Print Edition: March 8, 2015
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BY The Editors
direction would John Kerry lead?” asks the voiceover before launching into a
list of Kerry’s changed positions. The ad shows striking images of John Kerry
windsurfing off Nantucket, zigzagging on the water. The voiceover concludes: “John
Kerry. Whichever way the wind blows.”
The ad was clever and effective —
and had unintended consequences.
It helped make “flip-flop” an acid
term of ultimate political disparagement. And it may be one reason our
presidential candidates cling to some positions too long.
Flip-flopping hasn’t always been
this unpopular. Wise men have praised reasonable change. Ralph Waldo Emerson
said “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” and counseled a willingness
to change everything every day.
Winston Churchill didn’t go that far
but quoted Emerson in his essay “Consistency in Politics,” in which he wrote,
“it is evident that a political leader responsible for the direction of affairs
must, even if unchanging in heart or objective, give his counsel now on the one
side and now on the other of many public issues.”
As Cardinal John Henry Newman put
it, “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have
A certain willingness to change is
healthy and necessary. Many have complained that George W. Bush is too
unwilling to change. But there can be too great a willingness to change, as
when Bill Clinton went in search for his own core beliefs.
There are clear questions to ask in
judging flip-flops. Did the politician’s change of heart lead him to embrace
something truer? Or did it lead him away from the truth out of political
There have been some terrible
flip-flops over time that spoke poorly of the politicians involved. For
instance, Al Gore, Ted Kennedy, Tom Daschle and Jesse Jackson each went from
passionately pro-life to unbendingly pro-abortion. That was representative of a
larger flip-flop: The Democratic Party became the reliable servant of the
But there have been some beneficial
flip-flops, too. The Democratic Party went from standing for slavery and
segregation to fighting for racial equality, a turnabout symbolized by Sen.
Robert Byrd, who was once a Ku Klux Klan leader and is now a Democratic Party
Republicans flip-flopped from
isolationism to leading the charge and defeating Hitler and communism. That was
best summed up by Sen. Arthur Vandenberg who, during Truman’s administration,
signed on to Truman’s interventionist anti-Communist foreign policy and
basically invented the slogan that “politics stops at the water’s edge.”
We bring up these encouraging
examples because we hope that the current candidates will have the courage to
change in ways that are beneficial to the country and are more in line with
The New York Times recently took
note of five Obama flip-flops and dubbed him “The New and Not Improved Barack
Obama.” His reversals: campaign fundraising, wiretapping legislation, allowing
Christian organizations to get federal grants, the death penalty and gun
control. The editorial ends with the blistering remark: “This country needs
change it can believe in. “
We are more understanding of Obama’s
flip-flops. None of his new positions seem fundamentally opposed to common
sense or the natural law. In fact, we would like to see more flip-flops. He
once wrote an essay about how troubled he was by Alan Keyes’ assertion that
Jesus wouldn’t vote for him. He should follow his conscience and acknowledge
the right to life of:
Children born alive during abortions
(Obama opposed Illinois legislation that would protect them).
Children in the process of being
born (Obama supports partial-birth abortion)
Women being kept alive by ordinary
means (Obama says it was a mistake for the Senate to try to help Terri Schiavo,
who was starved to death).
Salon magazine recently published an
article about McCain called “Flip-flopping to the White House” that listed
McCain’s reversals. These included: “his position on offshore oil drilling
(from opposed to in favor), on sweeping immigration reform (from in favor to
opposed), and on tax cuts (from opposed to in favor).”
We’d like to him to add two more to
Unequivocal support for traditional
marriage (both Obama and McCain helped kill the Federal Marriage Amendment in
No federal funding for embryonic
Ultimately, what a candidate changes
and what he won’t change tell us much about who he is. We hope both candidates
will have the courage to hold fast to the truth — or to flip-flop to the truth
— whenever their conscience sees it.
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