Does flip-flopping matter?

When it comes to the Democratic strategy against Mitt Romney in 2012, the party has a few themes to choose from.

The first is that Romney is a far-right ideologue who intends to give millionaires tax breaks, end Medicare, privatize Social Security, give Wall Street free rein, and screw over the middle class on everything from health care to taxes. A vote for Romney, this argument goes, is a vote to take the country backwards, thanks to his Bush-on-steroids-style agenda.

The second is that Romney is an out-of-touch plutocrat who got rich laying off American workers. With so many still struggling and feeling the effects of the Great Recession, the argument goes, there’s no point in electing the champion of the 1%, a man who doesn’t even know what the middle class is, and a candidate even Republicans see as being “in the hip pocket of Wall Street.”

And then, of course, there’s the flip-flopper. No politician in modern American life has ever changed so many positions on so many issues. It’s almost impossible to find an issue on which Romney hasn’t taken both sides, and in nearly every instance, the reversals have been insincere, unprincipled, and politically motivated — Romney bases his beliefs on whatever way the winds are blowing at the time.

The question then becomes whether this third avenue would be an effective choice for Romney’s opponents.

Matt Yglesias argued the other day that it would not: “Flip-flopper argument against Romney will be bizarre in a general election. ‘Beware of Mitt, he’s more reasonable than he sounds!'”

The New York Times ran a piece raising a similar point, arguing that the flip-flopper charge carries risks for Dems, because it would remind voters that Romney used to be moderate and mainstream — qualities that many voters might find appealing.

Kevin Drum this week was thinking along similar lines:

My guess: the flip-flopper charge probably won’t get much traction. It’s mostly a problem for conservatives, who don’t fully trust that Romney is one of them, but by the time summer rolls around they’re going to be his most fire-breathing supporters. They’ll have long since decided to forgive and forget, and independents won’t care that much in the first place as long as Romney seems halfway reasonable in his current incarnation.

It’s possible that Obama can do both — Romney is a flip-flopper and a right-wing nutcase! — but if he has to choose, my guess is that he should forget about the flip-flopping and simply do everything he can to force Romney into the wingnut conservative camp. That’ll be his big weakness when Labor Day rolls around.

I’m torn on this. The argument against the flip-flopper charge is fairly compelling, and as a stand-along charge — “Don’t vote for Romney because he flip-flops” — the attack feels thin, regardless of accuracy.

But I’m also not inclined to dismiss it just yet. The point, I’d argue, is to incorporate the criticism into a larger critique: Americans just can’t trust Mitt Romney. It’s a broader charge, but a single theme: the flip-flops, the lies, the cowardly dodges, the poll-tested non-answers are all evidence of someone lacking in a fundamental integrity, too eager to say anything to anyone to advance his ambitions.

David Axelrod said this week, “Taking two positions on every issue, one on the left and one on the far right, doesn’t make you a centrist. It makes you a charlatan.” It’s not about Romney’s policy reversals; it’s about his lack of character.

I often think about the interview Romney did in late November with Fox News’ Bret Baier, in which the reporter asked, “How can voters trust what they hear from you today is what you will believe if you win the White House?” Romney struggled with the answer.

And therein lies the potency of the criticism. “Flip-flopper” may not be the most compelling attack, but once a candidate has been deemed “untrustworthy” by the American mainstream, it’s tough to win an election.

But I’ll concede it’s a judgment call, so let’s open this up to some discussion. Is the flip-flopper charge ultimately a losing argument against Romney, or is this something Romney’s detractors should embrace in the coming months?