It is 2004 when the campaign of George W. Bush produces ads portraying his challenger, Senator John Kerry, as a flip flopper on important issues. I can still recall a deep voice in my head saying “flip flop, flop flip” in an ad that ends with a clip of Senator Kerry declaring, “I actually voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” The declaration was in regards to an appropriation bill to fund the Iraq War. Many things haunted his campaign that year, including having a thoroughly uninspiring candidacy for a base that was looking to be inspired. That attack was among the most damning.
There is a school of thought in electoral politics that says anything and everything coming out of your campaign must stick to the message. When executed with the utmost discipline, it can be largely successful. But, in the case of Mr. Kerry, attacks that put everything you are working for at risk should not be ignored. Although there was a tepid attempt at addressing the attack, the label stuck and the rest is history.
We see this attack leveled against elected officials on a regular basis. It is utilized in races from Presidential on down to mayoral and city council. I don’t doubt that there are examples where a change of opinion comes purely from a place of political expediency. Candidates want to win and turning a blind eye to inner reservations for the sake of a few extra votes is nothing new.
However, I believe that these attacks are unfair in most situations and plant an easy label when individual situations often have much more complex details. It is the bumper sticker caricature that fails to recognize honest changes that happen with new knowledge, deeper understanding, or even simple evolution in perspective that every human being is entitled to. I should hope that we all allow ourselves the right to be moved as a fundamental part of growth and maturity.
I am not talking about retreating from calling those out who appear to take a vastly different approach than before without any real sense to be made as to why. Accountability is a paramount principle in public service. What I am saying is that we need to not be so easily influenced by this attack without considering the factors behind it. Seeking an easy way to turn voters against your opponent is understandable. You want to give people a reason to choose you over them, or at least make them reconsider supporting your opponent. My concern is that it does a disservice to the process. There is an environment in which fearful politicians find that it is politically better to be confidently wrong than to be perceived as a flip flopper. Most of us would call sticking to one position as being principled, and it is if you truly continue to believe in the same position. Standing on principle does not mean standing against reason when facts you know change or you develop a deeper understanding which alters your perspective. It is the principled leader of good character that is willing to admit they may have been wrong or at least not entirely informed when they took an earlier position. It is the reasonable, well informed electorate that can accept this as a part of the human experience.
Candidates for office need to be less afraid to grow as leaders and set themselves as examples for others to follow. They also need to be more prepared to explain themselves by addressing where a change in position grew from, and accept that it is better for people to disagree with your reasoning than to leave them in the dark. Voters must also attempt to refrain from accepting an easy label made by those whose motivation is simple — winning an election. We all know that very few situations in this life are as simple as they are made out to be. Governing is far from simple and as complex as anything in life can be.