It was one of the more memorable political ads of the past few elections. There was John Kerry in 2004, windsurfing. The Bush campaign mocked the senator from Massachusetts for being in favor of the Iraq war and then against it and voting to fund the troops and then against it, each time showing a wet-suit-clad Kerry sailing in the opposite direction set to Johann Strauss’s waltz “The Blue Danube.”
Of course, the flip-flop charge is an old conceit in campaign ads. Lyndon Johnson’s best-known offering in 1964 was the “Daisy” spot that ran only once, but he also parodied Barry Goldwater for taking different positions on the United Nations and the use of nuclear weapons in the Vietnam War. (You don’t see the mushroom cloud flip-flop every day.)
Somewhere along the way, the charge of flip-flopping became one of the deadliest in politics—the shorthand for a lack of character. By contrast, a politician who didn’t change his or her mind, or who vowed to be uninterested in polls, was considered to be of a higher caliber. But there is a case for flip-flopping, or what might be called being human. After all, almost anyone with common sense has probably evolved on some position or another. A new poll from CNN shows that 51 percent of Americans now think that same-sex marriage ought to be legal. Is that flip-flopping, or growth? Instead of excoriating pols who change their mind, we should be asking why they did—and if their new positions are better than their old ones.
It’s probably worth remembering that some of the greatest presidents were gymnasts when it came to flip-flopping. During the 1932 presidential campaign, Herbert Hoover famously called his challenger, Franklin Roosevelt, a “chameleon on plaid.” Although we now see FDR as predetermined to lead the U.S. out of the Depression and through all but the last days of World War II, he struck many critics at the time as lacking a moral compass. On one of the great issues of the day, Prohibition, FDR wasn’t considered a “wet” (in favor of legal drinking) or a “dry” (prohibitionist) but a “damp” for trying to have it both ways. Roosevelt called for a balanced budget when he ran for president before later embracing Keynesian pump-priming.
Probably no other president changed his mind more often than Abraham Lincoln. This week, Eric Foner, a historian at Columbia University and, I should add, my college professor, won the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, which chronicles Lincoln’s myriad pirouettes. Far from being destined to be the Great Emancipator, Lincoln took any number of cul-de-sacs on his way to Gettysburg. Born in the slave state of Kentucky and having spent most of his life in Illinois, Lincoln subscribed to many of the views of his time. He was basically antislavery, but he had no burning desire to abolish it in the South. Like many Northerners and Whigs who broke off to form the Republican Party, he opposed extending slavery westward as the Union gathered more states. He used the “N” word frequently. For years he clung to the idea of sending blacks back to Africa, Haiti, or elsewhere because he didn’t think that a biracial society was possible. On the eve of the Civil War, as president, he had no interest in ending slavery in the South, only in preserving the Union. Eventually, he came to believe that abolition was necessary for national unity. It was just two years later that Lincoln advocated immediate abolition and, later, political rights for freed slaves.
One of the lessons of Lincoln’s presidency is that he changed because he listened to people who disagreed with him.
Foner wrote to me this week to say that “Lincoln’s greatness, in part, was that he was willing to see when a policy was not working, and change it for the better. A flip-flopper. I can’t quite recall when this became a major term of abuse, but if you want a president who never changed his mind, look at Andrew Johnson, probably the worst in our history.” (Johnson tried to thwart efforts to promote black equality in the occupied South.)
On the big issues, like slavery, one of the lessons of Lincoln is that he changed because he kept listening to people who disagreed with him. Doris Kearns Goodwin famously noted how Lincoln built a Cabinet full of political enemies, a “Team of Rivals.” Foner takes it further, showing how Lincoln kept the lines of communication open to abolitionists who were far more frenzied about ending slavery than he ever was. The president’s secretary called them “Jacobins,” but Lincoln understood that those who seek the impossible make the possible possible. The right kind of flip-flopping means keeping not only an open mind but also an open door.
This article appears in the April 23, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.
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