What’s So Bad About ‘Flip-Flopping’?

Is it really such a bad thing when a politician changes a long-help position on a political issue?

As I noted early Friday, former Vice-President Joe Biden reversed a position he’d held for more than forty years and has come out in opposition to the Hyde Amendment and its bar on Federal spending on abortion except in a limited number of exceptions. Not surprisingly, this has led to charges of flip-flopping from what mostly consists of conservative critics and pundits.

In discussing the matter on Twitter, though, I raised this question:

Paul Waldman at The Washington Post argues that Biden’s change of position on the Hyde Amendment is a positive sign:

[T]his shows, as I have argued, that flip-flopping is actually good. It doesn’t indicate an inherent weakness of character or make a candidate untrustworthy. That’s because once a candidate changes their position on some important issue, they never change back. Those changes almost always happen in one direction: from a position that was out of step with their party to a position that is in step with their party.

Often it’s because they go from representing a state or district where their party is in the minority and so they had to be more moderate, to trying to represent the national party, which means they have to bring themselves into alignment with their comrades. The classic case is Mitt Romney going from being a Republican in heavily blue Massachusetts to running to be the Republican nominee.

At other times it’s it’s because circumstances have indeed changed and so has the party. Hillary Clinton, who was part of the “Third Way” movement in the 1990s, ran as a much more liberal candidate in 2016 because the Democratic Party had moved to the left.

But in either type of case, the shift never reverses. This is especially true on the specific issues politicians have shifted on, because they know they’re viewed with suspicion on that issue, so they must reassure their party that they’re still on the team.

When a presidential primary campaign produces those flips, it’s a sign that the system is working: The party is figuring out exactly what it stands for and where it has fallen short in putting its beliefs into practice. In some cases, as with the Hyde Amendment, that means it moves from a diversity of opinion that isn’t discussed very much toward a clear consensus that will lead to action if they manage to take power.

The most common term for it, of course, is flip-flopping, and it’s one I have used myself on several occasions to describe similar situations where a politician abandons a long-held position and changes their mind. Typically, it’s meant to be derogatory, and it often ends up being used in political campaigning in such a way.

On some level, I suppose there is a certain logic to it. If you’re someone who believes that political principles are the most important thing in a politician then a candidate who abandons those principles, in whole or in part, in what seems to be a politically opportunistic way is someone deserving of an attack. Additionally, generally speaking, it’s seen as better for someone to be consistent in their ideology and their policy beliefs. Therefore, when someone changes their position on an issue, they open themselves up to being attacked as a “flip-flopper.”

Why should this be considered a bad thing, though?

If a politician is changing their opinion or position on an issue in response to the fact that their constituents feel strongly about something, isn’t that something we want to see in a representative democracy? Or what about a case where there is empirical evidence that contradicts a previously held belief, do we insist that a politician maintain a view that no longer comports with reality based on some notion of “consistency?”

The most classic recent example of this, of course, comes in connection with the issue of same-sex marriage. Two decades ago, most Americans, and the people who represented them, opposed marriage equality to the point where even Democrats in Congress supported, and a Democratic President signed into law, a bill that defined marriage as being only between a man and a woman. Over time, people began to change their position on this issue. Are these people to be denounced as “flip-floppers” or praised for the fact that they have seen the light and come to support equal rights for gay and lesbian couples? The same can be said for a number of other issues.

In the end, it all boils down to what voters want, something about which political pundits inevitably believe that they know. For those who are committed to an ideological view of the world, whether it’s conservative, liberal, libertarian, or whatever, the answer is that the American people want a politician committed to a rigid and unmoving ideology not swayed by poll numbers or election results. For the more pragmatic, the answer is that most voters respond more to results and whether or not a politician is willing to listen to the voters, listen to the evidence, and change their minds when reality points in a different direction from ideology. Obviously, the ideologue will be more dismissive of the politician who “flip-flops” than the pragmatist will.

To be sure, there is often no small degree of political opportunism involved when a candidate changes a long-held belief in the way that former Vice-President Biden has done on the Hyde Amendment, but again I have to wonder if that’s such a bad thing. The question boils down to whether we want rigid ideologues as our political leaders or people with open minds.

I’ll leave that one for the readers to hash out in comment thread.

FILED UNDER: Congress, Joe Biden, Politicians, 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. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. DrDaveT says:

    The most common term for it, of course, is flip-flopping, and it’s one I have used myself on several occasions to describe similar situations where a politician abandons a long-held position and changes their mind.

    It took me quite a while to figure out that people were using “flip-flop” to refer to politicians changing their position once. I had always assumed that it meant changing back and forth — at least once each way — which could reasonably be interpreted as pure political expediency.

    Everybody should get one chance to admit they were wrong on a given issue; the only alternative to that is mindless dogmatism. If you want to recant your conversion later, you’d better have a good story.

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  2. KM says:

    Because true flip-flopping is not changing your mind but reading where the wind blows. It’s a concept that gets applied to anyone who’s changed position but it was originally meant to significant a sycophantic behavior. “Oh, I’m totally for X…. unless you’re not, in which case I’m for Y” is the hallmark of a toady or suck-up, not someone you expect to lead you. Even if it was done for the purist and most kind-hearted reason, it’s still someone attempting to curry favor with you to get something. Two-faced or opportunistic, if done badly – mildly untrustworthy at best (never know if they’ll change again!)

    Biden, for example. He clearly and rapidly “changed his mind” because of how the reactions went. We are now left with the impression he either (1) told us what he personally believed but is now telling us what we want to hear instead solely so we vote for him, (2) misspoke and issued a correction now telling us what we want to hear instead solely so we vote for him or (3) he doesn’t care either way and is now telling us what we want to hear instead solely so we vote for him. What comes across? Vote for me! There was nothing organic about it, nothing that indicated it was even semi-realistic as a change. He got crap for something, shifted with the wind and got even more crap for clearly shifting with the wind.

    Changing your opinions is a life thing. It happens but rarely happens quickly. The deeper the belief, the longer the process to swing around to another position. Politicians are in it for personal gain so we really don’t expect them to be truly attached to their stances. But by God, we *do* expect them to not be so obvious about trying to pull the wool over our eyes or pick a different ass to kiss mid-sentence. There’s an art to it and part of politics is learning that performance.

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  3. Jen says:

    I don’t have a problem at all with a politician changing his or her mind on an issue when it is the result of examination, deliberative thought, and/or a genuine change of perception. I have changed my mind on umpteen issues, primarily because life experience taught me that my initial perceptions were either overly simplistic, didn’t work in the real world, or didn’t take a variety of conditional factors into account. Basically, I grew up. I think that Obama’s change on same-sex marriage was a genuine change, and it mirrored the broader public’s change on this issue too.

    I think people have an issue with a politician changing his or her mind when it appears to simply be to acquire votes or adjust to party ideologues. I felt Romney’s change on the abortion issue fell under this heading (there was a personal connection in his family to a woman dying from an illegal abortion), same with his opposition to the ACA, which frankly was just a federal version of one of his signature achievements as Governor of MA. Romney has continued to be just as wishy-washy as a US Senator, making broad statements that amount to nothing because he never follows through.

    Biden’s recent change…it certainly feels like adjusting to fit voters.

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  4. @KM:

    If a politician changes a position on an issue to be responsive to votes, what’s so wrong about that?

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  5. Kathy says:

    In science, it’s a virtue to change one’s mind when new evidence proves a long-held theory wrong, incomplete, or limited. But politics is not science.

    In politics, those who follow the opinion polls are accused of pandering, while those who don’t are accused of being out of touch.

    Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, right?

    Not quite. a politician that caters to your opinion is not seen as pandering. People who hold an opposite opinion, if applicable, are the ones making the accusation. But if the politician flips to your position, then you’ll say now he’s pandering for political gain.

    I think at root the issue is the open, often unanswerable question, of whether a politician changed their position on an issue because they changed their minds, or because they prefer to pander to the other side, and whether they held their previous position sincerely, or were pandering to that side to begin with.

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  6. Jen says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    If a politician changes a position on an issue to be responsive to votes, what’s so wrong about that?

    Speaking only for myself–if a politician changes *solely* to be responsive to votes, I suppose I question his/her commitment to that position, and seeing policy ideas through when things get tough.

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  7. KM says:

    @Doug Mataconis :
    Isn’t that kinda like asking what’s wrong with a yes-man or professional ass-kisser?

    After all, they’re only doing it curry favor with you. What’s wrong with someone who does what you tell them to regardless of how they feel about it, says only what you want to hear and clearly does it just to get you to like them?

    Again, I’m not really giving them crap for trying to win over the crowd with an incredibly cynical method. That’s how the game’s been played since day one. Flip-flopping is more akin to the behavior of courtiers trying to flatter a king then a politician sensing they’re on unstable ground and moving their stance. Nobody likes the obvious suck-ups – it tends to repulse people on a deep level to see someone brown-nose and not bother to wipe it off afterwards. We call politicians “slimy” for a reason!

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  8. michael reynolds says:

    What concerned me was not the change of position but that Biden had not apparently realized that in the current political climate he would have to change position. That doesn’t speak to me of a pol who is in touch.

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  9. Kylopod says:

    There are flip-flops, and then are flip-flops.

    Obama’s “evolution” on SSM is instructive. In 2010, a couple of years before he came out in support of SSM, The New Republic provided a helpful timeline of the evolution of his views up to that point. It’s not so simple to suggest that he went from being anti to for. He actually signed a petition in support of SSM all the way back in 1996 when he was just a state senator. After he moved to the US Senate in the mid-2000s, that’s when he adopted the conventional Democratic strategy at the time of backing civil unions, while stopping short of calling the unions “marriages.” When pressed by reporters, he tended to describe his position as more strategic than ideological: he said calling them civil unions was the best way to get more people behind them. But in 2008, as a presidential candidate, he did at least once repeat the mantra of believing marriage was between a man and woman.

    I used to describe Obama’s position at the time as “ASSMINO”—Against Same-Sex Marriage In Name Only. In practice he opposed just about every attempt to stop SSM: he consistently opposed DOMA and Prop 8, not to mention the Federal Marriage Amendment. Certainly he never adopted the apocalyptic rhetoric of some opponents, talking as though it would hasten the collapse of civilization. In fact he never really made any arguments against SSM apart from the vague implication that society wasn’t quite ready to call the marriages marriages yet.

    Biden’s record on the issue is a bit more complex as he actually voted for DOMA. But even he showed signs of recognizing the semantic nature of the Democratic position. During the 2008 vp debate he said that he supported benefits for “couples in a same-sex marriage.” The moderator Gwen Ifill (who seemed a bit baffled), asked him if he supported SSM, and he quickly replied “No. [Neither] Barack Obama nor I support redefining from a civil side what constitutes marriage,” but he added that people of all faiths have the right to define the relationships as they please.

    When Obama (Biden first actually) came out fully in support of SSM in 2012, he didn’t actually change any concrete policy positions as far as his presidential powers were concerned. It was an important move symbolically but had no direct consequences practically.

    Unlike some people here, I don’t think Obama sincerely changed his mind on the issue—or if he did, it happened many years before he owned up to it. As a US Senator and presidential candidate he recognized that support for SSM was often regarded as a fringe position—one that many believed was responsible for the Dems’ defeat in 2004—and he didn’t want to be relegated to the fringes. He adopted the position that he believed would enable him to get elected, but aimed to do as much as he could within that framework to expand the rights of same-sex couples at a practical level. By the time he officially came out in support, public opinion had already begun to shift on the issue. He didn’t bravely adopt an unpopular opinion, but he did attempt—more or less successfully—to nudge public opinion in his direction.

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  10. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Doug Mataconis: Nothing, as long as you understand that said person is going to tell you what you want to hear and may or may not vote your interests when the issue comes up–depending on who has his or her ear at that moment.

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  11. Gustopher says:

    Biden’s new position on the Hyde amendment is crass political maneuvering. That’s a good thing. It shows he listens to, and is responsive to, the voters.

    He doesn’t care about the Hyde amendment. Not enough to resist change when he gets called out on it, and not enough to pay attention and see where the base of his party is on it. He learned the acceptable Democratic position on it ages ago, and never really thought twice about it. I can see that troubling some people, who care deeply about it, but it’s what I want from a politician — when they don’t care, they should just represent their voters and their constituents.

    There’s roughly 50,000 positions that a Democratic nominee will have. Most candidates care strongly about a very small fraction. I would be terrified of anyone who had strong beliefs on all of that.

    This, by the way, is one of the things I really like about Gillibrand — she represented her House district well, and then represented her entire state well. I don’t think the current occupant of the White House represents anyone other than his base.

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  12. michael reynolds says:

    @Gustopher:
    I think it’s time to let Gillibrand go. She’s dead, Jim.

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  13. Gustopher says:

    @michael reynolds: Just because she likely won’t be President in 2021? She’s still a good Senator, and is young enough that she could run in 2028 or god forbid 2024.

    I like her pragmatic representing of her constituents. It’s something more politicians should emulate. Including our eventual Presidential nominee, John Hickenlooper or whoever.

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  14. Mister Bluster says:

    Notes on the Debates in the Federal Convention
    Monday May 28, 1787

    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.

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  15. KM says:

    @michael reynolds :
    Yep. Biden’s not a bad guy or politician – should he win, I would have little to no complaints. He’s just got a West Wing-esque 90’s feel to a lot of his positions when liberals were slowly beginning to get a feel for the nascent right-wing-o-sphere but still thought they could halt that crazy train. Some have not aged well at all, particularly his latest statements that Trump’s merely an aberration and the GOP will return to sanity once he’s gone. Despite the fact that multiple states launching an all out assault on Roe, Biden thinks the GOP’s full of really great people who are just having a moment and that moment’s name is Donald. He’s sticking with the old agreements like it’s 1939 and those lines drawn on the map will keep Czechoslovakia safe.

    Biden’s old-school and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But old-school gets to keep rocking old-school because they’re aware enough to survive the new. He needs to sit with some people to figure this out now before he gets caught out in the wild.

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  16. Gustopher says:

    @KM: The field seems pretty split on whether to pretend that bipartisanship is possible. Biden, Klobachur, and a bunch of the 1%ers (Hickenlooper, Bullock, etc) are stressing their ability to work across the aisle, and a lot of people want to hear that.

    I think it’s a mixture of wishful thinking and just plain lying. “Bipartisanship” is to a large segment of Democrats as “winning” is to Trumpeters — a lie they want to believe.

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  17. Guarneri says:

    Its 7 pm, do you know Joe Biden’s position on China right now? Wait until 9.

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  18. An Interested Party says:

    Its 7 pm, do you know Joe Biden’s position on China right now? Wait until 9.

    Uh huh

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  19. grumpy realist says:

    1. I think everyone got sick of “flip-flopping” politicians when listening to Romney taking all sides of any issue, depending on what audience he was in front of.

    2. There is the possibility that a politician is actually “meh” about an issue, but ends up coming down on one side or the other simply because we insist on him “taking a stand! Be a leader!” and refuse to put up with a “well….it depends” answer. So “flip-flopping” may be nothing more than our interpretation of a gradual shift from 49% to 51%.

    3. The gods know there are issues that I have changed my own mind on, either because I’ve learned more or because I’ve gotten more cynical about the stupidity of the average human, so I don’t think I really have a right to go screeching about certain politicians when it’s been a change over 15 years. Changing back and forth each week? Yah, that I can get indignant about.

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  20. JohnMcC says:

    @michael reynolds: Good call! I noticed that too and some talking head on the TV agreed, said ‘bad staff work’.

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