In 2004, Republicans gleefully labeled former Democratic presidential aspirant and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry a “flip-flopper” for his numerous nuanced reversals. It was easy with Kerry, of course, given his tendency to sneer at his political opponents and a voice that dripped with disdain as it droned on monotonously above our heads. His annoying self-righteousness was as palpable as his wannabe Kennedy hairstyle.
In the recent primary season, charges of flip-flopping dogged Republican contender and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Romney had tried to transform himself into a born again social conservative in the race for the Republican presidential nod but his effort fell flat as Republican voters surprised pundits by choosing John McCain.
Known for his maverick approach to politics and his willingness to take unpopular positions, McCain overcame a lackluster public speaking style, an absence of personal charisma, and his unfortunate tendency to put his foot in his mouth to win the support of enough of the GOP rank and file to claim the nomination. But he has yet to light any fires on the hustings, while Democratic political rock star Barack Obama has already lit more than his share after bursting onto the national stage and driving all the other Democratic contenders into the shadows.
Both McCain and Obama benefited from the sense of authenticity they brought to the political table: McCain, the straight shooter willing to take unpopular stands, and Obama, the real thing, a man who came up from the streets (or at least made his bones there) as a grassroots community organizer, a brilliant orator with the common touch. Yet both, in recent weeks, have surprised supporters by their willingness to do the old Kerry-Romney flip-flop.
Backtracking on his past opposition to offshore oil drilling, McCain is also a belated supporter of the Bush tax cuts he once vigorously opposed. But as a flip-flopper, Obama’s easily got him beat.
The presumptive Democratic nominee has already reversed himself on the constitutionality of banning handguns (he agreed with the recent Supreme Court decision that Washington D.C.’s blanket ban was unconstitutional though he had previously argued the opposite). He’s refined an earlier debate promise to meet unconditionally with bellicose leaders of hostile states by adding that he never meant without “preparation.” He voted in favor of the Senate bill to legalize warrantless telecommunications surveillance overseas in terrorism cases though he had previously pledged to filibuster it. He’s come out for “faith based” initiatives (shades of George Bush!) and now supports the death penalty for child abusers although he’s on record as having previously opposed capital punishment period. So what’s going on here?
As someone who once tested the political waters myself, I know the urge to please voters is powerful. Of course, it was an easy urge to resist in my case since I didn’t expect to win my local contest for a State Assembly seat. But McCain and Obama have more at stake. Both have a solid chance of winning an office that’s a good deal bigger than the position I contested. Both, too, are ambitious men (who else can handle what’s needed to run for president these days?).
Pushing 71, McCain’s waited a long time for this day and knows he’ll never get another shot. He’s already the oldest major-party presidential candidate in our history. Obama’s younger and could have other shots, of course, but he knows he’s come a remarkably long way in a really short time, catapulting to the nomination over others who had been waiting in line much longer. If he doesn’t win this one, can he hope to effect a similar leap a second time, or trust that other, newer faces won’t leap over him? The stakes are high for both men – and so is the temptation to trim their rhetorical sails to the political wind.
We want our leaders to have open minds, of course, to be able and willing to change their thinking when the facts change. If we don’t allow them that flexibility, only doctrinaire ideologues will hazard the campaign trail, to our detriment. Besides, no candidate for a major office can hope to be all things to all people, so they have to aim to be some things to many. This means a willingness to adopt positions that deviate from a single doctrinaire approach. But there’s a fine line between being flexible and having no guiding central principles. Both McCain and Obama have been accused of the latter.
Certainly Romney had a hard time in the GOP primaries conveying a sense of sincerity concerning his political awakening and many voters seemed to have a hard time crediting him with any reason for his latter-day conversion beyond the merely cynical. McCain offers what he hopes will be seen as a more principled narrative, explaining that the evidence of the Bush tax cuts over seven-plus years prompted him to realize his earlier error in opposing them. Similarly, he notes that circumstances in the oil markets have clearly changed (hard to deny that), making it necessary to revisit the drilling limitations he had previously supported. In each case, McCain’s explanation is plausible – even sensible.