On Flip-Flopping

On Flip-Flopping July 11, 2008

Both candidates face this accusation on a daily basis, including from their own supporters. Is there a problem? There are two key reasons for flip-flopping: a genuine reassessment of a position, often in light of changing facts and circumstances, and pure political pandering. Most of what we see is in the latter category. But flip-flopping itself is not necessarily a bad thing. If only George Bush had overcome his petulant stubbornness and flip-flopped over the past few years, maybe we could have avoided the killing fields of Iraq. And even when the flip-flop is done with an eye on the polls, that is not necessarily a bad thing. What matters to the voter is less the nobilty and integrity of the candidate, and more the kinds of policies that will be enacted.

Let’s look at some of Obama’s purported flip-flops. Some are based on assessments of circumstances, such as when he declared that withdrawing from Iraq could take months, and would not be instantaneous. That is a simple logistical issue, a reflection of reality, rather than a change of principle. And since the majority of Americans desire withdrawal, I don’t see much pandering here. Many progressives have been dismayed by changing positions that actually please me: his support for faith-based initiatives (properly funded this time, and not the cynical joke they became in the Bush administration), and his narrow restriction on the conditions that would justify late-term abortions (not much in the scheme of things, but a baby step in the right direction). If this is pandering, I don’t care, for the outcomes are good.

And then we come to his support for handgun ownership and the use of the death penalty for child rapists. I totally oppose these decisions, but I am not surprised. I really did not expect any better in this individualist and Calvinist culture. The culture of death is pervasive.

I’m not at all bothered by his changing views on public campaign funding. I would probably have done the same thing in his shoes! I’m sure he did not anticipate the enormous groundswell of small donors that would fill his campaign coffers. And for years, the Republicans have outspent and outlasted their opponents. So why not? It’s a sane reaction to changing circumstances, and I see little moral content. And anyway, he needs to be ready to face the inevitable onslaught of shady quasi-independent groups that will malign his character viciously, rather than debate the issues.

Finally, let me turn to his support for the government’s eavesdropping program. I will probably draw criticism for saying this (and not from the people who usually criticize me!) but I don’t have a huge problem with it. I have always argued that individual liberty is not absolute, and can be curtailed in the interests of the common good, as long as human dignity or basic human rights are respected. So while I vigorously oppose torture, rendition and unjust imprisonment, I find it hard to get worked up about this kind of wiretapping. Sure, I have major concerns that the nefarious Bush-Cheney regime will abuse this power, but this is a separate point.  

So that’s Obama. Why I simply cannot understand is why the media obsesses on his shifts, while giving McCain a free pass– at a time when McCain has accomplished the most wide-ranging political flip-flops in political history. It’s becoming difficult to keep up– this source counts 61 unique incidences of flip-flopping!! And these are major issues, ranging from torture to foreign policy to tax cuts to immigration to energy policy. Read the entire list. It’s too long to debate each point on its merit. But why is he getting a free pass from the media yet again? Are we going to see a repeat of how Gore and Kerry were treated? Sigh.

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  • c matt

    Don’t necessarily disagree that a flip-flop in the right direction, even if only for pandering, may be better than stubborn refusal leading to destruction. But integrity of the flip does have a role – if only done to pander, rather than true change of heart, there is no reason to believe the flip won’t flop right back to the previous position.

  • JohnH

    Obama ran as the progressive in the primary, sensing that the progressive voice in the Democratic party was louder than the moderate voice. Now that he has the nomination, he’s maneuvering into a moderate position–which will probably work, since the average American’s political memory seems to extend back only a few weeks. His shift has enraged a lot of folks out here in San Francisco, though. I’m betting that a lot of the Obama signs I’ve been seeing around may be coming down in favor of Nader pretty soon.

  • Jeremy

    Finally, let me turn to his support for the government’s eavesdropping program. I will probably draw criticism for saying this (and not from the people who usually criticize me!) but I don’t have a huge problem with it.

    … I’m speechless … immunity to law breaking corporations … you don’t see a problem with that?

  • jh

    I am not sure McCain is receiving a free pass at all. Just because Obama has done some huge Flip flops recently and thus creating some heat on him this week does no tmean McCain has not been examined on changes of postions. Was this not in the news and been a topic of dicussion for some time? So while I know why this charge is being made (Obama is feeling heat lets examines Mccain) the fact that Mccain changing of postitions on some issues has not been examined is false.

    Since this is the second time you have linked this list let us look at it

    The list you provide on McCain is of course a double edge sword because the subtext of that is it points out the long career in Public Service of McCain. Somethig that Obama does nto exactly have. What would Senator Obamas list like after 20 Years?

    Also like lists of this type they often do not tell the whole story and ther eis a lot more gray in those changing of positions an many cases the list is flat out wrong

    For instance this is a tad of stretch isn’t it
    “17. McCain has repeatedly said it’s a dangerous mistake to tell the “enemy” when U.S. troops would be out of Iraq. In May, McCain announced that most American troops would be home from Iraq by 2013.”

    Or what about this silliness
    21. McCain supported storing spent nuclear fuel at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Now he believes the opposite.

    THe same day that article is linked was published we see in the San Deigo Paper?
    “Calling it “a little straight talk,” Sen. John McCain told Nevada backers at a town hall meeting Wednesday he still supports the construction of a nuclear waste repository north of Las Vegas as long as it meets all the regulatory requirements.
    But the Republican presidential hopeful from Arizona also said he wants to address nuclear waste by reprocessing spent fuel and trying to find a place for an international repository, which he said the day before may make it unnecessary to build the Yucca Mountain facility.”


    28. McCain was anti-ethanol. Now he’s pro-ethanol.
    It appears the New York Tines in their JUne 28th edition looked at this issue did not get the message when it looked where Obama and McCain stands on Ethanol. McCain is till against the Subsidary of Ethanol whcih is of course what most people thinks of when people say if they “support” Ethanol

    This is kust a few problems with that list

  • jh

    I suspect Obama postion of flip flops will get more attention epsecially as hopefully he is called to task for killing one the biggest Catholic Social Justice items this deacdes. Immigration reform. He is already lying to hispanics and Latino groups. Hopefully he will be called on it

    SO I suspect this “list ” will make an appearance once again

  • Jeremy

    On the flip flopping, I think some of the focus is that for a long time, the Obama narrative is that ‘we are something different’. Now that narrative has been broken. I imagine it will settle down in a few weeks. McCain has been in the senate for some time now, as well as multiple runs for president. Him pandering or flip-flopping is mostly old news. You will notice that his recent shift to the right has been noted by the MSM.

  • jh

    More nonsense from the list

    “30. In 2005, McCain endorsed intelligent design creationism, a year later he said the opposite, and a few months after that, he was both for and against creationism at the same time.”

    The author of this list is of course not making a distinction between Intelligent Design theory and the actual teaching of the 7 day Creation story that is the bible. That is what McCain is talking about as can be seen in the transript of his remarks

    Of course what this has to do with the White House is beyond me

  • blackadderiv

    I’m also of two minds on the subject of flip flopping, as I’ve discussed previously.

    Personally, I find Obama’s flip flops reassuring, as they indicate he isn’t too terribly principled, and thus isn’t likely to engage in a lot of politically risky behavior (like, say, following through on his campaign promises).

  • Winston D

    Insofar as the post is compares Obama to McCain on the flip-flopping issue, I think it is a bit unfair. Obama was only a senator two years before he started campaigning to be President. He hasn’t had time to flip-flop as much as McCain. I frankly think McCain is not terribly bright, and I would support a constitutional amendment barring individuals who finish in the bottom five (not 5%, five) of their college class from running for President.

    That said, most politicans generally have a few areas they care a lot about, but for most issues they are fairly malleable. That, in addition to voter ignorance, is why lobbying firms are frequently quite successful. To me, flip flopping is primarily useful because it helps illuminate which areas a candidate does and does not care about. The reason the charge was so effective against Kerry, as far as I can tell, was that he had vacillated on the foremost issue on many people’s minds (Iraq) in a transparently opportunistic manner. All politicians will either flip flop or cease to be politicans rather quickly on a lot of different issues as public opinion rises and falls. It’s not a particularly damming charge as far as I can tell.

  • blackadderiv

    I frankly think McCain is not terribly bright

    According to Time, McCain has a 133 IQ, which would “rank him among the most intelligent Presidents in history.”

  • RR

    I too am enjoying Obama’s flip-flops. Primary season Obama was unpalatable. His protectionist rhetoric was particularly ugly. Now he’s admitted to pandering on free trade during the primaries so that’s a relief.

    The media is giving McCain a pass? The media isn’t even covering McCain! I heard on news radio a couple of weeks ago, “Obama managed to get in a 30 minute workout yesterday. Meanwhile, McCain unveils his economic plan.”

  • TeutonicTim

    So what exactly does this have to do with Catholicism? More Obama cheerleading, I guess.

  • So what exactly does this have to do with Catholicism?

    If the post has to do with truthfulness — and I think it does — then it has everything to do with Catholicism.

  • TeutonicTim

    GAG. Confucius say:If the post has to do with truthfulness — and I think it does — then it has everything to do with Catholicism.

  • Need a sip of water, TooterTim?

  • TeutonicTim

    Nope, that was just a really, really good(bad?) fortune cookie tidbit!

  • Are you arguing against the notion that Catholicism has everything to do with the pursuit of truth? I mean, your general comments and demeanor reveal as much, but I had no idea you would admit it.

  • TeutonicTim

    I thought Catholicism has everything to do with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. not Barack Obama and John McCain.

    Rather amazing that the people who purport to be less political than everyone else are the ones pushing this stuff.

    Seriously, it sounded like a fortune cookie bit. I expected more…

  • digbydolben

    McCain may have a high IQ, but he’s also obviously developing Alzheimer’s.

  • I thought Catholicism has everything to do with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. not Barack Obama and John McCain.

    Catholicism has everything to do with everything.

    Rather amazing that the people who purport to be less political than everyone else are the ones pushing this stuff.

    You seriously think I “purport to be less political than everyone else”? Astounding!