Political Flip-Flops

Election '04

One of the more discouraging aspects of our American political culture is its negative attitude toward a politician's political growth, his or her willingness to rethink old positions, come to new conclusions and, in the political vernacular, perform political "flip-flops." If a candidate voted, say, for a tax hike or a tax break 20 years ago, to be considered principled he or she is expected to maintain that old position today, even though the political and economic situation that called for such a vote are no longer existent.

Although conventional wisdom designates flip-flopping as something to be criticized, I often consider it as something to be admired. The ability to look at the world afresh, learn from past mistakes, think with subtlety and nuance, and understand current events as a complexity of forces always in flux, is a superior quality -- an attribute voters should look for in all political candidates.

But even as I write this, opposing campaign staffs are scouring past voting records, looking to score a "gotcha" point by showing that their rivals have committed a flip-flop, changing their position on a political issue over time. And the mass media is primed to make these findings, however irrelevant, headline news.

This is a strange phenomenon in a country with a revolutionary past. Most of our founders began their political careers committed to the British Crown. Only as events unfolded, as the meaning of subservience vs. independence was argued all through the colonies, did opinions change -- and change and change. What was true in revolutionary times has been true throughout much of our history. People aren't born with political views. While some maintain the politics of their parents, never to challenge them or rebel, most forge their own views and continue, as they gain life experience, to politically evolve. This is a positive quality that, alas, candidates are evidently not supposed to possess.

The objective circumstances (the economy, the state of the nation and the world) that define a political issue are always in flux. How politicians respond is often subject to their political job. A governor has different priorities, needs and constraints than an official in the federal or local sphere. Legislators tend to have parochial rather than national constituencies.

As a Texan, Lyndon Baines Johnson had a regional base. To maintain power, according to his biographer Robert Caro, LBJ actively courted the most racist (but wealthiest) right-wing campaign contributors in Texas. But as President with a national view, Johnson set his goal as ending poverty and healing racism. His ambition was as colossal as his ego and came crashing down with the Vietnam War. But the point I'm making is that nothing in his legislative record indicated that he was a social democrat who, once he transcended his provincial base, would fight to advance the most progressive reforms of Roosevelt's New Deal.

Another famous example of how a politician's record does not always reflect that which is uppermost in his or her heart is that of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, who was said to have affiliations with the Klan as an Alabaman youth but went on to become one of the great champions of civil liberties and human rights. Many Southern politicians who came of age before the 1960s have similar questionable pasts. Senator Robert Byrd (D-WVA), stalwart defender of the Constitution and opponent of the Iraq war, most immediately comes to mind.

Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern have gone down in history as great advocates of peace. But they were late in opposing the Vietnam War. So was Robert Kennedy. Many in the anti-war movement hated Kennedy because of his support of Senator Joe McCarthy during the 1950s. Progressives who reject an individual's ability to change deny their own political philosophy. If people can't transcend their pasts, if they are personally unable to respond to reasoned argument, why be politically active? Why demonstrate, protest, or even vote?

Good and bad legislation is often packaged in large omnibus bills. Did a legislator oppose a good idea because it was packaged in bad legislation? When it comes to voting records, context is everything. A candidate's record has to be viewed through the filter of legislative negotiation and give-and-take. No one is pure; the prism of politics is shaped by compromise. Candidates who have never held office can usually boast of pristine records. Had they served in a legislature, they'd be carrying political baggage like everyone else.

Voters should heed a candidate's record but also understand the circumstances of every questionable vote. Some flip-flops, yes, are based on opportunism and cowardice, taking the easy way out. The task of the voter is to determine the motives that brought a particular vote about. More important than the stark voting record (and in addition to issues of character) however, is the quality of how candidates think, the process by which they come to a decision, what books they read, whom they consult, their curiosity and openness to fresh and even dissident ideas, their willingness to challenge their advisors and question conventional wisdom, the range, power and subtlety of their minds.

The current political campaign will go on much too long. It promises to be negative and ugly. Citizens have to reject the clichéd charges and counter-charges inherent in simplistic political ads. A candidate's voting record must be judged with perspective. More importantly, it is his values, character, and political evolution that count; an ability and willingness to learn, change and grow over time. A public official must see the present as it really is and articulate a humane vision of the future, based not on fixed positions and ideological abstractions but upon the hard reality of people's lives.

Marty Jezer writes from Brattleboro, Vermont and welcomes comments at mjez@sover.net.

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