no room for the nation's common good. And, once again, it is imperative to raise the spectre of racism in the Romney campaign, both overt and just-below-the-surface racism. To ignore these forces is to ignore the reality of Obama's presidency, and give credence to McConnell's pronouncement of Republican refusal to work with the president on anything in order to drive him from office. No, Romney's not a compromising flipper, he's just a flippin' liar.

  • pontormo on October 28, 2012 7:28 PM:

    I think this bloggers method of attracting attention is to write articles of such breathtaking stupidity that they will generate traffic in the comments section.
    It is a pattern that emerges every time this person writes.

  • Anonymous on October 28, 2012 7:32 PM:

    "Clinton enacted welfare reform"

    Clinton CAMPAIGNED on welfare reform.

    How's that a "flip-flop" ?

    He vetoed (TWICE) the radical block-grant everything back to the states that Newtie and the Blowhards tried to enact.

  • Joe Friday on October 28, 2012 7:35 PM:

    "Clinton enacted welfare reform"

    Clinton CAMPAIGNED on welfare reform.

    How's that a "flip-flop" ?

    He vetoed (TWICE) the radical block-grant-everything-back-to-the-states that Newtie and the Blowhards tried to enact.

  • Neil B on October 28, 2012 7:41 PM:

    Simon, the criticism of Romneney (inside joke) is not inconsistent: the man "is" a radical in the sense of what he'd actually do or allow or sign or appoint as POTUS, he's a flip-flopping etch-a-sketch man as a snake oil show. Really, and considering for other questionable offerings lately, you are running for the Broder memorial Village enabler award these days, aren't you?

    "revealling" - indeed!

  • pangea on October 28, 2012 8:05 PM:

    I've been critical of regular commenters being too hard on guest posters but this has to be about the most idiotic post I've ever read.
    Malleability? Really??
    I agree with the idea that flexibility and compromise are integral to democracy. To claim that either of those apply to Romney is shockingly ignorant or blatantly dishonest.
    I expect such crap from MSM news anchors, from the Sunday political shows or from village columnists - which is why I don't watch or read any of that garbage.

  • Anonymous on October 28, 2012 8:14 PM:

    Written for lying politicians, among others, Psalm 50

    16 But to the wicked, God says:
    “What right have you to recite my laws or take my covenant on your lips?
    17 You hate my instruction and cast my words behind you.
    18 When you see a thief, you join with him; you throw in your lot with adulterers.
    19 You use your mouth for evil and harness your tongue to deceit.
    20 You speak continually against your brother and slander your own mother’s son.
    21 These things you have done and I kept silent; you thought I was altogether like you.
    But I will rebuke you and accuse you to your face.

  • James M on October 28, 2012 8:20 PM:

    The commenters here are very kind! Frankly, I thought that Mr.van Zuylen-Wood's post was pretty weak tea. First, as candideinnc on October 28, 2012 6:21 PM pointed out:

    "You cannot, with a straight face, call Mittens' behavior "flexibility." ... A change of opinion on minor issues when confronted with political realities, such as Obama on the mandate, is flexibility. What Romney has demonstrated on innumerable issues is a total lack of principle or basic honesty."

    A candidate like Mr. Romney makes a mockery of the electoral process. You can't judge him based on his policies because he doesn't have any-at least none that he is willing to defend. He doesn't do interviews so you can't question him regarding his current positions or speeches. The speeches themselves are filled with lies, distortion and half-truths, so they aren't an accurate reflection of his thinking. What can voters use to decide whether he could actually do the job? They supposed to use the 'beer' test?

    Secondly, @ Celui on October 28, 2012 7:27 PM:

    "...And, once again, it is imperative to raise the spectre of racism in the Romney campaign, both overt and just-below-the-surface racism."

    It might be possible to forgive Mr. Romney if he were just some harmless used car salesman type who simply says whatever he needs to in order to make the sale. However, Mr. Romney has a dark side. He allows (encourages?) his surrogates to make racially charged statements and will not condemn slurs against women by GOP political candidates or conservative media stars.

    'Flexibility' may be key attribute for politicians, but Mr.Romney is way past that.

  • N.Wells on October 28, 2012 9:16 PM:

    In that way, Romney has lived up to half of Mark Twain’s famous dictum on proper truthlessness. The key, Twain wrote, was to lie "for others’ advantage, and not our own; to lie healingly, charitably, humanely, not cruelly, hurtfully, maliciously; to lie firmly, frankly, squarely, with head erect, not haltingly, tortuously, with pusillanimous mien, as being ashamed of our high calling.”
    That's a reprehensible assessment, notwithstanding the somewhat tongue-in-cheek evaluation of "with head held high, but not for others advantage". Romney lies solely for his own advantage. There's nothing healing, charitable, or humane about it, and it is cruel, hurtful, malicious, and pusillanimous, which pushes it way past 50% bad. Really, given a choice between Nixon's total lack of ethics, Reagan's disconnection from reality and his corrupt administration, and Bush the Worse's incompetence and dishonesty, and the corruption in his administration, any or all of those were clearly more honest and less shameless than Romney. This has nothing to do with openness to compromise (Romney's 800 or so vetoes as governor shows how that is likely to go). About the only reasonable prediction is that Romney will figure out some way to asset-strip the remaining public wealth of the US to distribute it to the 1% by encumbering the debt, privatizing social security and medicare, and leaving the public stuck with the bill, all the while promising us that he's ensuring our future and protecting the poor, the young, the sick, and the elderly, and that sun beams and sweet breezes are billowing out of his posterior.

  • LAC on October 28, 2012 10:44 PM:

    When is this weekend of garbage posting going to be over? If I needed chuck Todd chinless analysis complete with elevating Romney's mendacity, I would watch cable.

  • Rabbler on October 28, 2012 11:10 PM:

    Obama's compromise on the mandate was with the truth. He knew no plan was defensible without it.

  • jayne daou on October 28, 2012 11:11 PM:

    Uhmmm..., I don't think Mitt Romney's pulling a Roberts, Clinton or Obama. He's doing a wholesale flipflop and then he flips again depending on the situation. He sometimes does the third flip in the same day. It's everything with Mitt the Twit. Womens abortion rights, contraceptives, Obamacare stuff, auto bailout, taxes on upper income, taxes on lower income, taxes on middle incomes, coal, environmental laws, Lily Ledbetter Act, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, welfare cuts, pell grants, education loans, job outsourcing etc. You name it - he's flipped on it.

  • Crissa on October 28, 2012 11:35 PM:

    Simon, NO.

    flip-flopping entails taking another position.

    Romney can't even state what difference his position had previously.

    Do you really think that with the advisors Romney has lined up, he'll actually take the mediated road? There is no inherent conflict between having extreme positions and lying about them.

  • FlipYrWhig on October 29, 2012 12:28 AM:

    To put it as gently as possible, Simon needs to think a bit longer about the difference between inconsistency, evolution, and saying anything. The damaging thing about being a "flip-flopper" isn't having a different position than you used to have, it's being the kind of person who changes his positions based on who he wants to please rather than on what he actually thinks. And everyone who has been damaged politically by that line of attack has been damaged for that particular reason. The rest is contrarian hand-waving.

  • FlipYrWhig on October 29, 2012 12:31 AM:

    Oh, I missed the credit line at the bottom. Simon's with the New Republic, is he? That explains the smirky counterintuitive contrarianism. The only more on-the-mark tag would have been Slate.

  • FlipYrWhig on October 29, 2012 12:34 AM:

    And, really, how hard is it to make the two critiques of Romney coincide? "Lately he's saying he's a moderate. He's not, he's a radical in moderate's clothing trying to play you for a fool." That way he's a radical who flip-flops. That wasn't hard, was it?

  • yellowdog on October 29, 2012 2:23 AM:

    'Don't hang back with the brutes..." said Blanche to Stella.

    Romney is playing wink-wink with the conservative brutes right now--saying one mild thing to the public on abortion, for instance, while giving anti-choicer Tony Perkins reassurances in private. It's ludicrous. Romney and Ryan are in a class of deception all their own, even allowing for the usual 'flexibility' of political promises.

    Romney and Ryan are playing the public for suckers--and they're enjoying it. That being so, why save the hoodwink bit for the end? Isn't that the beginning? Don't you feel that smug sense of satisfaction from Romney and Ryan that they are putting one over on folks? They've got the barely suppressed grins of two guys who are robbing the bank and getting some polite Ohioans and should-know-better journalists to nod and hold the door for them as they saunter to the getaway car.

    Maybe it's just me--but the smug-factor on these two candidates is beyond belief. I guess that smugness arises after you tell one whopper after another and yet hear the media go into sixteen variations of false-equivalence, and 'they all do it.' I guess I'd be smiling a big smile too, knowing I'm about to get away with the scam of a lifetime.

  • pacific_gyre on October 29, 2012 3:43 AM:

    John Kerry was a "flip-flopper". Mitt Romney is a windsock.

  • Ci on October 29, 2012 6:17 AM:

    Well, we've got an interesting bunch of very angry commenters, here. Unfortunately there's not much else to say about these responses. It's interesting that people sit around and say that Romney is a horrendous flip-flopper/liar and an extreme right-wing politician. I mean, if all you watch is MSNBC or, frankly, most of the mainstream media, then I get it. But otherwise, all you really have to do is look at the man's record--he does have one--to see what kinds of things he'll likely do in office. Nothing about the man screams extreme--they brought Ryan onto the ticket so that he'd actually appeal to the extreme conservatives. There's really no mystery here.

    As for the claims that since Romney's plans aren't 'specific enough' or 'don't make sense,' I guess I missed the part where anyone cared about that four years ago when Obama ran for his first term. If you're a democrat, or have a strong anti-replublican stance, just say so. Don't pretend that Romney is the only one lying or changing his mind in this race. Unless you actually believe that Obama didn't want to be able to keep soldiers in Iraq past the pull-out date, or wasn't aware of what was going on in Libya even though there were e-mails being sent out realtime describing it as a terrorist attack, or didn't lie about Fast and Furious (to name a few).

    Politicians lie, folks. They lie for their own profit. But if lying makes Romney a scammer and Obama a magnanimous leader, then you've lost me. You don't have to love Romney and hate Obama. Support who you support because you agree with their policies and believe that they're the best option for president. Just don't use vitriol as your basis.

  • LAC on October 29, 2012 7:40 AM:

    C, really? Thanks for the lecture, but I am at a loss as to why false wquivalency has to used to excuse Romney's dishonest and distasteful campaign. All it's failings are self inflicted Politics has a certain level of hype, but to engage in the level of lying and flip flopping that this empty man has is nothing to applauded or defended. If Romney supporters want to pretend that their seemingly unquestionable support of this sort of campaign is fine, go right ahead. But do not try to put us on your level. Whatever Obama's failings, I do not doubt his sincerity. I question the motives of those that would vote for a serial liar.

  • AndThenThere'sThat on October 29, 2012 9:34 AM:

    Well, we've got an interesting bunch of very angry commenters, here. Unfortunately there's not much else to say about these responses. Yet, you ramble on for three more paragraphsIt's interesting that people sit around and say that Romney is a horrendous flip-flopper/liar and an extreme right-wing politician. I mean, if all you watch is MSNBC or, frankly, most of the mainstream media, then I get it. LOL, good one But otherwise, all you really have to do is look at the man's record--he does have one--to see what kinds of things he'll likely do in office.Very illustrative indeed. He pandered to liberals (even donated money to planned parenthood) to get elected to a liberal leaning state. Once he got in what did he do? The Massachusetts legislature had to override some 700 Romney vetoes. Nothing about the man screams extreme--they brought Ryan onto the ticket so that he'd actually appeal to the extreme conservatives. Non sequitur There's really no mystery here.Show me the f#@king tax returns

    As for the claims that since Romney's plans aren't 'specific enough' or 'don't make sense,' I guess I missed the part where anyone cared about that four years ago when Obama ran for his first term. If you're a democrat, or have a strong anti-replublican stance, just say so. Don't pretend that Romney is the only one lying or changing his mind in this race. Unless you actually believe that Obama didn't want to be able to keep soldiers in Iraq past the pull-out date, or wasn't aware of what was going on in Libya even though there were e-mails being sent out realtime describing it as a terrorist attack, or didn't lie about Fast and Furious (to name a few).All FOX News psychobabble bullshit

    Politicians lie, folks. They lie for their own profit. But if lying makes Romney a scammer and Obama a magnanimous leader, then you've lost me. You don't have to love Romney and hate Obama. Support who you support because you agree with their policies and believe that they're the best option for president. Just don't use vitriol as your basis. False equivalency award of the year. For god's sake, Romney looked some 50 million Americans in the eye in Denver and told them his "plan" would cover people with pre-existing conditions. The man says things that have to be quickly walked back by his campaign on an almost daily basis. He's a Liar.

  • Marmot on October 29, 2012 12:31 PM:

    You've made a dumb mistake concerning the public option. Obama jettisoned it early in hopes of gaining Repub support for health care reform, but no Repub support resulted from that move. Nor was the public option important to gaining the support of wavering Dems.

  • Marmot on October 29, 2012 2:58 PM:

    Nope--looks like I made the dumb mistake. The Obama Admin jettisoned the public option in order to gain the hospital industry's support. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/13/health/policy/13health.html?pagewanted=2&_r=0

    That's political compromise, not that I like it.

    It wasn't the point of my first comment, but is this how you, Simon, see a Romney Admin behaving? Threatening to cut taxes for the rich, then just sorta cutting them? I seem to recall a lot of Villagers touting Bush II's compromising "compassionate conservatism." How do you know you're not engaged in similar wishful bull?

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