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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Flip-Flopping in an Ethical Way

            My friend John Bakalian and I were working together on a land-use project a number of years ago, and shortly after it was filed with the city, one of the council members publicly declared an inability to support our project as submitted. John was unconcerned.
            “All they said,” he noted, “was that they couldn’t support the plan as submitted. If they decide later that they want to, all we have to do is change the color of the cover or add a couple of commas. Then they can say it’s a different plan and they support it now.”
            It was a point well taken, and one worth considering in evaluating statements made by any politician. In the popular imagination, flip-flopping (defined as a sudden and complete change in position) is one of the worst political sins — a sign of weakness and lack of character. In actual practice, it’s essential to good politics. The only politicians who never flip-flop are ideologues and those who don’t care for reality and popular opinion. They’re rarely good politicians.
            Ronald Reagan was a master flipper. As governor of California, he once announced that his feet were set in concrete against withholding of state income taxes. He felt people should have to pay all at once so they would see what government cost and feel the pain. When it became obvious that withholding was both more efficient and more popular, he caved and signed the law.
            Reagan could get away with that because he was consistent and forceful in his principles, and withholding was not a defining issue for him. The willingness to surrender and move on (shown again, as president, when he removed U.S. Marines from Lebanon after a deadly attack, despite firm promises they would stay) made him a better and more effective politician. The good ones know how to cut their losses.
            President Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act has offered an excellent case study in good and bad flip-flopping. As a candidate, Obama opposed the idea of a national health insurance program based on individual mandates. As president, he decided that individual mandates had backing in both parties and offered the best chance of attracting wide support for the legislation, so he went with them.
            What he didn’t reckon with was that Republicans, who had been among the biggest supporters of such mandates, would themselves flip-flop on the issue and do it with an utter lack of shame. Republican lawmakers and candidates suddenly went from supporting mandates to declaring them unconstitutional and intrusive. Mitt Romney, who got individual mandates approved at a state level when governor of Massachusetts, has done a lot of squirming trying to claim, wrongly, that his mandate was different from Obama’s.
            (A question for Republicans: If individual mandates are so offensive and coercive, how come no one has challenged them for the three decades or so that they have been in place for buying auto insurance so that all drivers are covered?)
            Obama’s shift in position was the good kind because it reflected reality, willingness to compromise, and a commitment to a larger principle. Universal health care coverage was the goal, and if individual mandates were an imperfect means to the end, they were worth accepting, grudgingly, to reach the goal.
            There’s nothing redeeming in the Republican change in position. Mandates were their policy all along, and Obama’s stealing the idea doesn’t make it any better or worse. Their shock at the coercive element is as insincere as Captain Renault’s, when he discovered gambling, gambling! at Rick’s Café in Casablanca. Sheer partisan pique.