Truth outweighs consistency

Jon Huntsman was asked on Friday about his support for the Recovery Act, and the fact that in 2009, he wanted the stimulus to be bigger, not smaller.

Huntsman said his problem with the Recovery Act had to do with taxes. “[M]y take was, let’s stimulate business,” he told George Stephanopoulos. “Let’s look at tax cuts, let’s look at payroll tax deductions.”

Was that actually his take? Actually, no. Here’s a video of Huntsman talking about the stimulus two years ago.

For those who can’t watch clips from your work computers, starting at around the 3:15 mark in this video, Huntsman said of the stimulus, “Too little focus on meaningful and relevant infrastructure that would have enhanced our entire nation and our ability to compete. Whether delivering products or moving people from point A to point B — in other words, the overall enhancement of needed infrastructure in our country which is desperately needed.

“So you had maybe 25% infrastructure [in the stimulus], 75% all other categories — it should have been reversed to my mind, so that coming out of the stimulus phase, we actually could have maybe achieved a better, stronger, more 21st-century infrastructure in our country. […]

“That is my one gripe…. Stimulus, to be sure, that was needed. We needed to kick-start the economy and infuse it with some liquidity. It was sort of the targeted end-points that I would question.”

This is critically important to understanding Huntsman. His line on stimulus wasn’t just progressive; it was arguably to the left of many Democrats. Faced with the economic crisis, Huntsman’s argument was that Democrats weren’t spending enough money.

For the record, I imagine the Obama White House would have loved to pursue a similar approach to the one Huntsman outlined, but it was conservatives in Congress who refused. In the context of the 2012 campaign, though, it’s worth remembering that his “one gripe” with the stimulus two years ago had nothing to do with wanting more tax cuts — it was that he wanted more government spending, especially on infrastructure, not less.

Obviously, that’s the exact opposite of the Republican Party’s approach to economic policy, but just as important, it’s also the opposite of what Huntsman said about his position last week.

The political discourse puts quite a bit of weight on politicians’ “flip-flops,” in large part because we’re sensitive to candidates reinventing themselves in the name of political expediency. Voters want to know what they’re going to get when the vote for someone — especially at the national level — and those with records filled with inconsistencies are held suspect.

But flip-flops aren’t always fatal. Sometimes, candidates simply change their minds, sincerely, based on new and different information. Occasionally, a politician’s thinking on an issue really will evolve. For that matter, we’ve seen plenty of reversals come with compelling explanations.

What politicians have to be careful about is lying about flip-flops. Changing one’s mind is forgivable; misleading the public is far more problematic.

On a health care mandate, for example, Huntsman not only appears to have flip-flopped, he also appears to have given misleading answers about his reversal. And now on the stimulus, Huntsman is not only changing his position, he’s not telling the whole truth about the evolution.

This is a very bad habit for a politician to pick up.

Support the Washington Monthly and get a FREE subscription

Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.