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Beware the politician who won't flip-flop

April 01, 2007|Bruce J. Schulman | 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."

"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.

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.

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.

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