Politics has seen the first two years of the "Tens" decade pose one fundamental question: Can government still function in the age of hyper-polarization? Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher; MSNBC and Fox News; the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street -- innumerable forces unique to the 21st century have constructed a deafening echo chamber in which voices left and right ricochet off one another ad infinitum, resulting in a patently dysfunctional Washington, D.C., where nobody is willing to work with another; and the scarlet letter symbolizing one's harlotry of infidelities to the party line is what it always has been: the "flip-flop."
Nobody likes the Flip-Flop. The ugly cousin of Prudent Hedge and Sane Compromise, it is the heinously monstrous lovechild of poll-testing and soulless pandering. It wanders the hellscape of politics and punditry an unholy abomination, cursed and derided wherever it travels. Lethal to those candidacies with whom it is seen (R.I.P. Kerry for president), the mere whisper of its name on the airwaves or within war rooms conjures calculation and deception, hypocrisy and wickedness -- hell, Angela Lansbury whispering into Raymond Shaw's ears. In election years in the United States, no term bears a more negative connotation than the alliterative atom bomb that is "flip-flop." Unless, of course, you're surfing in Barbados.
The smear campaign, however, must end. This is a stigma to be appreciated. Our political system has become so paralyzed, so ossified in its partisan inertia -- that we have arrived at the unimaginable: We need more unprincipled politicians. In 2012, evolutionary adaptability should be a positive to voters. Yes, I said it. Once more into the breach: Let us raise our glasses to toast the "flip-flop," and defend its honor against those that would besmirch it.
Like most things that are supposedly damaging to the country, "flip-flop" stories are sweet ambrosia for the ravenous media. The conventional wisdom this year has all three of our remaining GOP presidential candidates weakened by policy reversals.
Gov. Romney, we are told by every living organism with a mouth, is too inauthentic; he has taken conflicting positions on every policy issue over the years. He's fake, they say. No doubt the general election will see eight thousand Obama campaign ads bombarding us with mirror image photos of Romneys arguing with themselves. Health care, global warming, bailouts, gay marriage, abortion -- you name it, Romney's done a Shaun White-caliber 180 on it. Fair enough.
And Speaker Gingrich? He has actually contorted himself nearly as ostentatiously as Mitt on issues like the healthcare individual mandate and global warming, but also left a lobbying trail that can only be described as a waking nightmare for the Republican base. Those poor conservatives who have tracked Newt's breadcrumbs through the forest have found themselves at Freddie Mac's doormat, among other Grimm cottages of the left. The former speaker's campaign has already responded to allegations of advising liberal cabals with enough dodging, stretching, and twisting to fill a yoga seminar.
Even Rick Santorum, the paragon of principled conservatism to many voters and pundits, has been forced to spend time explaining his vote for No Child Left Behind in the Senate. It was a terrible mistake, he insists to crowds; but "politics is a team sport," and he was just trying to facilitate a new president's policy agenda.
Though I have little affection for the GOP finalists, I would suggest that "flip-flopping" should not necessarily be a negative this time around. America's most fundamental political dysfunctions are not the result of flexibility, but of inflexibility. No historian will look back on the start of this decade and declare that America was doomed by flimsy, inauthentic elected officials. On the contrary, the American political system is crumbling from institutional and ideological inelasticity; its decay is due to each party's fanatical refusal to constructively compromise.
Cocooned within their own arguments, our elected officials have become utterly unyielding in their stances. Every principle has become an inviolably sacred cow. Democrats refuse to budge on entitlement reform; Republicans refuse to cede an inch on revenues. The debt ceiling debacle this summer is a perfect example. After the entire GOP House majority had signed the Grover Norquist anti-tax pledge (pledging to never raise taxes under any circumstance), there was no deal to be negotiated. Representatives were left with two unattractive choices: either "flip-flop" from their fanatical pledges and commit sacrilege, or entertain the specter of default. The result was the first credit downgrade in the history of the United States. Super.
After playing chicken with the debt ceiling, Congress proved incapable of producing a budget deal, and the country simply crawled from Continuing Resolution to Continuing Resolution. Even the preposterous "super committee" gambit failed to produce a deficit reduction package. The catch, once again, was ideological entrenchment. You could almost hear the world gasp in shock.
The story is always the same: Nobody will bend, and nothing can get done. Congress's approval rating is in the single digits for one reason and one reason only: its members are more interested in burnishing their partisan credentials and grandstanding for Grover Norquist salutes than they are in solving problems.
Governing is hard work. It requires compromise, cooperation, and engagement with a world beyond one's own personal values; in other words, it requires breaking promises (Elder Bush nods grimly). As president, Barack Obama has found that he could not close Guantanamo or allow the Bush tax cuts to expire during a recession. To be responsible, he chose to "flip-flop" from both campaign promises.
Flip-flopping is not always the result of candidates seeking to pull Jedi mind tricks on the American public. It can sometimes be an admirable effort to reconcile oneself with political and social realities. Breaking with one's past positions in the interest of breaking gridlock isn't heresy, and if ever there was a time to value policy mobility in a candidate, that time is now.
There hasn't been much bipartisan agreement in recent months, but the aisle has proved no barrier to coordinated assaults on Romney's alleged lack of principles. Both White House Democrats and rival Republican candidates have swept the talk-show circuit decrying that Romney "has no core." The Tea Party champion and fiscal default advocate Michele Bachmann literally titled her campaign-time book Core of Conviction -- an apparent jab at Romney. The subject is almost not even worth discussing, at this point.
We have a little too much conviction in Washington. When the alternative is righteous martyrdom, I'll take my chances with the coreless flip-flopper.