Sep 302004
 

Someone has to step in and apply some rigor to the definition of the term “flip-flop,” which is being broadly abused. Republicans are applying the term to Kerry when he changes his mind and decides he’ll have some milk in his coffee after all. Democrats, attempting to offset their candidate’s propensity for self-contradiction, claim that Bush is also a flip-flopper.

So what is a flip-flop? Hey — let’s look in a dictionary! Turning to Merriam-Webster, we see that a flip-flop is commonly described as “a sudden reversal (as of policy or strategy)”. (Also, “a rubber sandal loosely fastened to the foot by a thong.” Hey, yeah! I forgot about that one.)

A sudden reversal. And allow me to add a little something to the definition: A sudden reversal, uninformed by any obvious change in circumstances. CBS, in a bald attempt to make the two candidates seem equally flip-floppy, uses the following example for Bush:

During the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush argued against nation building and foreign military entanglements. In the second presidential debate, he said: “I’m not so sure the role of the United States is to go around the world and say, ‘This is the way it’s got to be.'”

The United States is currently involved in nation building in Iraq on a scale unseen since the years immediately following World War II.

Now, gosh — what might have happened since the 2000 debates to have caused Bush to reconsider his priorities? Any guesses?

I like this one, too:

During the 2000 campaign, Mr. Bush said he was against federal intervention regarding the issue of same-sex marriage. In an interview with CNN’s Larry King, he said, states “can do what they want to do” on the issue. Vice President Cheney took the same stance.

Again, years later, with gay-marriage movement making huge strides, his position was put to the test, and Bush found it necessary to amend his thinking. You may disagree with that new thinking. I certainly do. But the process of moving from one position to another can hardly be called a flip-flop.

Here’s another from CBS, both quotes from Bush:

“We found the weapons of mass destruction. We found biological laboratories.” (May 29, 2003)

“I recognize we didn’t find the stockpiles [of weapons] we all thought were there.” (Sept. 9, 2004)

Here we are confusing “flip-flopping” with the entirely different concept of “being wrong and correcting oneself.” By listing these statements as a flip-flop, CBS seems to be demanding that a politician, to avoid charges of weakness, stick by incorrect statements no matter what. (And, incidentally, isn’t Bush charged frequently with his stubborn inflexibility? How can he be a flip-flopper and inflexible?)

Has Bush ever flip-flopped? Of course he has. His dance of rejection and acceptance with the Department of Homeland Security might well qualify as a flip-flop. (And I think he came down on the wrong side of that one, too.) But attempts to equate Bush to Kerry on the fabled Scale of Flip-Floppery are doomed to fail.

Now for Kerry. Republicans have been highly successful at painting the Democrat as a serial flip-flopper, often abetted by Kerry himself. Personally, I don’t think Kerry is as bad as the Pubs make him seem — there are many issues where Kerry is straight as an arrow. On Iraq, however — which for me is the number 1 issue in this campaign — Kerry is a freshly-caught fish on a very hot sidewalk. Still referring to CBS:

“We should not have gone to war knowing the information that we know today,” Kerry said Wednesday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” “Knowing there was no imminent threat to America, knowing there were no weapons of mass destruction, knowing there was no connection of Saddam Hussein to al Qaeda, I would not have gone to war. That’s plain and simple.”

But on Aug. 9, 2004, when asked if he would still have gone to war knowing Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction, Kerry said: “Yes, I would have voted for the authority. I believe it was the right authority for a president to have.” Speaking to reporters at the edge of the Grand Canyon, he added: “[Although] I would have done this very differently from the way President Bush has.”

In the course of four weeks, Kerry completely reversed direction. Did any major events force him to reconsider his position? Not that I can see. The only thing different was his audience. Now, CBS continues, “The Kerry campaign says voting to authorize the war in Iraq is different from deciding diplomacy has failed and waging war.” In other words, since Kerry believes the president should have the authority to go to war when he sees fit, he voted to allow Bush that authority. But this is after-the-fact rationalization, unless you think Kerry would now vote in favor of Bush having the “authority” to wage war against, say, Iran or North Korea.

In September 2003, Kerry implied that voting against wartime funding bills was equivalent to abandoning the troops.

“I don’t think any United States senator is going to abandon our troops and recklessly leave Iraq to whatever follows as a result of simply cutting and running,” he said.

One month later, of course, he voted against the $87 billion supplemental funding bill, primarily because the money wasn’t coming from his preferred source: Repealed tax cuts. But surely he knew, four weeks earlier, when he made the above quote, that funding for the troops was unlikely to come from that source. That he chose to “abandon our troops” to make a stand on tax cuts is probably a flip-flop. But to give him the benefit of the doubt, it may simply be exceedingly lame.

Still, as with Bush, CBS applies the flip-flop label to Kerry in ways that are unwarranted. In 1996, Kerry was apparently against the death penalty for terrorists. Now he’s in favor of it. Again, might there have been any events between then and now that might have altered his thinking on the subject? Flip-flops cannot, by definition, take eight years to complete. Similarly, CBS calls Kerry a flip-flopper for daring to change his position on affirmative action between 1992 (!) and the present day.

Sheesh. Next time you hear the phrase “flip-flop,” apply this simple test: Was the first position made in the previous damn century? If so, it isn’t a flip-flop. Have major, thought-provoking events occurred since the first position was expressed? If so, a new position isn’t a flip-flop. If, however, a candidate says one thing yesterday and a new one today, then you have every right to stand up, point at that candidate, and say, “You, sir, are a rubber sandal loosely fastened to the foot by a thong!”

  2 Responses to “What is a Flip-Flop?”

  1. Vis-a-vis this bit:

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    During the 2000 campaign, Mr. Bush said he was against federal intervention regarding the issue of same-sex marriage. In an interview with CNN’s Larry King, he said, states “can do what they want to do” on the issue. Vice President Cheney took the same stance.

    Again, years later, with gay-marriage movement making huge strides, his position was put to the test, and Bush found it necessary to amend his thinking. You may disagree with that new thinking. I certainly do. But the process of moving from one position to another can hardly be called a flip-flop.
    —-

    I wouldn’t call that a flip-flop, either. I would call that not being honest with his original statements. If his opinion really was that states could do what they wanted on gay marriage, then states taking the bold step of doing what they wanted should not have caused him to have any qualms. If, however, states had made gay marriage legal, and this had caused civilization as we know it to collapse, then, yes, perhaps he might have had reason to consider his position. But having one’s position put to the test and having to admit, “You know what? I guess I was just saying that to look like a nice, open-minded guy” — that’s not something to be proud of.

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  2. I disagree. The gay marriage comments, to me, are exactly what a flip flop is.

    He previously stated that states should handle the gay marriage issue. Then, when some states attempted to handle the gay marriage issue, he decided there should be federal intervention.

    He’s changed his position on an issue without anything happening except the playing out of how he initially thought the issue should be handled. To me, it’s analogous to stating “17 year olds should vote” and then, when finding out the majority of 17 year olds would vote against you changing your mind and stating “we need to stop 17 year olds from voting.” He’s flip flopping because it doesn’t fit his current agenda. Nothing has changed to warrant a rethinking of the position.

    However, I also agree that he probably lied in the beginning to soften his stance on the issue of gay marriage. But, it’s still flip flopping because he said one thing to appear one way on the issue and changed it when consequences were known.

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