Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Modeling the Flip-Flop

"Flip flopper" is a regular charge in contemporary presidential campaigns and it goes far back in American politics. John Kerry was attacked mercilessly on this front and, given how close that election was, it is fair to say he lost because of it. Indeed, the signature ad of the 2004 campaign was the "windsurfing" ad criticizing Kerry for going "whichever way the wind blows."

There has been much criticism of Mitt Romney along these same lines. The DNC released a devastating web video highlighting Romney's flip-flopping past:

There are two problems I have with the use of the flip-flopping charge in contemporary campaigns - one tactical and one philosophical. The tactical problem is that, taking Romney as an example, if you accuse Mitt Romney of being a flip-flopper and lacking any ideological core, it is impossible to then turn around and argue that he is "severely conservative," a defender of the 1%, and out of the mainstream. As a flip-flopper, by definition, he doesn't believe in anything other than what is politically expedient at the moment. In short, labeling Romney as a flip-flopper muddles your own narrative. I think the Obama campaign has realized this and has generally backed off the flip-flopping line of attack in favor of labeling him an ideological pariah.

The other problem I have with the flip-flopping charge is philosophical. To some extent at least, we should want elected officials who are willing to think, reconsider, and even change their position on an issue when presented with new facts or when they simply learn over time that their original position was wrong.

And this brings us to Obama's position on gay marriage. A CBS/NYTimes poll released yesterday found that 67% of Americans believe that Obama changed his position on gay marriage "mostly for political reasons" while just 24% said it was "mostly because he thinks it is right." Now, there are several problems with this poll and with the way this question was worded. First Read pointed out this morning that the poll is at least potentially problematic because it has Obama's approval rating at 50% but his head-to-head number at 43%. To me, that suggests a problem with question ordering at a minimum. Additionally, I really don't think this was a reasonable wording for a poll question. What does the choice "mostly for political reasons" mean? Obviously, those writing the question intended for it to mean that respondents should choose this option if they feel Obama was simply making a cynical calculation about what is best for him electorally without much regard for his actual beliefs. Many, if not most, respondents probably took it that way. But some may have also said it was "political" because ... ya know ... he's the President and EVERYTHING he does is "political." He's a ... "politician" engaged in "politics." To put this another way, can the President do anything that isn't "political?"

Putting aside these concerns for a moment, I think Obama's "flip-flop" on gay marriage was revealing in another way. One of the things some people like about Obama is his "cerebral" nature. He seems to model cool, deliberate, rational decisionmaking. The decision process on the bin Laden operation is a good example of this. It is also true that some people do not like this aspect of Obama. Some would prefer he be more decisive and act from his gut like George W. Bush. Others dislike the President's mode of decisionmaking because they find it to be too detached, almost robotic. He is criticized as being aloof and not getting angry enough. Stephen Colbert had a fantastic piece on this a couple of years ago regarding the BP oil spill.

Obama displayed a very similar kind of process in thinking about his position on gay marriage.

What is striking to me in watching Obama talk about gay marriage, or really any other issue, is the cool, deliberate, calculating way in which is approaches the issue. I like this. Others do not. For me, Obama is modeling the flip-flop. He's legitimizing the idea that you can think about an issue over time and come to a different conclusion, even if you're the President whose every word and every bit of body language is parsed and interpreted ad nauseum. Was Obama's decision "political?" Of course it was. It was "political" in ALL the senses of that term. He (and his staff) thought about how to roll it out and that was affected by Biden jumping the gun, etc. But it was also "political" in that it is revealing to us about the way Obama makes decisions, the way he reasons, and ... the fact that he reasons. In this latter sense, he is modeling something very different than George W. Bush. I don't mean this as a cheap shot at Bush's intellect. I mean that Obama is modeling a different kind of decisionmaking process that I like, that others like, but that some don't like. There are downsides to it. It is slow. It can be painful to watch it play out, particularly in a 24-hour news cycle environment. It can make him look cool, aloof, and robotic.

The flip-flop can be a good thing, at least to some. It can be a sign of thinking, open-mindedness, etc. Beyond the electoral effect of it and beyond the moral question which Obama's finally gotten right, Obama's decision on gay marriage is a lesson in the value of deliberation in the public sphere. That he came to the right decision helps. But at least one side message here is "it is okay to think." It is okay to say "I was wrong" or "I made a mistake." That is something that is too uncommon among public (and private-sector) officials today.

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