The four leading Republican candidates for president have demonstrated that they have four distinct styles of flip-flopping.
Mitt Romney is the most notorious flip-flopper in the field, and his most notorious flip-flop concerned abortion. He claims that a conversation with scientists about human cloning made him see how abortion had devalued human life. Nobody can prove that Romney isn’t telling the truth, but nobody quites believe him, either. Romney has also changed positions on guns, immigration, and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. But it is not the number of his flip-flops that has impressed people so much as how they have altered his political character. He was a moderate technocrat a few years ago, but has become a culture warrior.
Rudy Giuliani presents himself as a man who respects conservatives too much to pander to them. Social conservatives, he argues, should trust him more since he doesn’t alter his positions to suck up to them. But Giuliani has switched his positions on guns, partial-birth abortion, immigration, and civil unions, in each case moving rightward. He has been pretty consistent in his flip-flop methodology: He finds some detail that justifies the switch. The detail is usually bogus. He said, for example, he was able to support a ban on partial-birth abortion because it included a life-of-the-mother exception — but the one he had opposed had included that exception, too. He said that he would no longer support the lawsuit he initiated against gunmakers, primarily because the case had “taken several turns and several twists that I don’t agree with.” (He then qualified that with a “probably.”) But the principal turn is that the plaintiffs have scaled back their demands. He came out against “comprehensive” immigration reform not because it included amnesty, but because it didn’t create adequate databases.
When Al Gore flipped from pro-life to pro-choice during his first run for president, one of his aides told a reporter that his strategy for dealing with his past was to “deny, deny, deny.” Fred Thompson seems to have copied his abortion strategy from the man whose Senate seat he took. The difference is that it’s a pro-choice past that he denies having. He distinguishes himself from Romney on abortion by saying that he, Thompson, was with pro-lifers yesterday and will be with them tomorrow. What Thompson can’t admit is that he wasn’t with pro-lifers the day before yesterday.
John McCain’s main flip-flop has been on taxes. He voted against Bush’s tax cuts, but now he wants to keep them. He justifies the switch by saying that circumstances have changed. He hasn’t apologized for his earlier vote. But to allow the tax cuts to expire now would be to raise taxes. As David Brooks noted the other day, McCain is never terribly convincing when he does something he doesn’t believe in. Earlier this year he said that tax cuts always raise revenue. It’s a nonsensical claim, but it also makes his overall argument impossible to sustain. One of his principal objections to the Bush tax cuts was that they would increase the deficit. If he now thinks that tax cuts increase revenue, he was wrong and should say so.
If I had to judge the matter, I’d say that Thompson and Giuliani go about their flip-flopping with a bit more dishonesty than Romney and McCain. But if you want edification, look away from the whole field.