How Deep a Distaste for Politicians Who Waffle?

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, January 22, 2007

When George W. Bush takes the podium tomorrow night to deliver his sixth State of the Union address, what are the chances he will say this? "The war in Iraq has been one gigantic mistake. I am sorry I got us into this mess. I am going to bring the troops home right away."

Even those who think anything is possible in politics would have to say the odds of such a speech are close to zero. Bush's position on Iraq has been unyielding, even as the original reasons for the war have been discredited and U.S. troops have become mired in a vicious sectarian struggle. Bush has held fast to his views even as public support for the war, and for him personally, has fallen to near-record lows.

All of this raises a puzzle: Through much of Bill Clinton's presidency and in the last presidential election, voters said they were turned off by leaders who waffled. Americans say they want consistency from their president, not someone who panders to them by checking opinion polls before taking a stance on important issues.

One of the most effective Republican ads in the 2004 election, in fact, showed Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) windsurfing back and forth across the TV screen as an announcer talked of how Kerry had changed his views on various topics. (For reasons that probably have to do with Internet mischief-makers, a Google search yesterday for the term "waffle" produced John Kerry's official Web site as the top link.) In Bush, Americans have found a leader who gives them consistency in spades. If people really admire consistency, how is it that Bush's ratings have fallen so low?

"It is nice in theory to admire someone's consistency, but if that person has the power to effect change and affect you, then you may not admire it so much," said Hillary Hoffman, a psychologist at the University of Miami.

Experiments that explore the effects of consistent and inconsistent political stands on voters have produced a range of results. But one theme that emerges is that people think they admire consistency more than they actually do.

Hoffman once asked groups of people whether they would vote for a politician named Johnson. One group was told Johnson supported private ownership of handguns, while the other was told he was for gun control. The groups were later asked to rate the politician after a statement he supposedly made six months later. Some volunteers were told Johnson had reversed his position, while others were told he had been consistent.

The psychologist found that it mattered less to both pro-gun and anti-gun volunteers whether Johnson was consistent than whether he agreed with the volunteers' own views about guns.

When voters say they want consistency from a politician, in other words, they may really mean they want a leader who consistently agrees with them.

"Holding fast to an unpopular position . . . will gain a politician virtually nothing in the eyes of the public," concluded Hoffman and her colleague Charles Carver. "Personal respect for consistency appears very unlikely to translate into votes."

Psychologist Kevin McCaul at North Dakota State University said it is possible that people evaluate consistency differently depending on whether an issue is emotional. On a hot-button subject such as Iraq, for example, he said consistency probably matters less than whether the politician's final stance matches voters'.

"If you waffle on issues which people don't care about, then they don't care where you end up, they just care that you are waffling," McCaul said. But if voters are passionate about some topic -- abortion, for example -- then they primarily care about where a politician stands on that topic now. On issues we care about deeply, in other words, we are less interested in whether a leader's views are authentic and more interested in the bottom line -- what the leader is going do about that issue now.

But didn't Kerry pay a price in the last presidential election for waffling on the hot-button issue of the war in Iraq? McCaul argued that Kerry lost not because he was waffling but because the country was bitterly divided over the war in 2004. Had public opinion then been as sharply critical as it is now, McCaul said voters would have ignored Kerry's waffling -- or even welcomed it -- because most voters would have agreed with Kerry's critical stance on the war.

If the psychologist is right, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) is unlikely to pay a political price in the 2008 presidential election for strongly supporting the Iraq war early on and for being critical of it now, so long as public opinion remains against the conflict.

One study McCaul conducted showed North Dakota voters and legislators thought consistency in a politician was very important. But this study and several others, McCaul and his colleagues concluded, "simply fail to support the intuitive views of many voters and politicians alike that the average voter values, above all, the politician who 'sticks to his guns.' "

None of this means consistency does not matter. Politicians who change their minds every other week will leave voters unsure of what they will actually do. But it appears we are willing to forgive inconsistency in politicians if they switch their views once -- as long as the change brings their stance into alignment with our views.

After listening to McCaul, I told him I still thought consistency was very important in a leader.

The psychologist thought for a moment: "I am going to go out on a limb and say, 'no you don't. You just think you do.' "

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