This year’s presidential race is characterized by the extreme nature of the Republican field: no one beats Michele Bachmann in paranoia; no one beats Newt Gingrich in baggage; no one beats Herman Cain in ignorance; and no one beats Mitt Romney in flip-flopping. For Romney in particular, so drastic is his trait that he often alters his political positions within 24 hours of having taken it. Even one of his own advisers compared Romney’s positions with Etch-a-Sketch drawings, casting further doubt on his character and the worth of his promises.
However, is flip-flopping as a phenomenon worth criticizing? People change their minds frequently, and doing so in light of evidence is often held as an indication of wisdom. Consequently, the right time to criticize politicians is when they appear to be instrumental and to violate core principles. These changes symbolize opportunism, not sagacity.
It can be difficult to determine when politicians’ change of opinion is genuine or is instrumental, but the suddenness of the change and its correlation with electoral demands are excellent indicators. Mitt Romney is known for this, both for the speed of his changes, as on anti-union legislation, and for their brazen appeal to the constituencies he is wooing, such as the anti-immigrant base and (perhaps soon) the pro-gay marriage middle. This is also seen with Newt Gingrich, who ardently favored policies combating global warming when he was off the ballot only to vigorously oppose such legislation while on it. Such opportunistic political maneuvers deserve the condemnation they reap.
Betraying core principles is also a despicable act, though in practice the pressures governance puts on competing values should make us pause before casting stones at politicians. During the 2008 election, President Obama campaigned on a platform condemning the Bush administration’s treatment of civil liberties, a stance he has since violated in practice. In some cases, such as his failure to close Guantanamo Bay, this change is the understandable result of political factors beyond his control. Although he tried to disband the base outright, Congress refused to follow along. Apparently, few constituents beg their representatives to put a prison full of terrorists in their backyard. Many more scream at their congressmen for trying to get their families killed.
Conversely, actions such as the president’s assassination of an American citizen in Yemen are beyond the pale. One could defend the action by acknowledging the president’s desire to save American lives, as well as the messiness of security issues, and thus avoid making a moral judgment. One could defend the action by arguing that the president had a larger agenda to preserve that benefits society, an agenda that cannot be sacrificed preserving the life of a terrorist trying to kill our countrymen, even if he is also a citizen. However, ignoring the long-term damage of the action on civil liberties out of fear of short-term problems indicates at least one instance of deficient moral integrity, especially for a former professor of constitutional law with experience protecting the civil rights of murder suspects. We should hold our leaders to the highest moral standards and expect them to possess stout principles; violating those standards and principles should only be tolerated if they truly improve society’s welfare, which is almost never the case.
The task of determining the nature of flip flops thus calls for higher standards by both citizens and politicians. Despite the difficulty, citizens should spend time studying the issues and the political climate so that they can determine when their politicians more closely resemble statesmen or weasels. As for politicians, they already know from practice balancing their principles with governing pressures that the consequences of hard decisions are not excusable for their difficulty. However, the value of maintaining one’s personal integrity and resisting electoral pressure is not to be underestimated. Not only is it occasionally rewarded, but as Mitt Romney can attest, if you bend too much you’ll lose people’s respect altogether, regardless of your other virtues as a person.