Of all the arrows a political candidate has in his/her quiver, charging an opponent with “flip-flopping” is often feckless and can even have a backlash effect. The strategy of most candidates is to put themselves in the mainstream of the voters while portraying their opponent as extreme. When a candidate is charged with flip-flopping, moderate voters might conclude that the candidate is ideologically malleable, not a dangerous doctrinaire ideologue, while true believers might conclude that the candidate is a born-again convert to their belief system.
Donald Trump has switched his views on many issues without paying a high political price. He once supported abortion rights, called for universal health insurance, and supported renewal of a federal ban on semi-automatic weapons.
Today, Trump opposes abortion rights, supports the Republican-supported “American Health Care Act” (which would reduce the number of Americans with health insurance), opposes gun control restrictions, and tells the National Rifle Association: “I will never ever infringe on the right of the people to keep and bear arms.”
American political history is littered with examples of politicians who changed their beliefs and reinvented their political careers. Alabama Governor George Wallace entered the national political sphere by declaring in his 1963 Gubernatorial Inauguration Address: “Segregation Now, Segregation Tomorrow, and Segregation Forever.” He stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama in a failed attempt to stop African-American students from enrolling in the College. He ran for President as a critic of “left-wing dogma which now threatens to engulf every man, woman, and child in the United States.”
But ironically, during his days in the Alabama Legislature and during his first run for Governor in 1958, Wallace was known by Alabama standards as a liberal who deemphasized racial issues. In fact, he was a disciple of former Alabama Governor Jim Folsom, a supporter of desegregation. Wallace actually won the endorsement of the NAACP in that race, while the Klu Klux Klan supported his segregationist opponent John Patterson.
Donald Trump has switched his views on many issues without paying a high political price.
In his successful 1962 Gubernatorial bid, Wallace took a sharp turn to the right, denouncing racial integration and calling himself a conservative. An astonished Folsom ran against him. Reflecting on his protégé’s past positions, Folsom declared: “George wasn’t no racial bigot either back yonder.”
Wallace later apologized to the African-American community for his past support for segregation and won a commanding 90 percent of the state’s African-American vote in his last Gubernatorial bid for Governor in 1982.
Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) earned his place in history for engineering the Republican takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994. He was a full-spectrum conservative who became a national figure for his denunciation of Democratic rule in the House and Liberalism as an ideology.
Gingrich cut his political teeth as the Southern Regional Director for the campaign of Liberal Republican Presidential candidate Nelson Rockefeller. In 1974 and in 1976, Gingrich ran as a Rockefeller Republican against conservative Democratic U.S. Representative John Flynt. Flynt was a super villain to the left wing of his party because of his support for racial segregation and was declared a member of the “dirty dozen” (candidates established by the League of Conservation Voters “who consistently side against the environment”).
Gingrich garnered support from many liberal Democrats across the country, including current liberal pundit Bob Beckel.
In 1978, with Flynt retiring, Gingrich ran against a more moderate Democrat Virginia Shapard, and re-invented himself as a Conservative Republican. He never looked back. Ironically, during his 2012 bid for the Republican Presidential nomination, Gingrich mocked former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney as “a Rockefeller Republican.”
Former Vice President Al Gore is a hero to millions of liberals for his advocacy for measures to curtail climate change. Yet Gore began his career by representing a socially conservative Congressional District in Tennessee. He supported the Hyde Amendment, which disallows federal funding for abortions. In addition, Gore voted for an amendment stating that a person “shall include unborn children from the moment of conception.” Moreover. Gore branded homosexuality “abnormal sexual behavior” and said it “is not an acceptable alternative that society should affirm.”
Gore first ran for President and earned the support of the party’s conservative bloodline. Gore was the only Democratic candidate to support the conservative Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in his refusal to negotiate a “land for peace” deal with the Palestinians. Furthermore, Gore heralded his role growing tobacco on his family’s Tennessee farm, telling a North Carolina audience: “I’ve chopped it. I’ve shredded it, spiked it, put it in the barn and stripped it and sold it.’’
Gore gradually lurched to the left and his past ideological sins have been forgiven or forgotten by the left.
If one was asked at the turn of the century who would be the least likely candidate to win the Libertarian Presidential nomination, U.S. Representative Bob Barr (R-GA) might come to mind. While in Congress, Barr was a supporter of the War on Drugs, including interdicting the use of medical marijuana. He was not just a foot soldier in the drug war, but a General. In 2002, he passed an amendment blocking an initiative which allowed for medical marijuana in the District of Columbia, a measure which mustered 69 percent support from District voters. The U.S. Congress later overturned the ban in 2009. Libertarians almost universally favor drug legalization.
In addition, while Libertarians favor a non-interventionist foreign policy and a return of troops stationed in foreign land, Barr voted for the authorization of the use of force by the U.S. in Iraq.
Moreover, while Libertarians believed that marriage should be privatized, and that the Federal government should have no involvement in that institution, Barr was not just a co-sponsor, but the author of the Defense of Marriage Act, which codified that only marriages between members of the opposite sex can be recognized by the Federal Government and that states do not have to recognize marriages recognized in other states.
In 2008, Barr denounced all these stances and actually won a hotly-contested Libertarian Presidential Party primary.
After Barr lost the General Election, he rejoined the GOP and endorsed Newt Gingrich in his 2012 Presidential campaign over his Libertarian-minded opponent Ron Paul. Ironically, Gingrich’s positions were closer to Barr’s former positions.
Reinventing one’s political positioning to adapt to changing conditions on the political battlefield is a survival tactic that can prolong one’s political relevancy. Donald Trump is just one in a long litany of politicians who shift with the political winds. U.S. Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen (R-IL 1959-1969) observed “I am a man of fixed and unbending principles, the first of which is to be flexible at all times.”