The Flip-Flop Test

In yesterday’s post about our imperfect choices on energy policy, I noted in passing that I don’t see John McCain’s recent change of mind on off-shore drilling as a serious “flip-flop,” in mediaspeak.

The issue here is not McCain, who, if recent polls are predictive, may be headed for a defeat of Mondalian, if not Goldwaterian dimensions.  Every campaign season produces plenty of heated rhetoric and flying charges of flip-flopping on every conceivable issue. Opposition research teams dig back into their rival’s distant past to find every time he or she ever changed his mind about anything. “Today, Senator Marglebargle talks a fine game about women’s rights. But in 1971, as an Ohio state representative, he 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 flip-flop and an actual new view of a problem?

Regular readers of this blog know that I’m deeply interested in how and why people change or don’t change, so naturally the Flip-Flop question intrigues me. On the one hand, we always praise people who learn and grow and educate themselves and reach out to new perspectives and try to get everyone to the table and hear all the voices in the debate.  On the other hand, if a pol announces a change of mind on anything, the Flip-Flop-Flak-Attackers pounce on him and rip his flesh.

Of course, the most hopeless people on this matter, as always, are the purblind partisans of Left or Right, those who only want to win at whatever cost. These are the people, whatever their party, that I just can’t stand to listen to anymore. Life’s too short. That’s why I just grimace and click away when Chris Matthews or Chris Wallace tries to get, say, Terry McAuliffe, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, to admit that she might have made a mistake, or to grant that McCain or some other Repub might have just the smallest flicker of a good idea. Not gonna happen.

Here’s a beginning stab at a distinction, a Two-Part Flip-Flop Test:

1. Has significant new information emerged on the issue? Has some game-changing development taken place? Is it possible that Candidate X was not aware of certain key facts five years ago, but knows about them now? Has  the passage of time  exposed unintended consequences of a position that were not apparent in the past?  Perhaps a pol enthusiastically supported NAFTA in the 90s, but now comes to believe that the trade agreement has had negative consequences for her district, state, or the country as a whole. Is she supposed to remain wedded to her original vote forever, denying all new evidence of bad consquences? If she now comes out against NAFTA, is that a Flip-Flop or a response to new conditions?

2. Is the change in position being made in a moment of political crisis? Is there an obvious looming 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?”

I think that test is a good start on the Flip-Flop question. To that, we might add a note of human sympathy, which I know will brand me as a sappy wimp and dupe: 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. If reporters dredged up  tape and transcripts of  all your happy hour chats from 20 years ago, how many “flip-flops” and deviations would be revealed?



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