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Mitt Romney, Barack Obama, And Rick Santorum Sometimes Flip-Flop For Good Reasons

This article originally appeared on Citizen Think.

After sleeping with an intern, few actions draw greater political ire than flip-flopping. To flip flop is, of course, to switch positions, to backtrack, to reverse. Just in the past few weeks, the term has been hurled at Obama’s recent decision to use super-PACs, Romney’s position on abortion, and Gingrich’s stance on climate change, to name but a few.

There are at least two distinct versions of the flip-flop: the elected flip and the candidate flip.   The elected flip applies when a politician acts to enact or support a bill or executive order that goes against a previously stated position or similar but opposite previous action; for example, Obama’s failure to close Guantanamo Bay. Just as often, though, the epithet (as a noun, flip-flopper) is thrown at candidates who express a position belied by previous position statements or previous actions. This season’s most noted turn-about is, of course, that of Mitt Romney on healthcare.

The scattering of such aspersions are a species of what I’d like to call attacks on political integrity. A flip-flopper, the attacks imply, lacks political integrity; he or she is either unsure of her position on a given issue, or willing to tack on the position as political winds shift. Prospectively, then, we can assume that candidates are criticized for flip-flopping either because the new position hints at the “true” values that the candidate holds or hints at the lack of any stable values at all. For example, pro-life advocates are concerned about Romney’s mixed history on women’s rights mostly because they would prefer to see a candidate with an unwavering commitment to life, and perhaps secondarily because they mistrust a candidate who shifts position at all. There are other kinds of attacks on political integrity, but they all share the same premise: switching positions is bad. Or, to put it in the positive, a rigid adherence to a particular position is good. Concerns about fFlip-flopping areis ultimately about consistency.

Political Integrity as Virtue

To explore why consistency might be appealing to voters, let’s take two citizens, Liberal Larry and Conservative Catherine. Larry is supporting a pro-choice candidate, Mr. Choice, and Catherine is supporting a pro-life candidate, Mr. Life. Mr. Choice and Mr. Life are running against each other for the House of Representatives. TheyLarry and Catherine give three reasons for supporting their respective candidates:

(1) Fidelity to a particular position is good in and of itself. Catherine feels strongly that a person who believes that life starts at any moment other than conception is evil. It is simply wrong to believe that life starts at month 6 or month 8 or at birth.  She would never support a candidate who believed murder was acceptable; such a person is simply abhorrent to her. Larry, similarly, hates the idea of anyone who feels they have a right to interfere with a woman’s body holding an office of public trust. It just feels wrong. Both he and Catherine would vote for their respective candidate even if that candidate were never called to vote on the issue of abortion, never allocated a single budget dollar, and never actually made a political decision about a woman’s right to choose. Were we to make a slightly more simplistic readingPut simply, we might say that Catherine and Larry prefer people who think like they do.

(2) Politicians are important public examples and what they think matters. Closely related to #1, Catherine and Larry vote for their candidates because they believe an individual with strict ideological adherence to a particular position is likely to speak out on that topic, using the pulpit of office to spread their particular gospel and encourage the broader public to shift their thinking.

(3) Close alignment to a particular position is likely to result in political action towards the related policy goal. While Catherine likes to know that Mr. Life aligns with her belief system, it’s much more important to her that fewer babies are killed. She cares about Mr. Life’s political integrity because she believes Mr. Life will create a version of society that she – Catherine – considers good. Mr. Life’s consistency over time to pro-life positions gives Catherine assurance that Mr. Life will do everything in his power to use the force of government to implement policies that ensure every life is protected and preserved.  Likewise, Larry supports Mr. Choice because he knows, based on Mr. Choice’s manifest commitment to the cause, that Mr. Choice will fight for the rights of women to choose.

Both of these reasons for demanding political integrity of our candidates make good sense when applied to a broad set of issues that we might call cultural issues (as in, the culture wars). Reproductive freedom, gay marriage, and gun rights are all policy areas that have fairly clear ideological divisions and instrumentally direct policy ramifications. That is, Mr. Life’s commitments will translate (political conditions permitting) into straightforward government action to restrain women’s freedom to have abortions. There’s room for compromise, sure, but in these areas, there are profoundly different ends, with simple means to get there. Less government funding for abortion means, fewer abortions.

[In a certain sense, government as such is a cultural issue; that is, the basic question of whether government has a right to take tax dollars from citizens for public purposes is itself deeply normative and divisive.]

But cultural issues like these are only a subset of the political choices we face in society. In many areas of government intervention, the debates are less on values than on instruments.

For example, let’s imagine that, in addition to the House election between Mr. Life and Mr. Choice, there’s a Senate election. The Senate election is turning on a contentious national debate on health care. There are two candidates, Mrs. Public and Mrs. Private. Both avow in public debate that all Americans should have access to decent medical attention. The disagreement is not over the end but the best and most appropriate means for getting there. Mrs. Public believes that everyone should have health care and that it is best delivered through a centralized system of taxation and provision. Mrs. Private, on the other hand, believes that such an approach is counterproductive; in Mrs. Private’s view, the best way to get universal health care is to deregulate the health care industry and let the market operate. This will both create a more efficient health care market and, by letting the market operate, generate more wealth with which citizens can then buy the health care they desire.

To simplify the discussion, let’s imagine that neither Mrs. Public nor Mrs. Private have normative commitments about the justice of government crowd-out or the use of private dollars for public purposes, but rather only hold empirical claims about the best method for achieving the recognized good of health care.

Catherine and Larry are now facing a more complicated decision, as both believe in the value of health care. Both Mrs. Public and Mrs. Private have consistently indicated their commitment to a healthier society, so reasons #1 and #2 above – ideological position and public example – don’t help make the decision. Instead, the issue turns on #3 – policy action. Catherine and Larry need to figure out whose theory of health care provision makes more sense.

Catherine has long believed in the power of the free market. She decides to vote for Mrs. Private, who has consistently advocated a free market position. For Larry, it’s the opposite, and so he votes for Mrs. Public.

Political Integrity as Stubbornness

We’re now in a position to raise some concerns about both an individual’s focus on a candidate’s political integrity (understood largely in terms of consistency of public word and action) and the media’s emphasis on it.

To explore this, let’s imagine Mrs. Private has now been elected into office and discovers that she was absolutely and unquestionably wrong about deregulating health care. The only way to guarantee universal quality health care to every American is to raise taxes and provide it centrally. Mrs. Private, a brave and honest politician committed to her convictions, changes position. The media response is immediate and savage. She is widely derided as a flip-flopper and as a traitor to her cause. She made a campaign promise to pursue health care reform through the market, and is now going to pursue it through centralized government.

Under the current definition, this is certainly a flip-flop. A big one. But is it in any way wrong? I don’t think so. Mrs. Private was clear that her goal was to help Americans get healthcare; the choice of the market was simply instrumental, and not itself a normative commitment.

Put in broader terms, we can understand changes in positions on given political topics as either changes in the balance among conflicting values as manifested in political ends, or as changes in the best policy prescriptionies to achieve a particular end. That is, some flip-flops are about changing positions on what a good society looks like, and some are about changing positions on how to create that good society. Accusations of flip-flops, of changes in position, ignore the difference between means and ends.

As a normative matter, I would argue that the umbrella appellative of “flip-flopper” is way too broad. Blind emphasis on continuity of thought and approach assumes that deviation is bad, regardless of the motivation behind that deviation. Here, Mrs. Private has switched positions because of a new set of facts, or a new appreciation for an old set of facts. Rigid adherence to her policy prescription to use the market to provide all Americans healthcare no longer served the end of health. In this view, the media’s attention to shifts in position, without attention to the causes of those shifts, is deeply unhelpful. It encourages dogmatism over reason.

But that’s only the first-order problem. Upon reflection, it is fairly clear that an unwillingness to shift grounds on purely instrumental means towards a consistent end is pure and unhelpful stubbornness. While it is incredibly difficult to draw such clear lines in the inherently complex world of human affairs, there are moments where politicians adopt new approaches for empirically and obviously good reasons. They should be encouraged to do so, and applauded and awarded for their honesty and commitment to actually achieving stated goals.

But that account doesn’t settle the issue. At a deeper level, we still need to consider whether it is ever appropriate for politicians to shift their perspective on the ends they pursue, on their vision of what constitutes the good society. I’ll explore that issue next week.

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