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When a Flip Isn't a Flop

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By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, July 2, 2008

In footwear, flip-flops are what you slip on when you want something comfortable and easy. In politics, flip-flops are the sloppy intellectual equivalent: what you talk about when you're looking for a comfortable and easy way to attack the opposition.

It's summer, it's hot. No one wants to wear pointy toes and high heels; no one wants to talk about calculating budget baselines or auctioning cap-and-trade permits. How much easier for rival candidates -- and, truth be told, for us in the media -- to fling accusations about flip-flops: Who's got more? Whose are bigger?

True, playing endless rounds of "his surrogate said WHAT?" makes talking about flip-flops look like the Lincoln-Douglas debates -- serious fare compared with fixating on whether the vice presidential vetter got a good rate on his mortgage. But flip-flops remain the reliable beach read of American political discourse, not terribly taxing but not necessarily enlightening, either.

It was fitting, then, that the start of summer also marked the opening of the 2008 flip-flop season. Seizing on Barack Obama's abandonment of his pledge on public financing, Republicans, with John McCain leading the charge, attacked Obama as just another do-anything-to-get-elected politician.

Obama's side, in turn, condemned McCain for reversing himself on the Bush tax cuts, embracing evangelicals he once condemned as "agents of intolerance" and switching positions on offshore drilling.

Flip-flops certainly can be relevant. Continually shifting positions can indicate a willingness to elevate political expediency over principle, a lack of core convictions. Mitt Romney's extreme makeover raised legitimate questions about what he truly believed, other than that Mitt Romney should be president.

But the trouble with flip-flop frenzy is that it tends to treat every shift -- every, pardon the term, nuance -- as a one-size-fits-all transgression. We in the media risk becoming the enablers of inanity by acting as if all flip-flops are created equal, and equally bad.

Of all the flip-flops of campaign 2008, McCain's reversal on taxes may be the most disturbing, because it represents a stark turnabout on a key issue. But the important aspect is not that McCain changed his position -- it's that his "no new taxes" incarnation is so recklessly wrong. Still, it's a lot simpler to yell "flip-flop" in a crowded blogosphere than to hunker down with a set of distribution tables.

By contrast, Obama's biggest flip-flop, on accepting public financing, is disappointing not so much for the substance as for the execution. Had Obama been straightforward -- "I made a rash pledge. Circumstances look different now. I'm changing my mind." -- his about-face would have been easier to take than his pretense that he is doing us all a big favor.

When it comes to flip-flops, one candidate's outrageous reversal can be another's welcome pragmatism. Liberal bloggers are flaying Obama for a "craven" flip-flop because he once vowed to filibuster any wiretapping bill providing immunity for telecommunications providers. Now he plans to vote for one.

Smart politics, yes, but also sensible as a matter of substance. Whatever your position on immunity, crafting a workable wiretapping regime for the future, not punishing companies for past transgressions, should be the central issue in the debate over the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. If Obama is edging toward the center on this, or on free trade, we should praise the flip, not hate the flopper.

Indeed, some flip-flops might even be evidence of open-mindedness -- not a bad attribute in a president, as the past eight years have taught. The downside to flip-flop politics is making politicians reluctant to change course lest they be exposed to accusations of spinelessness.

Take one example that supposedly shows McCain in a bad light. I'm a lot more interested in whether it makes sense to lift the moratorium on offshore drilling in light of higher energy prices, changed geopolitical circumstances and improved technology than I am in whether McCain has flipped on this issue.

Meanwhile, the McCain campaign is preemptively predicting an impending Obama shift on Iraq and the troop surge, cleverly boxing him in, whichever direction he takes. In fact, circumstances have changed since Obama's anti-surge pronouncements. A failure to acknowledge that reality would reflect stubbornness more troubling than a policy shift.

So let's not flip out too much about flip-flops. Abraham Lincoln, if he were running for reelection today, would doubtless be lambasted as the flip-flopper in chief. After all, Lincoln was against forcing the states to abolish slavery before he was for it.

marcusr@washpost.com


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