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Sometimes a Flip-Flop Can Put You on Top

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

I hate flip-flops. That is, I hate the shoes. They're impractical. Unsafe, even. But I really hate the political use of the term, usually leveled as an accusation. It's gone from being a legitimate, shorthand descriptor to being a nonsensical dismissal. Don't dress them in the darn things, but let politicians flip-flop, already. If, of course, by "flip-flop," one means a prudent 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, just recently encouraged a flip, 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 that troubled land. As the General Petraeus-led surge strategy has worked there -- a gambit the Dems heartily opposed, going 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 wanted to withdraw from Iraq when it 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, Obama reiterated his trustworthy standby of a position before his long-anticipated trip to Iraq.

Earlier this summer, conservatives encouraged John McCain to change his stance on drilling for oil in Alaska. America needs energy security and this means we need to stop relying for oil on countries that hate us. Thankfully, he dropped his stubborn and pointless opposition to offshore oil drilling. Given high gas prices, given the public's new focus on this issue, it seemed clear that a real executive would acknowledge the new factors and plot a measured change of course. 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 label hit former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney hard during the Republican primary earlier this year. By the end of the cycle, most citizens knew only two things about Romney: that he was good looking and used to believe things he no longer does. What most folks 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 runs for governor of the Bay State to fix the economy there, a job 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 didn'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 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. When Romney actually took the time to figure this out, he changed his mind about abortion, cloning and other destruction of innocent human life. Ditto for gay marriage. Once forced to confront the issue, once realizing the lengths activists will go to make sanctified same-sex unions legal, 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." He 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 in which he would manage to have two positions at once.


Some "flip-flops" aren't, in other words. As long as your core is clear -- as long as you have one -- a mature leader can learn. Both presidential candidates would be wise to do so 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 them is "maverick." So be one yourself, 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?

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