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June 11, 2011 10:10 AM When ‘flip-floppery’ matters, and when it doesn’t

By Steve Benen

Kathleen Parker makes the case in her latest column that the political world’s preoccupation with politicians’ “flip-floppery” is misplaced. At first blush, the argument seems more than fair.

A politician may be able to survive cavorting with prostitutes, sexting with coeds and commingling with interns, but heaven forbid he should change his mind — the transgression that trumps all compassion.

Or thinking.

After all, thinking can lead to that most dangerous territory for a politician — doubt — and, inevitably, the implication that dare not be expressed: “I could be wrong.”

At a certain level, this strikes me as persuasive, because there’s nothing inherently offensive about a political figure changing his or her mind once in a while. Policy makers come to one conclusion, they gain more information, and then they reach a different conclusion. That is, to be sure, a good thing — it reflects a politician with an open mind and a healthy intellectual curiosity. Better to have a leader who changes his or her mind based on new information than one who stubbornly sticks to outmoded policy positions, regardless of facts or circumstances.

But — and you had to know a “but” was coming — what Parker is describing are sincere changes of heart, which certainly occur. It’s something else entirely when pandering politicians reinvent themselves, sometimes more than once, as part of a cynical, calculated ploy. This isn’t indicative of an open mind; it’s actually indicative of a character flaw.

Parker’s column, for example, seems inclined to absolve Mitt Romney of his flip-flopping sins. And in instances in which the former governor came to new conclusions after earnest reevaluations, I’d be inclined to cut him a fair amount of slack.

The problem with Romney, though, is that there’s nothing remotely sincere about his repeated reinventions. The guy has demonstrated a willingness to flip-flop like no other American politician in a generation.

Romney was a pro-choice supporter of gay rights, gun control, and comprehensive immigration reform. He’s reversed course on everything from economic stimulus to health care, the auto-industry rescue to foreign policy.

I’ve almost lost count of his iterations. Romney 1.0 was an independent who distanced himself from Reagan and H.W. Bush. Romney 2.0 was a moderate Republican who passed health care reform. Romney 3.0 was a social conservative who cared deeply about the culture war. Romney 4.0 is a hysterical Mr. Fix-It who fears the death of capitalism.

I’m perfectly comfortable with a politician pondering doubts and questioning whether he or she is right about an issue. But when a politician changes his views so fundamentally that he’s adopted several different worldviews in a fairly brief time span, is it really unreasonable to question the man’s integrity?

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

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  • bob h on June 11, 2011 10:26 AM:

    All the talk now is about jobs and the economy, and nothing else seems to matter. But the world is a very unstable, rapidly changing, dangerous place, which Obama is navigating with some skill, I think. So I look at Romney and the rest of the freak show and ask "Is he really capable of dealing with the nation's foreign policy and national security problems"? Is the thin Republican bench on such matters ready for them? Is All-American, Exceptionalist boobery in which there are supposedly simple answers to such questions really the way to go?

  • SYSPROG on June 11, 2011 10:32 AM:


    'Changing your mind' is OK IF you have valid information or facts that you REVEAL made you change your mind. 'Flip flopping' several times in the same week makes you look like you have been paid off by lobbyists.

  • c u n d gulag on June 11, 2011 10:42 AM:

    His flip-flopping is why I sometimes call him 'Reversable Mittens.'

    You can wear them on your left hand, your right hand, or on your foot as you put it in your mouth.

  • Jose Padilla on June 11, 2011 10:43 AM:

    She's got it exactly backwards. No US plitician I can think of has moved up after a sex scandal. On the other hand, almost all of our recent presidents have flip-flopped in some way. It's presented as part of maturation process when in fact it's usually about stone-cold political calculation.

  • FRP on June 11, 2011 10:53 AM:

    It does not do to forget how insulting ze Mittens vas to any semblance of propriety , or human dignity . In those misty yesteryears of recent vintage , where if one were to believe ones own lying eyes and ears , one would have been a disowned scourge of the sort , which like the misunderstood , "Dogs" (which the bumbler and suitably dim Mittens , what a pretty piece ee is) of a Mittens improvisational quip . This fine piece of Mittens which opens the doors of understanding , of which the real Mittens need not occupy himself , where the bobbing flotsam of no pedigree beyond the rotting of poisonous and lusting ambitions , finds shared entertainment in the humiliation of defenseless spirits possessed by innocents and worthies alike .
    Who let the fools out .

  • j on June 11, 2011 11:05 AM:

    Ditto what gulag said.

  • J Lesure on June 11, 2011 11:06 AM:

    To me its the reasons they give for changing their minds that is the tell. Take the individual mandate. I could understand a Republican saying that in 1994 when the choice was between an employer mandate and an individual mandate I felt the individual should take responsibility for their health care but after thinking it over for the last 15 some odd years I have come to the conclusion that that would not be the best course of action. I could support their change of mind if they were to say that but they don't. They go from supporting it in 1994 to it is unconstitutional in 2008. That is a lack of intellectual integrity and smacks of pandering to the base all because they want to see the President fail.

  • Mudge on June 11, 2011 11:06 AM:

    I need to go back and dig out Parker's columns on this subject regarding John Kerry and his legitimate changes in position during the 2006 election.

  • penalcolony on June 11, 2011 11:16 AM:

    Time for Parker to pack up her remedial Pulitzer and head back to Dixie.

  • Chris S. on June 11, 2011 11:18 AM:

    Flip-flopping shows a lack of integrity if you a) deny you ever held your previous views, and b) denounce rivals for insufficient commitment to your new views.

    I think b) is why the other Republican candidates in 2008 all despised Romney.

  • m2 on June 11, 2011 11:42 AM:

    I'd like to say that Romney 2.0.12 is vaporware, but that would imply some ambition; Or some half-assed effort in marketing, at least.
    There is no product. "Obama's destroyed us already and we're all screwed even worse unless..." Unless what.

  • Kender on June 11, 2011 12:01 PM:

    Don't forget the Romney that thought it was a good idea to tie the family dog to the top of the car.

  • Rick B on June 11, 2011 12:47 PM:

    The argument about flip-floppery demonstrates the difference between how modern American politics work and how politicians are sold to the public using 19th century language.

    The American Constitution set up a government structure in which representatives were elected and sent on often weeks-long journeys to make independent negotiations with similar representatives about how the distant and slow moving national government was going to act. It's that 19th century model of the independently thinking representative acting independently that is sold to the voters, and more importantly, is held by the political press describing the representatives.

    Now that we have instant video/audio/print from Washington D.C back to the home districts and states the politicians are no longer independent thinkers capable of changing their minds based on new information. Instead they sell themselves to the voters as political symbols. Each politician has become a modern brand name to be sold based on a given set of (permanent) characteristics. This view is also held by modern political journalists. Breaking the brand is called flip-flopping and if you can break your opponent's brand you can defeat him in the media.

    Politicians don't like being a brand but it is what they have to become to get elected. So politicians themselves are keeping the 19th century "representative of the voters" crap going to ease over the periods when they have to modify their brand characteristics in order for the individual politician to stay in office.

    3 Captcha tries. I detest Captcha

  • Redshift on June 11, 2011 2:01 PM:

    Wow, she sure took a lot of words to say "it's okay if you're a Republican."

    It still mystifies me what the Pulitzer committee was thinking...

    (Captcha "freedom redured". As in, "we've had to re-endure the oppressive conservative idea of 'freedom' so often, it became a new word.")

  • Texas Aggie on June 11, 2011 3:26 PM:

    "The guy has demonstrated a willingness to flip-flop like no other American politician in a generation."

    John McCain, Steve, John McCain.

    Captcha is a pain in the hindend. Get rid of it, now. Some other poster had a good idea that I'm going to support. No more financial support for the Washington Monthly until captcha goes.

  • Death Panel Truck on June 11, 2011 4:01 PM:

    Captcha is ridiculous. Right now I'm looking at two words, or rather, two images. One looks like the non-word "iramical," but the other has to be in Arabic. There are no discernible English letters. I'm tired of having to do this every time I post, which is why I don't hang out here much anymore.

  • DevilDog on June 11, 2011 6:15 PM:

    John Maynard Keynes: When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?

    Unfortunately for Mitt, the facts remain the same on healthcare and elsewhere.

  • WandaWonkz on June 12, 2011 2:01 AM:

    Face it folks, it may be possible that in a few isolated parts of the country, the Republican Party is still reasonably close to the center. But when it comes to national politics, the consensus has moved solidly to the fringe. And you can't get nominated for national office unless you can find a way to appeal to this consensus.

    What really matters here is not the crazy things Republicans are willing to say to get nominated, but whether or not the positions they have to take to get nominated will resonate with the political moderates who are always the key constintuancy in general elections.

    Every exit poll I've seen from 2008 clearly indicates that Obama won by locking down the traditional Democratic base, while at the same time capturing the lion's share of moderates. To my mind, McCain would have had a much better shot at this demographic if he hadn't scared them away with a nut case like Palin.

    That Romney has to go through these contortions at all should be good news for Democrats. Unless the Republicans get really, really lucky, they're probably going to wind up with some polarizing nut job as compatible with the center as kryptonite is to Superman.

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