I had a half written post on this a few days ago, then I ditched it because I thought it was just too obvious. The point of the post was that we aren't clear on the meaning of the term "flip-flop." Then I read this on The Corner just now:
FLIP-FLOPPING [Jonah Goldberg]Maybe it isn't so obvious, so let me make a stab at reconstructing what I wrote.
Interesting point from a reader:
You and Kerry both miss the point of the flip-flopping charge. Changing one's opinion isn't a problem. It's changing one's opinion (the flip), then changing BACK to the original opinion (the flop). THAT is what Kerry keeps doing, and Bush doesn't.
Posted at 12:45 PM
"Flip-flop" is in the dictionary and has several definitions, one of which is the sandal. But it's the political definitions that we care about when we call Kerry a practitioner of the low art of the flip-flop, not some choice in esoteric orange footwear. Let's get the dictionary definitions out in the open first, this from American Heritage:
flip-flopIt's interesting that in the online listing at dictionary.com, there is no entry for a verb (yet). Maybe that's just waiting for this post (except my title employs it as a noun!)
The movement or sound of repeated flapping.
A backward somersault or handspring.
Informal. A reversal, as of a stand or position: a foreign policy flip-flop.
A backless, often foam rubber sandal held to the foot at the big toe by means of a thong.
Electronics. An electronic circuit or mechanical device capable of assuming either of two stable states, especially a computer circuit used to store a single bit of information.
As the email writer above sent to The Corner, the way that we're using the term to describe John Kerry really isn't the way the dictionary defines the noun. There the closest definition is summed up as "a reversal." What we're saying, however, is what the ads run by the Bush campaign (and others) make pretty clear: John Kerry tacks back and forth on issues in the same fashion that he does while he's windsurfing into the wind. To use language closer to the metaphor implicit in the term, Kerry is showing one side much as would a fish laying on a dock, he flips over to show the other side, and that amounts to the equivalent of the reversal as defined above. But then he goes one side further and flops back to the original side. He may do this repeatedly, as he has on Iraq.
By this new usage we're claiming, his famous statement that "I voted for the war before I voted against the war" does not comprise a complete flip-flop on the war when taken in isolation. That is a flip. (Or maybe a flop, depending on what he said before this isolated statement, but it's not both when take by itself.) It's his complete record of positions on the Iraq war that comprises his flip-flopping.
This distinction is important because of the Democratic accusations that Bush has flip-flopped on issues:
The flip-flopper, Democrats say, is President Bush. Over the past four years, he abandoned positions on issues such as how to regulate air pollution or whether states should be allowed to sanction same-sex marriage. He changed his mind about the merits of creating the Homeland Security Department, and made a major exception to his stance on free trade by agreeing to tariffs on steel. After resisting, the president yielded to pressure in supporting an independent commission to study policy failures preceding the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Bush did the same with questions about whether he would allow his national security adviser to testify, or whether he would answer commissioners' questions for only an hour, or for as long they needed.They offered above a series of flips, not what we are calling flip-flops. Bush was against the idea of a Department of Homeland Security at first, but he changed his mind and supported it after some debate. No one with a lick of sense will find anything wrong with someone changing his mind after hearing argument, seeing new evidence and giving the matter more thought. That is called rational behavior.
--MSNBC, Sept. 23, 2004
The problem with Kerry is that he has changed his mind so often, and with no real explanation that he has changed his position or that he has changed his reasoning, on so many positions, that we can't keep track of where he stands at any given moment. I'm not at all convinced that he can either. As when he's out there on his windsurfing rig, he seems to feel the local winds of public opinion shift and adjust accordingly, rather than basing his course and stance on any internal combustion engine of policy, belief or conscience. A politician that does this really well can be very good at his job as a representative of his voters, but it's not at all clear that such a politician makes a good leader. A good leader leads based upon internal energy and drive, not on how he's pushed about by externals.
While the Democrats may find and point to an instance where Bush has flip-flopped in the past, it's not going to be as easy a task as it is to point to instances where Kerry has. And this difference is what leads us to perceive Kerry as a flip-flopper when compared to Bush. In an election what we must do is compare and contrast, not measure against some absolute standard. A man who has routinely flip-flopped in the past can be expected to continue doing so. It's become a habit of mind. A man who does so uncommonly has formed the opposite habit of mind. We know to expect him to stand by a position, and only change it when new evidence, or new thinking, leads to rational reasons to shift.
Right now it is in our best interest, as a country at war, to present to the rest of the world a solid image of resolve. That is, we must if what we plan to do is win this war.
reˇsolveNot John Kerry.
Firmness of purpose; resolution.