Politics & Policy

Drop Those Flip-Flops

Long past time for a summertime political reality check.

Editor’s note: This column is available exclusively through United Media. For permission to reprint or excerpt this copyrighted material, please contact: Carmen Puello at cpuello@unitedmedia.com.

I hate flip-flops. That is, I hate the shoes. They’re impractical. Unsafe, even. But I really hate the political accusation. It’s gone from being a legitimate shorthand descriptive to being a nonsensical dismissive. Don’t dress in them, but let the politician flip-flop, already — if by “flip-flop” you mean a prudential and authentic change of mind. Now, that’s probably just a flip, but I guess then we’d be looking at things rationally.

The Washington Post, in fact, very recently encouraged a flip, by accusing Barack Obama of a “foolish consistency” on Iraq. The Democratic party has put itself in a position where it appears to be rooting for America’s defeat in Iraq. As the General Petraeus-led surge strategy has worked there — a strategy the Democrats heartily opposed, to outrageous and disgraceful lengths — they can’t bring themselves to acknowledge and embrace success and adapt their outlook and platform to reflect the new reality. Obama was for withdrawing from Iraq then (when Iraq seemed a disaster) and he’s for withdrawing from Iraq now. A leader might take the time to look at the facts on the ground. Instead, he announced his same-old position before his long-anticipated trip to Iraq.

Earlier this summer, conservatives encouraged John McCain to change his position on drilling for oil in Alaska. America needs energy security and to stop relying for oil on countries that hate us. We have solutions. Thankfully, he dropped his stubborn and pointless opposition to offshore oil drilling. Given the high gas prices, given the new focus of near everyone on this issue, it would be a possibility for a mature leader to reevaluate. If he changed his position, truly believing the drilling would help, it would be progress, even if pushed along by the election.

The “flip-flop” accusation was one that hit former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney hard and deep during the Republican primary earlier this year. By the end of the primary, all most people knew about him was that he’s good looking and used to believe things he no longer does. What most didn’t consider was the narrative. Did Mitt Romney change his position on gay marriage? He sure did. Did Mitt Romney go from defending legal abortion to opposing it? Absolutely.

But consider how it happened: Successful multimillionaire businessman Mitt Romney ran for governor of the Bay State to fix the economy there, something he knows something about. Other issues, at the time, paled in comparison for him. Fast forward: He’s in the statehouse. The legislature decides it’s going to fund an unprecedented human-cloning effort with Harvard University, his alma mater. So he seriously studies what’s going on; he brings in experts. He doesn’t let himself get swept up by the snake-oil salesmen (remember John Edwards announcing that Christopher Reeve would be alive if not for George W. Bush’s refusal to fund embryonic-stem-cell research?). He realizes that Brave New World is not just a novel, but something his state is about to budget for in a whole new way.

Romney actually took the time to figure this out — and, as a result, he changed his mind about abortion, cloning, and other destruction of innocent human life. Ditto on gay marriage: Once he was forced to confront the issue, once he realized the lengths to which activists will go to make it law, once the supreme court of Massachusetts instituted same-sex marriage there, he changed his mind.

Good for him. They say it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. Well, it’s even harder for a grown man in public life to say, “I was wrong.” Romney has. Good for him.

It’s not a disingenuous flip-flop for me to take that point of view. I did, in fact, refer to John Kerry now and again as a “flip-flopper,” a waffler. But John Kerry believed two things about the Iraq war during the same campaign. John Kerry didn’t know what he wanted his Iraq strategy to be and so his elucidation of policy was nothing but a muddle where he would manage to have two positions at once.

Some “flip-flops” aren’t, in other words. As long as his core is clear — as long as he has one — a mature leader can learn. Both presidential candidates would be wise to, here and there. At least one of them isn’t going to take the beating Romney did during the primaries. And it helps that the other one’s middle name with the media is “maverick.” So be one and look at the facts, and see if you don’t agree. Can the rest of us throw out all the “flip-flops”? The shoes and the now-meaningless label?

– Kathryn Lopez is the editor of National Review Online.

© 2008, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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