In Defense of Flip-Flopping

When it comes to attacking Mitt Romney, team Obama has shuffled between two portrayals. On one hand, it paints him as a radical hell-bent on rolling back reproductive rights, financial regulation and the entire New Deal legacy. On the other hand, it makes him out to be an unprincipled flip-flopper. The two strategies can’t really coexist, and of late, the Obama campaign seems to be sticking with the latter, exemplified by its recent “Romnesia” campaign. But as Bill Clinton told the Obama campaign last year, it’s a weak tactic: When Republicans tried to paint him as a flip-flopper, voters didn’t care, confident that “he would simply do what was right.”

There’s another reason the strategy is a foolish one. Hypocrisy in politics is not only inevitable, but a very necessary evil. To condemn it as a high political crime is to ignore the virtues of ideological malleability. Cass Sunstein, whose post at OMB consisted of high-level cost-benefit analysis, rather than doctrinaire policy-making, praised hypocrisy in a recent column.

In politics, turncoats make sensible compromises possible. If Democrats and Republicans are sharply divided on a question of economic policy, and no one is willing to break ranks, an agreement might be unachievable… Turncoats also break down echo chambers. If conservatives or liberals are listening only to those on their side, they tend to become more confident, more unified and more extreme.

Nixon went to China, Clinton enacted welfare reform, Roberts upheld Obamacare, as Sunstein writes. If the past is any indication, his party will eventually come around to Roberts’s way of thinking, as with Nixon and Clinton, after their supposed heresies. Few castigate Obama now for flipping on the individuate mandate, a policy he vehemently opposed (for conservative reasons) in his primary fight with Hillary Clinton. Moreover, Obama, whose entire 2008 candidacy was based on finding middle ground, demonstrates the necessity not only of embracing flexibility in our politicians, but in practicing it ourselves. Those progressives who still condemn Democrats for giving up on a public option to his health care law, for instance, are interested less in political process—the art of the possible—than in political revolution. Indeed, historian Martin Jay wrote in 2010, after candidates ‘etch-a-sketch’ out of their primary campaigns, “we give them a pass because we know that a genuine consensus based on rational deliberation is highly unlikely, and yet democratic politics requires building a winning coalition…truth-telling is not always the best policy in even the most democratic of political contexts.”

There’s something not only political unfeasible, but morally worrisome about demanding complete ideological coherence from our candidates. The capacity to switch gears reflects the ability to make clear-headed, rather than doctrinaire, judgments. “The ‘big truth’ – ‘the absolute, univocal truth, which silences those who disagree with it and abruptly terminates discussion’,” wrote NYU political theorist Jeremy Waldron in a 2011 review of Jay’s book The Virtues of Mendacity in the London Review of Books “may be as oppressive and inimical to human freedom, plurality, and the vigour of debate as the ‘big lie.’” Political math aside, we’d rather have Romney tack to the center than hang back with the ideologically pure Tea Party puritans, right?

Obviously, there are bad political lies. As Jay points out, Leo Strauss’s belief in deceiving the rabble for its own supposed good—exemplified by his Neoconservative acolyte Paul Wolfowitz during the Iraq war—is manipulative and undemocratic. Likewise, Romney’s own fudges don’t reflect ideological flexibility so much as his unyielding desire to hoodwink every possible constituency into voting for him.

In that way, Romney has lived up to half of Mark Twain’s famous dictum on proper truthlessness. The key, Twain wrote, was to lie “for others’ advantage, and not our own; to lie healingly, charitably, humanely, not cruelly, hurtfully, maliciously; to lie firmly, frankly, squarely, with head erect, not haltingly, tortuously, with pusillanimous mien, as being ashamed of our high calling.”

Head erect, firmly, frankly? Sure. For others’ advantage? Not so much.

Simon van Zuylen-Wood

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a writer for Philadelphia Magazine.