A time to flip-flop

April 08, 2007|By Bruce J. Schulman

In American politics, the flip-flop can be fatal.

In 2004, for instance, President Bush transformed the voters' view of his Democratic opponent, Sen. John Kerry, by assailing him for changing positions on issues that were "fundamental." "You cannot lead," Mr. Bush said, "if you send mixed messages. There must be certainty from the U.S. president."

Mr. Bush's strategy was extremely effective, as it has been for candidates many times. With the 2008 presidential election approaching, voters should get ready to hear it again. Nearly all the major presidential candidates are scurrying 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 changed positions on abortion rights, gun control and same-sex marriage (he's against all three). Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has shifted his views on partial-birth abortion and gun control (both from pro- to anti-). Sen. John McCain of Arizona has flip-flopped on Mr. Bush's tax cut (from no to no problem) and has 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 of Illinois for repeatedly voting for Iraq appropriations while claiming unwavering opposition to the war. 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 of New York 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 want to support a candidate they can trust and whose values they feel they understand.

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, Napoleon Bonaparte of France offered to sell his vast possessions in the North American West. Jefferson brushed aside his views about limited federal power and his abhorrence of public debt and acquired the Louisiana Territory, using borrowed money to finance the deal.

Three score 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. 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.

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, Mr. Roosevelt boasted about his commitment to "bold, persistent experimentation." Although critics called him an opportunist, he made pragmatism his governing philosophy.

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. His flip-flops saved U.S. capitalism, established the nation's social safety net and defeated Nazism.

More recently, George H. W. Bush changed his mind in response to changing circumstances. He 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, but Mr. Bush's flip-flop stabilized the federal budget and helped lay the foundation for the 1990s boom.

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