In a country where politicians are notorious for changing shapes, the Republican nominee for President Mitt Romney has managed to take the generalization to the level of parody. Romney not only often alters his political positions, at times within a 24-hour period,but one of his own advisers even compared his positions with Etch-a-Sketch drawings, casting further doubt on his character and the worth of his promises.
But, should we criticize flip-flopping as a simple matter of principle? 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 instrumental, but two excellent indicators are the suddenness of the change and its correlation with electoral demands . Mitt Romney is known both for the speed of his changes 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. Similarly, Newt Gingrich ardently favored combating global warming when he was off the ballot, only to vigorously oppose the idea while on it. Such opportunistic political maneuvers deserve the condemnation they reap.
Of course, betraying one's core principles through flip-flopping is an even more despicable act. However, the pressures governance puts on competing values in practice should make us pause before we start casting stones. 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 with an executive order, Congress refused to follow along.
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, or by arguing that the president had a larger agenda to preserve. However, President Obama's reversal on this issue is an 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 principles should be tolerated only if they truly improve society’s welfare, which is seldom the case.
Some may argue that politicians should never flip-flop, that this betrays not only their core principles, but also the trust of those constituents who voted for them. This is an extreme position. Few politicians enter office with their personal worldview fully developed, and fewer still manage to hold onto those views entirely once they're confronted with the responsibility for ensuring the collective good. The world will always defeat our mental constructs. We should judge politicians with a mature understanding of both human nature and world affairs, and cut politicians some slack if they modify their views within boundaries.
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 act like statesmen or like 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.