Dallas, TX –
Every campaign season produces plenty of heated rhetoric and flying charges about so-called flip-flops. Opposition research teams dig back into their rival's distant past to find changes of position so minute you need scientific instruments to detect them.
How many times have we seen some candidate castigated for deviating from an earlier stance? How many times have we heard that shocked, shocked announcer's voice warning us that back in 1971, Senator Marglebargle spoke out against the Equal Rights Amendment?
Which prompts the question: What's a flip-flop, anyway? What's the difference between a dishonest, craven switch for political advantage and an actual new view of a problem?
Before getting to my Flip-Flop Test, let's consider how politics and real life differ when it comes to changing our minds.
In real life - that is, the life outside the barely-controlled insanity of presidential elections - we usually praise people who learn and grow and evolve. We think it's a good idea for people to educate themselves, gain new perspectives and listen to new voices.
In the political world, alas, changing your mind is seen as a sign of weakness, cowardice, opportunism or all three. If a politician announces a change of mind on anything, the Flip-Flop Cops pounce on him and rip his flesh.
So, when McCain says that Obama has flipped, and Obama says McCain has flopped, what's a confused voter to do? This leads to my Flip-Flop Test. When we're trying to evaluate a politician's change of position on an issue, here are some questions we can ask:
First, what's new on the issue? Has some game-changing development taken place? Has the passage of time exposed the unintended consequences of a policy?
Perhaps a member of Congress enthusiastically supported NAFTA in the 1990s, but now comes to believe that the trade agreement has had negative consequences for her district, her state, or the country as a whole.
Is she supposed to remain locked into her original vote forever, denying all new evidence of bad consequences? If she now comes out against NAFTA, is that a Flip-Flop or an earnest and honest response to new conditions?
Second, what about the timing? Is this change in position being made in a moment of political crisis? Is there an obvious political reward for dumping the old position, or a looming punishment if the change is not made? Do you hear the voice of Saturday Night Live's "Church Lady" saying, "Well, isn't that convenient?"
Applying this test should help us separate politically expedient flip-flops from honest changes of opinion. To that, we might add a note of human sympathy: Elected officials take "positions" on hundreds of issues, some of which are of minor importance in any big scheme of things, some of which they took after a seven-minute briefing by an aide twenty years ago.
Besides, how many of us are perfectly consistent in our own thinking over the decades? If reporters dredged up tapes and transcripts of our happy-hour chats from long ago or six months ago, how many "flip-flops" and deviations would be revealed?
Ponder this, and you may change your mind about politicians changing their minds. If you do, I won't accuse you of flip-flopping.
Chris Tucker is a Dallas writer and literary consultant.
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