Live-blogging Midmorning: Flip-flops

When is a change in a politician’s position a considered and intellectual process and when is it a “flip-flop,” an act based largely on the shifting of political winds? To the cynical (bowing), the answer is: When it’s your guy doing the flipping.

In the last few election cycles, the flip-flop charge has not only been an effective tool, it’s spawned a variety of interesting “characters” following candidates. Here in Minnesota, we had “waffle man,” who chased former gubernatorial candidate Tim Penny around one year, the “sandals” guy (see photo), and — if memory serves — there was a chicken mixed in there somewhere. In fact, speaking of vague memories, didn’t one of them get punched in the nose out at the State Fair a few years ago?

Today at 9, Midmorning is examining flip-flopping with David Sirota, political reporter and author of “The Uprising,” Allan Lichtman, political historian at American University.

I’m live-blogging the discussion in the studio and you know what that means: You get your voice heard and we simultaneously discuss the show. See you then.

Live blogging

9:06 a.m. – OK, we’re underway. Let’s hear from you. While waiting to start, I browsed “flip flop” on YouTube. Check out some of the ways the term is used to attack a political challenger.

9:09 David Sirota is up first from Denver. “Money creates flip-flops,” he says. Obama said there was political opportunity to court progressives by being against warrantless wire tapping. He changed his position when he had a chance to get money from the telecommunications business. Same, he says, for McCain. He says “money came in, and then the position changed.”

When is it a flip-flop? When nothing changes in the world to warrant the change in position.

9:11 Flip-flopping “is as old as politics,” says Allan Lichtmann. He says McCain has flip-flopped over abortion, tax cuts, affirmative action; Obama, he says, has moved “more toward the center” in advocating off-shore drilling, a softer position on gun control.

But where are the voters — you? — on this? “I think voters have always been willing to accept a position change, Lichtmann says. Really? But the flip-flop charge works, doesn’t it?

9:14 – Flip flopping is getting dissed here. So let’s consider the story this week in The Atlantic on what happened to the Clinton campaign. Internal memos showed she was advised to stress Obama’s flip-flopping and “make him seem less American.” She didn’t. It also notes that McCain has stressed Obama’s inexperience over the same option. The facts suggest that polling shows that charges of flip-flopping work. Right?

9:16 – It wasn’t flip-flopping that doomed John Kerry, Lichtmann says. It was that it exposed a “consultant-driven, wooden, scripted campaign.” He had no vision.

9:18 – Observation: In many ways, flip-flopping has been a tradition in Minnesota local politicians. Mostly with Republicans in the ’90s, the “insiders” at the state convention were so extreme, that Republicans had to run to the right to get the endorsement, and then race to the center to try to win a general election (or, a September primary). Is it really any different, now? Is flip-flopping a recognition that there’s a disconnect between the party members who bestow things like endorsements, and the people on main street who actually vote?

Maybe it’s more of a commentary on the political process than the individual candidates?

Discuss, please.

9:21 – Sirota: “A good politician is one who has underlying principles, not to corner themselves into a position they’d have to flip on.” He says a smart politician won’t box him/herself in. In Montana, he says, the feds tried to force a federal ID card. The governor didn’t want to sign onto it and made the decision to say “no.” It became a game of chicken between the Department of Homeland Security and the state. He didn’t back down. He could have flip flopped.

9:26 – How much is the media responsible for this? (Picking up on Steve’s comment). Sirota says once a candidate is billed in a media narrative as a ‘media flip-flopper,’ it’s hard to pull out of that. “You can’t prove a negative,” he observes.

9:27 — Time to put up a poll.


9:39 – Lichtmann is taking on Republicans for being against social engineering and then taking on “the biggest social engineering project ever” in Iraq. Also notes that President Bush, alleged to be anti-government, has set up the largest government ever. Sirota says he agrees.

And maybe that’s the story we’ll have to look at when the Republicans come to St. Paul: this “tension” between what the Republican Party says and what it’s been unable — or unwilling — to do.

9:42 – The immigration issue is fundamental, Lichtmann says. The hard-core social conservatives and the Republican base of businesses has split the party down the middle.

9:43 – News Cut discussion leads to question on Midmorning. Like it. “This is a culture that gets its news from 30 second sound bites,” Sirota says. “We ask for less the positions and more the character issues.” So is the problem the media? Or the voters who settle for less?

9:46 -” Do candidates have a mandate to flip-flop?” a caller asks (Pat). Where does the politician find the balance between sanding on what they believe and being open to the views of the constituents. Lichtmann: “They have to tread a fine line between the two. It depends on how firmly the position is principled, vs. responsive to changes in external circumstances. And it depends on how strongly the public makes its voice heard.”

A good time to reissue the challenge to Minnesota politicians (and I know you’re reading this): When’s the last time you changed your mind on an issue? I’ve asked that question since I wrote Polinaut 2 1/2 years ago. No Minnesota politician has admitted changing his/her mind. To me, that tells me how scared they are to the flip-flop charge.

9:51 – Sirota and Lichtmann arguing. Sirota says Lichtmann wants politicians to ignore the public. “We are in an era of politics where pandering is the model; leadership is not the model,” he says.

Licthmann says the most important legislation does not begin with a few politicians holding to their convictions regardless of what the politicians thought. It (the Civil rights Act, for example), began with a small group of citizens. If your model is “this is not a democracy, it’s a representative system and the politician has to stick with his ideas, you never would’ve gotten the Voting Rights Act,” he said.

“What you’re throwing out is kind of absurd,” Sirota says.

(Off mic: “Should I come back to you one more time,” Kerri says. “No,” I reply. “It’s not worth interrupting this argument for.” Sirota and Lichtmann battle in the background. Wow! Some of the best debate I’ve heard in years here. I’ll be isolating this after the show and posting it here)

9:56 — Kerri and I are sitting back and listening to these two. Fascinating.