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.

  • Am I first?

    A snarky but partial definition of flipflopping is that a flipflop is when a policy change occurs in a candidate that you don’t like.

    If you support Sen. McCain, any change Sen. Obama makes is a “flipflop”, and vice versa.

    Expanding from that, though, a sudden and inexplicably radical change in policy is also a flipflop.

    “I voted for the war before I voted against it.”

  • Steve

    Besides following the money flowing into campaigns, politics is the art of reaching compromise. It is an evolutionary process. People imagine that all issues are black and white and the media reports them in sensational ways to sell their product. Voting for legislation is rarely an up or down vote on a single issue, rather it is a vote for are group of issues and require the politician to weigh the importance of a variety of issues rolled up into a single bill.

  • Rick

    New information is discovered all the time, however the change in position should follow a consistent stream of thinking. I myself change my positions based on new information not doing so would leave a person close minded and not accepting of new ideas. The one aspect of this I cannot accept is using money or some other “prize” to change his or her mind. It is in my mind a bribe against the American system.

  • Emily Langland

    I am seeing an inconsistancy between the historical examples being presented of famous “flip-floppers” such as Nixon and Roosevelt and the issues that arose during the John Kerry campaign. Is there a higher tolerance for “flip-flopping” once an official is elected to official? Does America want to see an unwavering candidate but accepts a more pragmaticism if elected?

  • Sandy Tracy

    I am so discouraged to learn about the level of disconnect between the voters and the issues. I feel it is impossible to get factual information to the masses when we have so many forces using trickery, negative ads, flipflopping accusations, etc. The elected people have so much power and the electorate seems to be deadlocked as to where to take our country.

  • Kellye

    This seems to me to be an easy one. It’s a cynical political flip-flop when you disagree with the change, and especially if you were invested in the original position. It’s a well reasoned decision if the politician changes to agree with your position.

    For example, as a Democrat, though I realized how cynical a move it was, I didn’t really mind when Obama announced he wouldn’t take public campaign funds. I want him to win. But as a liberal I’m furious about his change on the issue of telecom immunity.

  • Sam Chafos

    I’ve had many conversations about flip-flopping, and most of them end with the conclusion that the whole idea was invented by the campaigns and the media allowed itself to be manipulated into turning it into a “real” issue — albeit the media are, of course, willing participants.

    Pandering is real, and rethinking is real, and the conversation should not be reduced to a catchphrase that seems to have been coined by the Bush campaign. I am sad for our country that we continue to allow ourselves to be distracted by this (non)”issue” at the cost of real and quality conversations.

  • Bob Brereton

    As per David Saroda’s remarks: When Kennedy was wrong he admitted it.

    Our current crop of pols are terrified to ever admit an error.

    To that end, has anyone ever heard President Bush or say Governor Pawlenty admit an error?

    I don’t recall it.

    What does this say about these two?

  • Joe Schaedler

    In US society, the citizen body and the politicians effectively act as checks on each another’s vision of justice and virtue for our nation & the world.

    Sometimes one side fails to uphold the other’s ideals, and sometimes both are united to overcome adversity and improve the face of the earth.

    In this equation, there are times when politicians shuold listen to the views of their people, and there are also times when politicians should ignore them. It is the citizens’ duty to ensure that we seek out the politicians who are best able to judge when our views should be accepted or rejected for the best results for our society.

  • What the news media often neglect in their coverage of the candidates is attention to their underlying governing philosophies. I think these provide a much more accurate guide to their behavior in office than their tendency to make shifts on small-bore, particular issues.

    For all the media hullabaloo around “flip-flopping” in the Bush/Kerry election, we would have had a much keener idea of President Bush’s flavor of governance had the media focused our attention on the core philosophies animating his team of advisers. Bush’s reliance on and deference to those advisers, their belief in the unitary executive, their dogged insistence on loyalty über alles, their neoconservative interventionism — all of these things could have been foreseen from what we knew in the run-up to the 2000 election. And it’s those facts that would have given us a much, much clearer picture of how the Bush administration would administer its departments, how it would respond to events such as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, a housing bust, etc.

    Just take a look at one of Bush’s most-cited statements since 2001, presaged in this January 2000 profile of Karl Rove by Frank Bruni: “‘Anybody who gets in the way of his ambitions for the governor gets run off,’ said Tom Pauken, a former chairman of the Republican Party in Texas. ‘And if you’re not with Karl 100 percent, you’re an enemy.'”

    I want to hear much, much less about flip-flops. Off-shore drilling, for all the ink given to it in the past two weeks, is an infinitesimal mote in the array of decisions and compromises #44 will have to navigate. Don’t tell me what minor issues a candidate has shifted positions on, tell me what core philosophies the candidate has been consistent about, what common threads of thought weave through his speeches, his actions, and the minds of his advisers. That will give me a much clearer sense of how he’ll govern.

  • Sherrie Marcy

    What a wonderful summary statement in Joe Schaedler’s post! “Citizen’s duty” and “principled judgment” are too often viewed as quaint, almost obsolete, concepts. When sound-bites dominate the media and technology permits targeted appeals to specific demographics of voters, it is easy to become cynical about politics and politicians. (The Bush campaign actually did not coin “flip-flop” — as a pejorative, the term has been used since 1890 and with increasing frequency in recent Presidential elections by Democrats as well as Republicans. One can only hope that the crescendo reached its peak with John Kerry’s inartful and infamous “I voted for it before I voted against it” statement. Regarding that statement, FactCheck found that “Kerry has never wavered from his support for giving Bush authority to use force in Iraq, nor has he changed his position that he, as President, would not have gone to war without greater international support.” In other words, he did not flip-flop at all.) I hope voters will tune out such distractions this year and make informed decisions based on substantive discussion.