Political Animal


November 30, 2011 3:50 PM A tale of two flip-floppers

By Steve Benen

Mitt Romney’s reputation as the shameless, uncontrollable flip-flopper of the 2012 race is now widely recognized and entirely locked in. It’s also well deserved — trying to find an issue on which Romney has been consistent is nearly impossible.

But as Paul Waldman explained yesterday, Newt Gingrich is nearly as bad, reversing course on all kinds of issues, including climate change, health care mandates, and U.S. policy in Libya.

So are the two leading Republican presidential candidates equally vulnerable on this? Not really. Waldman fleshes out the distinction between them:

[E]ven though they share some of the same flips, the way they happened illuminates something essential about who each man is and how they make decisions. Mitt Romney flip-flops carefully, after a period of calculation in which he determines the most appropriate strategic positioning required to achieve his short- and long-term goals. Newt Gingrich flip-flops impulsively, taking positions that sound good at a particular moment without any apparent regard for the past or the future. […]

Whenever Romney is asked to explain a flip-flop, he always has an answer, and it’s the same one he’ll give if he gets asked about it tomorrow or next month. It may not be entirely convincing, but you can tell he thought about it, worked through it with his advisors, and is offering the best explanation they could come up with. […]

Gingrich, on the other hand, has flip-flops that swing wildly from one extreme to another. His natural rhetorical style is one of extremity, in which good things are “profound,” “transformative,” and “fundamental,” while bad things are not just bad but horrific, the worst things that have ever happened. That means that when he embraces a position, it’s the greatest thing ever, and when he rejects a position, it’s the worst thing ever, even if what today is the worst thing ever was the greatest thing ever yesterday. Consequently, Newt finds himself saying things like, “Any ad which quotes what I said on Sunday is a falsehood.”

This is very persuasive. Romney, who has no core beliefs or principles, is constantly calculating, asking himself questions like “What do I have to say to advance my ambitions?” and “How will I explain this when I take the opposite position tomorrow?”

Gingrich is more of an erratic blowhard who sees such calculations as beneath him. He’s so impressed with the power of his intellect, Gingrich fully embraces every random thought that pops into his mind. When other thoughts occur to him, Gingrich can’t be bothered to consider or reconcile how they might contradict previous positions — he’s a visionary who has no time for such niceties.

As Jonathan Bernstein put it, “It’s not so much that Gingrich has taken the wrong position (from a conservative point of view) on various things; it’s the way he comes to it, which appears to be entirely personal and idiosyncratic…. [T]here’s no consistency or predictability at all.”

But there’s one other point I thought I’d add to the mix. If we were to list all of Romney’s and Gingrich’s flip-flops and compare theem, I suspect the totals would be fairly close. But I think Gingrich avoids the larger label because, while his positions have changed, his persona hasn’t. The disgraced former House Speaker may have inadvertently found himself on both sides of many policy disputes, but we can look back and see that Gingrich has always been, at his core, the same guy: a morally-bankrupt conservative Republican. The flip-flops are evidence of an impulsive mind and inflated ego, not cowardice.

Romney may flip-flop at least as often, but his personality and persona represent the polar opposite. Whereas Gingrich has always effectively been the same guy, Romney periodically enters cocoons and emerges as an entirely new person. Romney 1.0 was an independent who distanced himself from Reagan and H.W. Bush. Romney 2.0 was a moderate Republican, with liberal positions on social issues, who passed health care reform at the state level. Romney 3.0 was a social conservative who cared deeply about the culture war. Romney 4.0 was an experienced, above-the-fray voice for the GOP establishment who had no use or time for the party’s Tea Party wing. Romney 5.0 loves Tea Partiers, signs right-wing pledges, and hates “career politicians.”

They’ve both taken flip-flopping to impressive heights, but they’re not the same kind of flip-floppers.

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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  • Danp on November 30, 2011 4:03 PM:

    Slick and Sloppy.

  • c u n d gulag on November 30, 2011 4:04 PM:

    So, Mitt is two-faced.

    But Newt speaks out of both sides of the same mouth.

    Sounds good.

    Actually, Mitt lies with a purpose, but a lot of times, Newt's so enthralled with the sound of his own voice, that he doesn't bother to listen to what he's saying.

    And he knows you'll forgive him - because Jesus already has!

    For more on Newt, and an amazing, AMAZING illustration, the great, GREAT Charles Pierce:


    And Steve B - you're great, GREAT, too!
    It's just that what you do is different from Charles P.

  • slappy magoo on November 30, 2011 4:11 PM:

    It's all about, as the turn of the phrase puts it, the strength of the absence of their convictions.

    When Romney flip-flops, he sounds like...a flip-flopper, someone willing to say whatever he needs to say in order to curry the base's favor if only he knew what it was...

    When Newt flip-flops, in the moment he takes that new position, he (sounds like he) believes in it heart and soul, and anyone who tries to insinuate he didn't always hold that position is engaged in the politic of personal destruction...and probably a socialist and al Queda sympathizer, too.

    It's the steadfastness that Republicans - for whatever stupid reasons - flock to. Newt might not have held that position yesterday, he might not hold on to it tomorrow, but TODAY, he holds that position and he believes in it wholeheartedly.

    It's a mentality I think Glenn Beck shares. It's not just saying whatever they need to say to "win." It's believing whatever they're saying, and that helps them "win."

    I believe that's called "sociopathic." But why they do it isn't nearly as important, to me, as what's in the minds of the people who fall for it.

  • Doctor Biobrain on November 30, 2011 4:14 PM:

    This is what I've always considered a key difference between pyschopaths and sociopaths, in that psychopaths believe their own lies, while sociopaths don't.

    So while pyschopaths sound more earnest and believable, because they truly believe what they're saying at any given moment, sociopaths are the less delusional of the two and more firmly grounded in reality. And that's why Mitt would surely be a better president than Newt, as he at least knows that he's bullshitting, while Newt's getting high on his own supply and can't trust his own mouth to not shoot himself in the foot.

    And that's why Mitt chose not to run for re-election while still keeping his reputation intact, while Newt had to resign in total disgrace.

  • JS on November 30, 2011 4:19 PM:

    "For God's sake you can't have illegals working on my property, I'm running for president!"

  • DRF on November 30, 2011 4:32 PM:

    I don't think they're really that different. They're both unprincipled careerists.

  • Ron Byers on November 30, 2011 4:48 PM:

    One is a psycopath and the other a sociopath? Interesting take. Why does a national policial party have to nominate a person with a defined mental illness to be our President anyway?

  • Doctor Biobrain on November 30, 2011 4:57 PM:

    "Why does a national policial party have to nominate a person with a defined mental illness to be our President anyway?"

    Because no sane person could win in that party these days.

    Simple answers to simple questions.

  • locumparentis on November 30, 2011 5:13 PM:

    Here is a similar article in National Review showing how horrible Newt really is: http://www.nationalreview.com/campaign-spot/284472/newt-gingrich-said-iwhati

  • T2 on November 30, 2011 5:23 PM:

    Understand....the GOP is well on it's way to nominating a person to run for the presidency that the GOP ran out of D.C. in disgrace 15 years ago. That's what they've come to.

  • QuestionEverything on November 30, 2011 5:24 PM:

    Anyone remember what the BIGGEST argument against John Kerry leveled against him in 2004 by the Republicans?

    Flip Flopper - Remember the people with flip flops in their hands that clapped with them at the GOP National Convention in 2004?

    Four years later, John McCain flip flopped on every issue that he ever stood for with the exception of one of the issues around abortion. He said he'd vote against bills/laws that he sponsored or had his name on the bill (McCain-Feingold). He was a worse flip-flopper than John Kerry but 60 million people including every Republican voted for him anyway.

    Now we have a bigger 'flip-flopper' than McCain and Kerry and the GOP shows how little their justifications for voting mean. They lack credibility for all sorts of reasons but on this issue, it shows how they, collectively, flip-flop on the very issue that define why they vote for who they vote for. They can't argue one way and then ignore it the next two election cycles without some credibility hit.

    They make any excuse for voting for Republicans that they can. I can't and don't take them seriously because they really, in the end, don't have any values or convictions other than what they are told to do by Fox, Right Wing, et al. They don't care about America and they don't care about fixing problems. Ideology and the mindless support for a know-nothing, valueless party is what matters.

    I refuse to vote for Republicans. It only encourages this horrible party, that is way off track from 'my grantfather's Republican party,' to continue to act in destructive and radical ways. This is coming from some who's voted for Perot, Clinton, Bush (the first time), Kerry, & Obama.

    I considered myself an Independent voter but since the GOP went off track in the past 10-15 years, I'm now a committed Democrat because they are the only ones who care about America, who are serious about solving problems, and have any credibility in public policy debates.

    Obama is the best thing to happen to America and I hope America will some day recognize this and keep him in office another term and rid themselves of this blight of a party (GOP, I'm looking at you Motherfuckers) in both houses of Congress so we can get some things done.

  • N.Wells on November 30, 2011 5:49 PM:

    Gee, the way you describe them makes me sort of nostalgic for the purity of "The New Nixon". I shall no go and wash my mind out with soap.

  • N.Wells on November 30, 2011 5:51 PM:

    "no go" = "now go".
    Can't we please have an edit feature?

  • Sid Schwab on November 30, 2011 6:31 PM:

    I wrote about this recently, too, if a little less well:


  • Lance on November 30, 2011 7:20 PM:

    Let's not forget that Newt flip/flopped on Living Wills and Advanced Directives / 'Death Panels!'.

  • Regis on November 30, 2011 8:33 PM:

    Flip and Flop

  • Kathryn on November 30, 2011 8:51 PM:

    Dear Question Everything,

    Loved your post, hope there are more of you. I too believe Obama is the best thing to happen to America, now we have to reach the confused masses who can be bamboozled , who have been bamboozled for years. I think the GOP nominee will be Newt Gingrich who can bamboozle with the best of them. He's a facile communicator if you don't actually consider what he's saying and many are confused by a confident con artist. My prediction is Gingrich/Rubio and I wish I was more sure of Newt's downfall as many seem to be. Here's hoping his pomposity is obvious to all and the huge turnoff it should be.

  • The Oracle on November 30, 2011 11:55 PM:

    Romney-Gingrich 2012!!

    Or maybe Gingrich-Romney 2012???

    I can't make up my mind. The order in which their names appear keeps flip-flopping in my mind. But a Romney-Gingrich or Gingrich-Romney ticket sounds like a perfect match. Both inveterate flip-floppers. Or should I say habitual liars, since with all the flip-flopping they've done over the years, who can tell when they're telling the truth? Plus, with Romney being a Mormon (and no doubt wishing he could have multiple wives in the Mormon tradition), Romney goes well with Gingrich, who's had multiple wives, just not all at one time. And Romney and Gingrich are both career rip-off artists, making millions off the ripping-off of other people, making them the perfect Republicans to represent Wall Street 1-percenters from the White House, pushing for even more deregulation and further budget-busting deficit-exploding tax cuts for the wealthiest of the wealthy.

    So, Romney-Gingrich 2012 or Gingrich-Romney 2012? A match, either way it flip-flops, made in Republican Heaven. Or should that be Hog Heaven, because the White House would definitely look like slop time at pig feeding time with these two Republican flip-floppers in it? And in a similar vein, shouldn't the statue of the Bull on Wall Street be replaced with a statue of a Hog? For some reason, a Hog statue seems much more appropriate for Wall Street.

  • square1 on December 01, 2011 1:46 AM:

    This is what I've always considered a key difference between pyschopaths and sociopaths, in that psychopaths believe their own lies, while sociopaths don't.

    That is an interesting distinction, but not one I have heard before. IANAD, but I don't believe that is a well-accepted distinction.

    My understanding is that most experts in the area define psychopaths in part by their lack of conscience. That they literally are incapable of empathizing. They are good liars, not because they believe their lies. But because they feel no shame or guilt about lying. And they certainly don't care about hurting anyone in the process.

    It strikes me that there is a good chance that Newt is a true psychopath. Not only does he seem like a pure cold-blooded liar, but the story of him telling his wife that he wanted a divorce while she was in the hospital sounds like a classically selfish act that one would expect of a sympathy-free psychopath.

    Mitt OTOH seems more human. Sure, like any politician, he's got serious ego and ambition issues. He's willing to do just about anything to become President. And that includes flip-flopping wildly.

    But I think, ironically, that the reason that Mitt seems like the worse flip-flopper is because he is more human: He has subconscious guilt about lying that manifests itself as insincerity. His deep-rooted but fundamentally normal guilt about lying is like a "tell" to observers that Mitt is a phony.

    Mitt is like a bank robber, willing to do bad acts in order to achieve a great reward.

    Newt is like a serial killer, willing to do bad acts because he enjoys it.

  • pj in jesusland on December 01, 2011 2:37 AM:

    The GOP is now where the Democrats were in the mid-sixties following de-segregation orders. Fifty years ago Democratic candidates couldn't appeal to both the segregationists and the integrationists, the states rightists and the federalists, so the party split and the segregationists/states rightists joined forces with the Republicans.

    Over time segregation has transformed into nativism and states rightists have formed an opportunistic coalition with libertarians. These forces are now at work within the GOP. Hehe.

    It makes GOP Presidential candidates look like idiots trying to bridge the divide. And some of the candidates were already idiots to start with.