Is A Politician Who “Flip-Flops” Really A Bad Thing?

Mitt Romney is still being dogged by charges of changed positions. Now, he's trying to spin that as a good thing.

During the 2008 campaign, one of the most stinging accusations made against Mitt Romney was the accusation that he had changed his views for political purposes, specifically to appear more conservative that he had been during his previous campaigns for political office in Massachusetts.  The charge that Romney was a “flip-flopper” covered several hot-button issues for Republicans, and resonated throughout the winter of 2007-08 as Romney and Mike Huckabee battled it out in Iowa:

1. Abortion. In October 2002, campaigning for governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney said he would “preserve and protect” a woman’s right to choose. He now describes himself as an abortion opponent.

2. Gay rights. In a 1994 letter to the Log Cabin Republicans, who advocate gay rights, he said he was in favor of “gays and lesbians being able to serve openly and honestly” in the military. He now says it would be a mistake to interfere with the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

3. Gun control. Campaigning for the Senate in 1994, he said he favored strong gun laws and did not “line up with the NRA.” He joined the National Rifle Association in 2006 while pondering a presidential run, and he praised the group for “doing good things” and “supporting the right to bear arms.”

4. Campaign finance. In 1994, he advocated a spending limit on congressional elections and the abolition of political action committees. In 2002, he supported public financing of campaigns from a 10 percent tax on private fundraising. This year, he said the McCain-Feingold law limiting campaign contributions is an attack on free speech.

5. Immigration. In a November 2005 interview with the Boston Globe, he described an immigration overhaul advanced by John McCain as “reasonable.” He now denounces it as an “amnesty plan.” In December 2006, he signed an agreement authorizing state troopers to round up illegal immigrants.

Rick Perry’s campaign has hit Romney hard on the flip-flopping theme recently this time time around. So far, they’ve released web videos on Romney’s position on health insurance reform, the President’s education policies, and the 2009 stimulus plan. It’s clearly a message that resonates with many conservatives, who have distrusted Romney for some time for just this reason.

Yesterday, Romney argued that changing one’s mind in the face of new information is what business people do all the time, and that it’s a virtue rather than a sin:

Mitt Romney today responded head-on to critics who say he flip-flops on issues, telling a crowd at a New Hampshire town hall that “it’s not that every single issue I’ve looked at my entire life I’ve never changed my view on.”

While Romney never mentioned chief rival Texas Gov. Rick Perry by name, he certainly seemed to be referencing him in answering a question from a voter asking how to respond to those who question Romney’s candidacy.

Romney at first joked, “Let me give you some brass knuckles, that should help.”

But then he launched into a more serious answer, taking what sounded like veiled swipes at Perry.

“The nature of politics is that you try and find some edge to characterize your opponent and beat him over the head, and that is if you don’t have a optimistic or positive message of your own,” said Romney.

“That’s going to happen and I understand it,” he said. “It’s pretty rough and tumble and I don’t whine about that I realized that when I got into [politics].”

Then, without specifically mentioning Perry’s latest web video attack on Romney, which accuses him of switching his stance on Obama’s stimulus plan, Romney said, “The nice thing about writing a book is that you can read it and see what I stand for.”

“In the private sector, if you don’t change your view when the facts change, you’ll get fired for being stupid,” Romney added.

On the surface, there’s much to recommend to this position. Holding oneself rigidly to a policy position based solely on ideological considerations when the facts argue otherwise isn’t necessarily an admirable or desirable quality in a politician. Similarly, there is much about governing that is pragmatic, requiring a decision maker to choose between alternatives that are both undesirable, but one of which may be wiser than the other. Under those kind of circumstances, a politician who says “I was wrong” isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Additionally, the humility necessary to admit that one was mistaken is something that one would hope that every political leader would possess. So, in that respect, what Romney is saying here is both correct and makes sense.

Back in 2007, when the flip-flopper charges against Romney were just starting to heat up, Boston University Professor Bruce Schulman pointed out that some of America’s most well-regarding Presidents could be called flip-floppers:

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

Schulman also cites Franklin Roosevelt, who campaigned in 1932 on balancing the Federal Budget and completely reversed himself when he got into office, and even George H.W. Bush and the tax flip-flip, which arguably cost him his Presidency to make the point that in politics, “changing circumstances sometimes require compromising your principles.”

On its face, there seems to me to be something wrong with criticizing a politician, or anyone for that matter, for changing their mind on an issue, or even acting against their principles if they think it’s the right thing to do. For one thing, forcing someone to justify a position they took in the past and no longer agree with seems to be a bit unfair. Should Ronald Reagan have been disqualified because he used to be a Democrat? Should Rick Perry be disqualified because he was the Texas Campaign Chairman for Al Gore in 1988? Human beings are capable of changing their minds,  and condemning them for it is really rather silly.

As Steven Benen notes, though, Mitt Romney’s problem is more than just changing his mind, it’s the perception that he’s done so for political reasons:

Romney would have voters believe that he’s simply adapted to changing facts. The circumstances make this impossible to believe — his radical transformations, purely by happenstance, just happen to coincide with political expediency to further Romney’s ambitions? The parallels between his metamorphoses and the shifting political winds are an accident?

Please. The list of Romney flip-flops is just too long, and covers too much ground, to be a remarkable coincidence. There’s nothing remotely sincere about his repeated reinventions. The guy has demonstrated a willingness to flip-flop like no other American politician in a generation.

Indeed, can anyone name a single issue of any significance in which Romney has been consistent? Anything at all? I don’t mean generic platitudes — he’s “pro-freedom” or wants “a strong military” — I mean actual public policies. The fact that this question is challenging for the former governor’s campaign speaks volumes.

I’m perfectly comfortable with a politician pondering doubts and questioning whether he or she is right about an issue. But when a politician changes his views so fundamentally that he’s adopted several different worldviews in a fairly brief time span, is it really unreasonable to question the man’s integrity?

Mitt Romney’s problem isn’t that he’s changed his mind, it’s the perception that he’s done so solely, or primarily for reasons of political expediency. This seems to be especially true of issues like abortion, where he had long been on the record as being pro-choice and then, in 2005, suddenly announced that he had changed his mind and become pro-life, or at least that’s the perception that was created. Perhaps if it had been one or two issues, even an issue as emotional as abortion, Romney might have been okay. It wasn’t the only issue, though, and the perception by 2007 was that Romney had remade himself as a social conservative in anticipation of a run for the White House in 2008. That’s the root of the problems that Romney continues to have with the conservative base of the GOP.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with a politician who changes their mind, or a President who acts contrary to their previously stated principles when they come to the conclusion that it’s in the best interest of the nation. The public, though, seems to have little patience for someone who does so for cynical political reasons. Will Romney’s new spin on the “flip-flopper” charge help to deflect the criticism he’s been dealing with for four years now? Given the perceptions that have been set in the minds of many activists conservatives, it’s not going to be easy.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2012, US Politics,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. Steve Verdon says:

    Dogmatism is everywhere a good thing.

  2. Andre Kenji says:

    No, that´s not the problem. It´s one thing an elected official that changes his positions due to political circunstances, it´s another thing a politician that says whatever people want to listen to.

  3. legion says:

    @Andre Kenji: True, but more than that…
    It’s one thing to change your opinion based on new facts. A person that does that can explain _why_ they changed their mind. People who “flip-flop”, like Mittens (and, admittedly, most of today’s politicians), then proceed to pretend that they _always_ held this opinion, despite any evidence to the contrary.

    Ultimately, it leads to the same condition as Andre’s explanation – you simply can’t have any faith in _any_ statement that person makes, since is can (and in a politician’s case, most assuredly _will_) change at a moment’s notice, with no warning or reason. Except possibly a fat campaign donation.

  4. Anon says:

    Okay, so why is it wrong to adjust one’s positions based on political calculation? Or, to look at the question from another viewpoint, what types of things can be based on political calculation, and what cannot? For example, is it okay to use political calculation to decide which way to vote on a bill?

  5. john personna says:

    The flips sound less bad in the abstract than in that list of particulars.

    IMO a better line for Romney to take is that he is a conservative but a pragmatist, and that while politicking in Massachusetts he worked with what is Massachusetts-Right thinking, on a national scale he is taking a National-Right position.

    I mean it’s simply true that a National-Right position would have excluded him from Massachusetts politics, so why not pitch the flexibility as in service to the respective communities?

  6. PD Shaw says:

    The concept of “flip-flop” is being used too broadly here. Romney advocating or opposing different campaign laws is not flip-flopping. If he changed his position on the same McCain immigration proposal, that would be a flip-flop, but I frankly don’t trust that WaPo list that seems to assume that there only two possible positions on any subject.

    Lincoln did not flip-flop on slavery. He didn’t believe the federal government had the Constitutional authority to interfere with the institution where it existed in the state. Ultimately, he supported a Constitutional Amendment to change that. Similarly, Romney would have had an obligation under his oath of office to enforce abortion laws that he may not necessarily agree with.

  7. Tristan says:

    I really don’t care if a politician flip flops. The only possible reason it might be a bad thing is that it is a proxy for tendency to buckle under pressure. But it’s a proxy for a lot of good things too: willingness to compromise, pragmatism, etc. In general, I only care what policies a politician represents, not whether he honestly believes in them or not. The inner thoughts of Romney are unfathomable and quite irrelevant.

  8. ernieyeball says:

    Looks like these guys had something to say about a change of opinion.

    The Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 by James Madison Monday May 28

    Mr. WYTHE from the Committee for preparing rules made a report which employed the deliberations of this day.

    Mr. KING objected to one of the rules in the Report authorising any member to call for the yeas & nays and have them entered on the minutes. He urged that as the acts of the Convention were not to bind the Constituents, it was unnecessary to exhibit this evidence of the votes; and improper as changes of opinion would be frequent in the course of the business & would fill the minutes with contradictions.

    Col. MASON seconded the objection; adding that such a record of the opinions of members would be an obstacle to a change of them on conviction; and in case of its being hereafter promulged must furnish handles to the adversaries of the Result of the Meeting. The proposed rule was rejected nem. contradicente.

  9. Hey Norm says:

    He needs this meme to gain traction with the wing-nuts.
    Jan, JTea, Eric, Drew…y’all paying attention?
    If he gets them repeating it he will probably win the nomination.
    It would not suprise me one bit to see it happen…given their ability to accept almost anything fed them.
    Cain made the brainwashing claim and Jan was all over it by the end of the day.

  10. legion says:

    All of this avoids an important question – why do you vote for a particular candidate in the first place? Presumably, you believe he holds certain positions and will vote in certain ways which you approve. If a politician changes his position on major topics – especially without any clear explanation or even admission that there’s been a change – why would you vote for him?

    Again, adaptation over time, or in the face of changing knowledge, is one thing, but altering your entire philosophical platform depending on who you’re talking to is the hallmark of someone who simply can’t be believed.

  11. NickNot says:

    Flip Flopping at it’s core is a sign of being A) unsure; or B) Uncommitted. Neither bodes well in the this type of position. It means you won’t have the stones to veto. It means you are unlikely to bring or put forth legislative ideas. When someone flip flops on minor issues…. it’s one thing. But the president has to have a core set of values that drive decision making and that core usually revolves around central points (economy, war, freedom, taxes, budget etc…). The problem with Mitt Romney is that you really don’t see any core because it seems he could go either way on just about any issue. You just don’t expect there to be any conviction on any issues. And that would make him a weak president in my opinion.

    Say what you want about our current president – but he has a core set of values

    Say what you want about Ron Paul – but I’m pretty sure he’s not going to come out and say he all of a sudden “loves” the fed reserve tomorrow.

  12. Hey Norm says:

    This is a really interesting event when you think about it.
    The meme of Romney being a flip-flopper is pretty old…the 2008 election right? Now Romney is trying to invent a new meme to do battle with the old meme. Can you actually invent a meme about yourself? Once you do what if it propogates/evolves/mutates in a way you don’t want or don’t forsee? This is meme-tastic!!

  13. PD Shaw says:

    @legion: “All of this avoids an important question – why do you vote for a particular candidate in the first place?”

    Personally, I select a President based upon his/her contrasts with the opposing candidate on the issues that matter to me. And the issues that matter to me are one in which the President has particular influence. Part of the problem with the five Romney flip-flops is that I think only the immigration issues are ones that the President might have particular influence on. The rest are either very constrained by the courts (abortion, gun control, campaign finance) or limited by lack of national consensus sufficient to pass laws through Congress (all of them).

    Foreign policy is important, and while I’m surprised at the extent Obama has expanded wars in Pakistan, Yeman and Libya, I can’t say that he didn’t offer a more dovish contrast to his opponent.

  14. Ben says:

    john personna hits the nail on the head. Romney was running for office in Massachusetts. If you’re going to attempt to be a Republican candidate in Massachusetts, then the issue stances that are acceptable to the electorate are miles away from what primary voters in Texas and Alabama want your stances to be. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with altering your policy stances to what is acceptable to your electorate.

  15. Scott F. says:

    The flip flopping charge will be a much greater impediment for Romney in attaining the Republican nomination than it would be in the general election. The right base believes strongly in the immutability of what they hold to be true – nuance be damned. Regardless of what happened to Kerry in 2004, the broader public better understands changing one’s positions when new information warrants it.

  16. Eric Florack says:

    Yes, it’s a problem.
    Pay attention, Norm.
    Compromising yoour principles is NEVER a good thing, particularly in a in a politician. If you vote for someone based on their view, and their views change after the fact what do you have?
    “I’m sorry but I can’t give you that tax cut I promised”, or, if you prefer…”REad my lips…”

    Your example of Bush, Doug, is a case in point; He got himself… and us… into trouble to the exact degree he compromised conservative principles. As did his father.

    Political expediency… that way lies a Clinton. Or, an Obama. Or a Bush
    You getting all this, Norm?

  17. Argon says:

    The main problem is that you don’t know who you’re going to get with Romney. I wouldn’t mind a ‘flip-flopper’ if I knew where they were generally headed. If you want dogmatic purity, you’ll get crappy government. Beyond being the first Mormon President, I can’t guess what Romney wants. He is however, along with Huntsman, one of the most sane candidates in the GOP field.

  18. anjin-san says:

    I think we can be sure bit will stick to his core principles:

    He wants the government to provide the services he likes, but does not want to pay for them.

    He is almost always in favor of using military force, as long as someone else is doing the fighting.

    He likes to accuse people of being communists, but always disappears when asked to prove his claims.

  19. An Interested Party says:

    Political expediency… that way lies a Clinton. Or, an Obama. Or a Bush…

    Or a Reagan, for that matter…but I doubt that you will get that…

  20. jan says:

    What Romney mainly has going for him is his private sector business experience and his Olympic success. On the flip side, there will be lots of acrimony over some of his social issue stances, MA health care and probably how he indiscriminately fired people to make business models fiscally healthier.

    But then every candidate has pros and cons lurking in their resumes, including the current president. In other words, no one is the perfect candidate in the upcoming election. And, people will just have to prioritize what they are looking for to make their selection. So far jobs and the economy seem to be at the top of the majority of people’s wish list. And, Romney’s strong points do fit into such a wish list, especially for indies who are focusing primarily on economical issues.

    I also agree with one poster’s comment above who said Romney will have an easier time in the GE than the GOP primaries, where his faux pas/flip flops will be judged more harshly.

  21. just me says:

    I think flip flopping is bad if it is from one event to the next based on who the audience is or the change comes in a way where it seems to be politically expedient and the politician doesn’t have a reason for why they changed their mind.

    That said-very few people move through life without changing their opinions on a variety of issues. I would certainly hate for somebody to take a belief I had 10, 15 or 20 years ago and hold me to that belief-we shouldn’t do so with politicians either.

    I can explain why my positions have changed and that is really what I would want to know from the politician.

  22. eric florack says:

    AIPK I understand the charge, havng dealt with it so often before.
    What you forget, as so many who suggest that Reagan couldn’t make it in todays GOP… Was that Reagan himself said he hadnlt left the Democrat party… Rather that the left him. He rejected the extreme left that you so willingly embrace. Put another way, Reagan din’t cange his mind. The left changed theirs.

    You MIGHT wanna stop invoking his name since you so cearly are cueless on the subject of what he did and didn’t think.

  23. An Interested Party says:

    You MIGHT wanna stop invoking his name since you so cearly are cueless on the subject of what he did and didn’t think.

    On the contrary, you are the one who is in a state of denial…when I refer to Reagan as being politically expedient, I wasn’t talking about when he switched from being a Democrat to being a Republican, but rather, what he did while he was president…for all his talk of cutting government and slashing taxes, he did little to actually cut government and after his first big tax cuts, he turned around and raised taxes on several occasions…

    What Romney mainly has going for him is his private sector business experience…

    Oh sure, like making companies profitable by shipping jobs overseas…some business experience…