Flip-flop. It is a word that is used constantly in today’s political culture. But what is it, really? Is a flip-flop always a bad thing when it occurs?
The term flip-flop became a major part of our political lexicon during the 2004 Presidential election, when U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) was caught in a confusing twist of words. He was explaining his stance on the Iraq War, and in the course of explaining an appropriations vote for the war, he stated that “I actually voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” What he was actually saying was that he voted for an alternative funding bill that rolled back some of President George W. Bush’s tax cuts to pay for the supplemental war funding. When it became evident that the measure would not pass, he came out against the funding. Nevertheless, this caused Republicans to call him a “flip-flopper”.
Since then, however, the term has been used in such an exhaustive and expansive manner, that simply reconsidering an earlier position after looking at the experiential evidence will cause you to be labeled a “flip-flopper”. I see this as dangerous because it will essentially prevent elected officials from making corrections to bad policy. This is not to say that flip-flopping does not happen; it is to say that Americans should not view every change of heart as a bad thing. For example:
1. U.S. Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC)
- Jones is a Republican that represents North Carolina’s 3rd Congressional District, a district that includes Camp LeJeune and Cherry Point Marine Base and encompasses much of the eastern part of the state. Jones is a pretty conservative Congressperson, scoring high marks on legislative votes from groups like the American Conservative Union. He was initially a strong supporter of the Iraq War, which is not surprising given the heavy military population of district. He was also the proponent behind changing the menu in the House cafeteria to read “freedom fries” after France objected to the war. However, in 2007, he decided that the evidence did not add up, and switched his support. Said Jones, “I just feel that the reason of going in for weapons of mass destruction, the ability of the Iraqis to make a nuclear weapon, that’s all been proven that it was never there.”
- Verdict: I think that more Congresspeople should have the courage to admit when they are wrong, and to show that by changing the way that they vote on an issue, which Jones has done by introducing a bill that would require Congressional approval before going to war with Iran, and introducing the War Powers Resolution, which would require an act of Congress to go to war. He is not a flip-flopper.
2. U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (D-PA)
- It has only been very recently that I have been able to put that D next to his name. Specter has not always been a Republican; prior to 1965, he was a registered Democrat. So while he may have been hoping that the voters of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania would see his 2009 switch to the Democratic Party as a coming home for the prodigal son, they did not. Specter was defeated in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary on May 18. How did this happen? How did a Senator that had represented the Commonwealth in the Senate for the past 30 years end up defeated by an upstart Congressperson from Delaware County that was only in his second term? Well, because of this:
- Verdict: While he may have been a Democrat at one time, Democratic primary voters could never forget that he gave the Bush administration plenty of cover because of his sometimes liberal stances and experience as a District Attorney for Philadelphia County, PA. Had he issued a statement like “I am not leaving the Republican Party, the Republican Party has left me” or something like that, he may have been able to keep his seat in the Senate. But because he laid bare his political calculation behind the switch, you have to consider him a flip-flopper.
People love to rail against against a seemingly unresponsive government, yet they do not allow for the people that make decisions to listen to the public and consider their position thoughtfully. Officials get called “ditherers” or “flip-floppers” for doing so. I, for one, value the person that can go beneath the surface on an issue, do some hard, gut-check thinking about their position, listen to the people that matter to them (in this case, constituents), and decide that maybe they got it wrong. I have no doubt that the best elected officials always do.