Why Flip-Flops are Valid Campaign Issues

Mickey Kaus provides the seeds of the argument that explains why flip-flopping is something not desirable in a political candidate. Kaus points out that you can’t really determine a candidate’s heartfelt position is the flip or the flop. Contrary to the way it is usually portrayed, it is just as likely that a candidate’s current position is his real one and the past position was the one chosen for political expediency than it is the other way around. Kaus uses former New York Mayor Rudolph Guilani as an example…

I’d forgotten a perverse set of facts that suddenly seems relevant: Hillary Clinton was almost certainly in favor of the 1996 welfare reform law while Rudolph Giuliani opposed it. … That could mean Giuliani is more liberal than people realize…Or it could mean that Giuliani is more opportunistic than people realize and therefore more likely to reposition himself. … My guess: Both, but definitely the latter. Giuliani was a genuine welfare reformer, after all. His opposition to the key reform bill, in retrospect, looks like a stunt to cultivate stature in the national press.
Here’s the problem opportunistic flip-flopping creates for voters. The incentives for politicians change after an election. Before an election, opportunities lie in getting the attention of undecided voters. Undecideds are undecided because they don’t like anything they’ve seen so far, so one way candidates can appeal to them is by promoting “fresh”, “exciting” new ideas. But after an election, new opportunities are going to lie with a different group of people, away from the voters, and in the direction of the existing power structure and the permanent bureaucracy that an elected official must work with on a day-to-day basis (see President George W. Bush and the No-Child-Left Behind Act).
If a candidate is an opportunistic flip-flopper, how is a voter to know which path a candidate will choose after he wins?
This dynamic is, at least, why we don’t have to worry about candidates like Hillary Clinton or John Edwards flip-flopping on domestic issues. During future campaigns, they’ll promise to bring you big bureaucratic government (liberal Dems try to win undecideds not through ideas, but by promising to give them more wealth through benevolently-managed bureaucratic programs). If a lib wins, he or she will be happy to work with those bureaucracies on strengthening their power.
By the way, this is post about flip-flopping in general and not any specific election that may be coming up in the next year or two, so it shouldn’t be interpreted as a statement of support or non-support for any particular candidate.

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Rhody
Rhody
14 years ago

Why not begin this discussion with Mitt Romney?
But then again, I had the feeling he was lying through his teeth in the ’02 campaign, and this is the true Willard we’re seeing now (the Mormon @#$%ing Arm of the Law, for those of you who’ve read John Irving’s “The Cider House Rules”). Mass. voters might not have fallen for it then, except that Dems nominated a pretty good flip-flopper herself (Shannon O’Brien, living proof that not all the good ‘ol boys are actually boys). Now that was a contest that begged for a credible third candidate.
As for Kerry…flip-flopping was the best issue the GOP had against him, and the party rode him down with it.

Rhody
Rhody
14 years ago

CORRECTION: That’s “The Hotel New Hampshire,” not “The Cider House Rules.” If only we could edit our own posts…

Bill
14 years ago

I believe flip flopping is just a natural result of the passage of time and the maturing of a candidate. For example, all those that voted for the war prior on the basis of WMD’s could claim that by learning the fact that there was no serious fact they may now feel opposed to this war. This is a flip-flop, but not an opportunistic flip-flop. Although opportunistic flip flops do exist. Since the beginning of politics, politicians have been parts to large organizations, whether religions, industrial, or social, very seldom was a politician truly independent, a large percent of the time his actions are representative the organization the politician stands for. Voters need to accept that politicians will flip flop, however it is no reason to lose faith in a candidate or become a political hermit. It is necessary to look at the backing of the candidate and decide where their interests lie and where your interests lie, by doing this you can choose the right candidate.

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