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Michael Sigman Headshot

Repubs and the Art of Flip-Flopping

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RICK PERRY
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Actress Marilu Henner remembers in detail the events of virtually every day of her adult life. She told 60 Minutes that one benefit of this rare and fascinating condition is that she wins arguments with her husband simply by reminding him of -- and holding him to -- stuff he's said in the past. Of course, her husband isn't a politician.

You'd think that in an age where Google, Facebook and YouTube have come to serve as a Henner-like universal memory, politicians would have a harder time flip-flopping on key issues.

But the three so-called top-tier Republican presidential candidates -- Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann -- are, even as we speak, busy disavowing their inconvenient earlier statements by employing what an old boss of mine called the "Let's do a 180" strategy.

Of course, political flip-flopping -- as opposed to genuinely changing one's mind -- in presidential campaigns is hardly limited to Republicans. Al Gore was pro-life before he was pro-choice and for grain ethanol before he was against it. John Kerry changed his position on at least 10 issues. And Barack Obama has been driving progressives crazy for the past two and half years by compromising and caving on such issues as Afghanistan, taxing the rich and health care. (Some of these apparent contradictions might be characterized not as flip-flops but mere flops, i.e. failures, in the face of GOP intransigence, to achieve what he wanted to do.)

It's just that Romney and company toss off their "180's" with a brazenness that leaves garden-variety Democratic prevaricators in the dust.

The gold standard here is Mitt Romney, who has famously flip-flopped on everything from health care to abortion rights, gay marriage, gun ownership and -- just yesterday -- climate change. In fact, the Mittster has come to personify the shape-shifter's code, "Never mind what I said yesterday, let's find out which way the wind is blowing today and take a firm, principled stance in that direction." To be fair, Romney has remained steadfast with respect to one key stance: corporations are people.

Texas governor Rick Perry is different but no less cynical. He wants you to believe he's a strong-willed, consistent religious conservative. He's already staked out a bunch of extreme views on the campaign trail. And in his 2010 book Fed Up!, he argues that Social Security is a violently un-American, unconstitutional "Ponzi" scheme, that Medicare should be jettisoned and that the 16th Amendment, which instituted a federal income tax, should be repealed. But in a turnabout of near-Nixonian shamelessness -- MSNBC's Rachel Maddow called it "losing the argument with himself," Perry, who just a few days ago encouraged a voter to "get a copy of [my book] and read it," wants us to consider "inoperative" the crazier passages of the book. Maddow's guest, former GOP chief Michael Steele, failed to finesse the issue by speculating that Perry, "Almost forgot the book was out there."

Michele Bachmann, whose "top-tierdom" is hanging by a thread, is so close to a no-fault divorce from reality that she feels no need to rationally explain her more ludicrous and contradictory statements. Making career decisions because "The Lord says you are to be submissive to your husband"? No problemo -- "submission" is the same thing as "respect." Promising that "Under President Bachmann you will see gasoline come down below $2 per gallon again"? Why not? Insisting that her eagerness to accept funds from President Obama's stimulus bill was not in conflict with her description of the stimulus as "fantasy economics"? No contradiction there. Advocating default on America's debt? Never happened.

Tea Partyers can often be seen demonstrating the flip side of flip-flopping -- fact-free, unalterable rigidity. Case in point: In the default debacle, they wouldn't give an inch on tax increases for the mega-rich even if the fate of the world's economic system hung in the balance.

Unless something changes, and soon, one of these Republican chameleons will be the GOP candidate for president in 2012, and will therefore have a real chance to be our next president. Will citizens and the mainstream media rise up in disgust and keep these bums out? Don't count on it. But as Harry Chapin once said, "If we don't act like there's hope, there is no hope."