The shift came quickly. Barack Obama remarked last Thursday that, given recent developments on the ground in Iraq, he might want to “refine” the policies he’d previously cited when it comes to the plans he’d make for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. A few hours later, realizing that the comment could be misconstrued, the candidate held a follow-up news conference aimed at clarifying his positions and insisting the obvious: that policy-refinement isn’t the same as policy-reversal. But Obama was too late: a new narrative was already set (flip ); a new brand was already in place (flip ); a new label was already bestowed (FLOP!).
Start your engines, Pundits sharpen your wits, Columnists ready your pens, Reporters we’ve caught ourselves a flip-flopper! And look alive, boys, it’s a big one!
Indeed. The Politician Who Claimed to Be Different From Other Politicians But in the End Was Just Like All the Others proved, for members of all corners of the media, to be a narrative too juicy to resist. None of which, in retrospect, is terribly surprising. But what was surprising about the coverage of RefineMyPosition-Gate was how often and how eagerly the press used the term “flip-flop” to describe Obama’s alleged rhetorical shift. That shift wasn’t a “change” or a “refinement” or a “reconsideration”; it was a “flip-flop,” and, thus, all that that term implies. (Hypocrite! Panderer! Politician!)
As Lester Feder notes today, this Flip-Flop Focus—not just when it comes to Obama’s Iraq comments, but also to his shift in public financing, and, for that matter, to McCain’s shifts in budget policy and Social Security rhetoric—has prevented the press from seeing the larger picture, the policy implications of the pivots. It’s a microcosm of the problem with horserace coverage: so obsessed have we become with the process of each candidate’s thought—and implicitly interested in the notion that evolution in that regard is actually, somehow, devolution—that we often overlook the content of that thought. And we do so, of course, to the detriment of all involved.
“In a campaign consumed by tactics, it doesn’t matter where you stand on any issue so much as whether you’ve stood there all along,” Bloomberg’s Margaret Carlson put it. “Together with taking umbrage over slights real and imagined, the commission of flip-flops, even over changed circumstances, is bad and dominates the debate.”
“Flip-flop” has been in our political vernacular for over a century, as both a shorthand for All Manner of Hypocritical Betrayal of the Public Trust, and, thus, as an accusation to be hurled at one’s political opponents. (Giving a campaign speech in New York City in 1890, John W. Goff, a candidate for district attorney, declared to The New York Times of an opponent: “I would like to hear Mr. Nicoll explain his great flip-flop, for three years ago, you know, as the Republican candidate for District Attorney, he bitterly denounced Tammany as a party run by bosses and in the interest of bossism.”) But the phrase’s more insidious implications are recent, dating, most notably, to the last presidential campaign, when John Kerry’s opponents, via the meme-mongers of the media, branded him as the Flip-Flopper.
The label stuck—“it reinforced the existing impression of him as someone who wanted to have everything both ways,” Newsweek’s Andrew Romano wrote last month—and not merely, apparently, to Candidate Kerry, but also to the minds of those same media members, who are now dropping their F-F-bombs with nearly whimsical abandon upon the landscape of our political discourse—to the extent that, in the rhetorical battle waged on the campaign trail, we in the media are venturing into war-crimes territory with all our flip-flop flack.
Given all that, a modest proposal: perhaps, rather than relying so implicitly on all those destructive little bombs, we should remove them from our semantic arsenal. Let’s find other terms through which to hold politicians accountable for the claims they make on the campaign trail. Let’s quit using the term “flip-flop” altogether.
But wait, you may say, charges of flip-flopping are fair accusations to make against politicians. They’re valuable checks against pols’ tendency to pander to voters. And, hey, at least flip-flop talk is issue-oriented and aren’t you CJR sticklers always asking reporters to focus more on the issues?