The Art and Politics of the Flip-Flop

Biden gets a pass on the Hyde Amendment. But, Joe: don't make this a habit.

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flip flop
One of these attitudes is not like the other.

Is it OK to flip-flop as a presidential candidate? Shouldn’t you, at a certain age, have your basic ideology in place whether you’re pro-life, pro-death penalty, pro-choice or pro-warmongering? It seems that each election season, presidential candidates find out the hard way that their personal beliefs may not align with the voters they’re courting. So they may flip. Or flop.

Just ask Mitt Romney about health care. Or Joe Biden on the Hyde Amendment. Romney was mercilessly mocked when he went after Obamacare, conveniently forgetting that Massachusetts implemented RomneyCare during his governorship, and that was the blueprint for the Affordable Healthcare Act. There are flip-flops we flip off, and flip-flops that turn into flaps. In Romney’s case, disavowing his landmark healthcare legislation is what helped to sink his presidential candidacy in 2012.

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Then there are the unscrupulous candidates, like Donald Trump, who make screeching U-turns on pivotal issues to ride advantageous political winds. Before he discovered a large block of potential voters — evangelical Christians — Trump was loudly pro-choice:

Trump was also for the Iraq War before he realized it wasn’t popular with most Americans. For a man with no moral center, just an insatiable desire to win at all costs, a man with no ideology who lies on a daily basis, flip-flopping is a free pass.

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What about the politician who authentically wants to take another look at their beliefs and possibly bring them, especially if they’re anachronistic, into alignment with the worldview of most people? President Obama famously changed his mind on gay marriage after having conversations with his teenage daughters. We know Bill Clinton regrets Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act (as he should).

Beware, however, the politician whose sudden, 180-degree turn happens on the campaign trail. Back to Biden, the current Democratic front-runner. While I applaud him for coming to his senses and rescinding his support for the Hyde Agreement, who doesn’t recognize it as a political decision, not one reached by heavy soul-searching? I am concerned with how he came to this flip, but I’m glad he did. Let’s make sure he doesn’t flop back.

The term flip-flopper started back in 2004 when it was used against Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee against President George W. Bush:

…his opponents used the word flip-flop as a way to paint Kerry as a political waffler with no core convictions. They based their claim on Kerry’s statement about additional funding for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan: “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.”

Context is everything: when a candidate is seen as so malleable that they can’t be trusted, the consequences can be devastating. Cue Romney again, who became a laughingstock as he went from liberal governor of a liberal state to a staunch conservative. Politicaft has a terrific list of Romney’s most memorable flip-flops:

Abortion: From “I believe that abortion should be safe and legal in this country” to “I am firmly pro-life.” Full Flop.

Signing No-Tax Pledge
As a gubernatorial candidate in Massachusetts, he refused to sign a pledge not to seek tax increases. As a presidential candidate, he signed it. Full Flop.

Gun Control
Romney downplayed signing an assault weapons ban as Massachusetts governor in 2004, but his policies haven’t shifted as much as his rhetoric. Half Flip.

Support for Ronald Reagan’s Agenda
As a Senate candidate in Massachusetts, he distanced himself from Reagan. As a presidential candidate, he embraced the Gipper. Half Flop.

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How do we, as an electorate, determine if changes in the public stances of politicians are true changes of heart or simply craven attempts to win votes? Research on confirmation bias shows that people tend to favor information that confirms their existing assumptions; we’re more likely to look out for and respond to anything that validates what we already believe. Which news channels do you watch? Equal amounts of Fox and MSNBC? Both the Washington Post and the Washington Times? Probably not.

Like most people, we like to feel we’re right and justified in our beliefs, so we watch the news shows that by and large align with our political ideology. We read newspapers and websites of the same political leanings. I admit that I won’t watch too much Fox as I get irate at those Three White People On That Couch…

It seems to me that since the Tea Party stole the hearts and many Republican minds, we are more cemented in our own beliefs, closed off to any other possibilities and unwilling to compromise. Today, when a politician declares that the sky is blue after years of saying the sky is green, we’re very skeptical because if it looks like pandering, then it is pandering, and nobody likes a panderer. Except evangelical Trump voters. Married three times? Cheating with a porn star? Never mind that: God sends us flawed heroes.

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Everybody has changed their mind at some time in their lives. With the exception of Trump and Trump voters, we’re all growing and learning and going through the life experiences that opens us up to new ideas, different cultures and people unlike those we know. I am willing to bet that at least 30% of Trump voters have never, or barely, left the town they were born in.

People change their minds on many issues as they experience more in their lives. Studies show that if you have LGBTQ people in your family or circle of friends, you’re more likely to accept gay marriage, gender fluidity and transsexuality. When you know a woman who has to carry their rapist’s baby, maybe abortion all of a sudden won’t seem so evil.

Morality changes. Fifty years ago, it was almost unheard of for unmarried couples to co-habitate. Today it’s nearly always expected.

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If we acknowledge that society evolves, grows and adapts over time, why is it still jarring when a public official switches positions? Perhaps it is because it often takes time and real thought to change our own moral and cultural outlook. And it also takes a hefty spoonful of self-awareness, something most politicians do not have.

I’ll give Biden a pass on the Hyde Amendment, even though it has significant effects upon Medicaid recipients and is, overall, a direct attack on low-income women, especially women of color. I’m glad Biden gave it the old flip-flop treatment. But what I want and hope is that he has had many meaningful conversations with the women on his staff, especially women who have been directly affected by this law.

Yes: he probably did flip-flop after the massive backlash and verbal whipping he received on the Hyde Amendment. (Next, he may flip-flop on being civil to segregationist senators.) Sometimes being malleable means you’re able to flip-flop on issues that matter more than your pride, that you’re listening to the people, that you can put aside his personal feelings and serve the country, not just a small voting bloc.

But Joe: don’t make it a habit.

Side note: don’t forget to tune in each month for a new Burke’s Law Podcast! Each month, CFR Executive Editor Leonard Jacobs and I tackle politics and current events with a glass (or two) of wine. Starting in July, we’ll break down one Democratic Presidential Candidate per month. Who will be the first? Join us!