07/16/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

In Defense of Flip-Flopping

This election's newest story is also the oldest. A flip-flop on Iraq? Didn't we do this one four years ago? Well it turns out the war didn't end, and now there's another presidential election coming up, and more complicated foreign policy stuff on which the candidates need to give speeches and take positions. So here we go again: Barack Obama is accused of changing his position. Last Thursday he said he would "continue to refine" his stance on troop withdrawal as new evidence comes in. John McCain, no doubt attempting to summon the specter of John Kerry, says the shift makes Obama unfit to lead.

Obama's supporters have had two responses to the flip-flop charge. First, they say he didn't actually change his position: he's always said he'd listen to commanders in the field. Second, they argue that McCain has changed his position on a ton of issues (taxation, immigration, religion, torture, energy, the environment and -- yes yes -- Iraq) and a swooning media tends to give him a free pass. I'm sympathetic to these responses, but would like to add a third: more often than not, flip-flopping stories are an incredibly stupid way to judge a candidate.

This is for three reasons. First, flip-flop stories are silly because they elevate the process of politics over the substance of politics -- that is, they make a big deal out of the mere fact that decisions are being made and positions are being changed without actually taking account of justifications and intentions. The simplest question -- does John Q. Politician's position today differ from at some point in the past? -- is asked at the expense of a whole raft of questions that are far more interesting and important. (Why is the position different, and which position is better?) Taken to its logical conclusion, the elevation of process would open up anything to criticism. Barack Obama recently quit smoking: How can we let this man's shameless reversals go unchallenged?

McCain's campaign actually displays this problem quite nicely by offering two criticisms of Obama's "refinements" that are, if not logically incompatible, at least temperamentally inconsistent. On one side of the bus they're saying it is a bad thing Obama shifted his stance on withdrawal. (McCain spokesman Brian Rogers: "Today, Barack Obama reversed [his] position, proving once again that his words do not matter.") But on the other side they're saying it's a good thing Obama changed his position, because, happily, it's the one McCain has advocated all along. (Rogers again: "we would like to congratulate [Obama] for accepting John McCain's position on this critical national security issue.") I don't understand why the McCain campaign gets to have it both ways. How can it be a bad thing if Obama has adopted a good position? Or, alternately, how could Obama have accepted a new position if his words "do not matter"?

I suppose they might say that process can be a window into substance -- sure, Obama has the right position now, but his public shift reveals a deep and abiding character flaw that is of genuine, substantive importance. But this response teases out the second problem with most flip-flop stories: they seem to assume that the public statements of a politician running for office are in unoccluded window into his beliefs. They aren't. There is a slightly interesting chicken-and-egg question here -- which came first, the gullible voters or the pandering politicians? -- but no one should dispute that almost every politician, whether he's defending a past position or decrying it, does so with half an eye toward winning over more than half the electorate.

And it does not seem obvious to me that a politician who changes public positions has less "character" than one who avoids changing positions long after the evidence has turned against him merely to avoid the appearance of being a softie. One kind of politician panders to the public's appetite for particular policy positions. The other panders to the public's appetite for politicians who can avoid the appearance of pandering. The pandering can always cut in both directions.

Of course, the other side of this coin is that principles can cut in both directions too, which is the third reason why flip-flop stories are stupid. Changing your mind reveals no shameful lack of principle if one of your guiding principles is "be amenable to new evidence." Indeed, the choice is often not between principles and pandering but between two kinds of principle: one that says commitments are worth keeping (consequences be damned), and one that says commitments are only as good as the latest evidence. One deeply absorbed lesson of the Bush presidency is that the former kind of principle is not necessarily the more desirable.

I'll take the open-mindedness any day of the week. But you can't criticize me if I change my mind.