To Hillary: In Praise of Political Flip-Floppers Everywhere

Debate moderators, the main stream media, bloggers, and television superstars never seem to tire of the Gotcha question, as Hillary pointed out to Tim Russert in this week's debate: But, didn't you support drivers licenses for illegal immigrants --- gun control, gay marriage, abortion, universal health care, and Iraq ---- before you started opposing it? This is a magnificent season for the ever so sanctimonious flip-flop cops. And they have much to work with. Almost all the current crop of presidential candidates, both Republicans and Democrats, are flip-flopping all over the place. But Gotcha questions are almost always self-serving ploys, and pundits and political reporters, of all people, know it. The constant trumpeting of these trick questions quickly becomes tiresome and ultimately not very illuminating. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds adored by little statesmen, wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. -- 'Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.' -- Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood?

It would be sheer folly to expect unwavering constancy or even, complete honesty, for that matter, from politicians during an election, much less during a nominating process. Democracy is the art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage, as H.L Mencken once said. Americans have become cynical about politics and politicians. They expect candidates to pander to the polls and compromise - to become liars, unprincipled political opportunists. The public knows, at some level, that family values and political consistency have nothing to do with presidential leadership. You can't really be a good politician, or a good president without being somewhat of a morally flawed human being. The too-good-for-this world politicians --- George McGovern, Barry Goldwater, Adlai Stevenson, Michael Dukakis, Jimmy Carter --- have had an annoying habit of losing elections. Americans know they need a president with a different skill-set: someone who will take care of them and their needs and is not too fastidious to do what it takes to win. Witness the astonishing popularity of the flawed Rudolph Giuliani among the Republican family values set. Only the most naïve think that keeping never varying positions over decades has anything to do with being an effective president. In fact, given the fast changing world, the ability to alter one's mind and course of action - in the face of evolving challenges - is a higher virtue to be sought after. A politician shouldn't have the same opinions and concerns during the primaries, as he has in the general election ... and during governing. That would be stupid. Campaigning politicians are expected to charm and cajole relevant constituencies, to pander, to bob and weave, and to continually cobble together disparate interest groups. These are the skills - making political moves and having the capacity and courage for bold, persistent experimentation - an effective president will need. But the scorekeepers, mostly reporters and political analysts (especially Tim Russert), continue to play this sophomoric game for their own aggrandizement, as if it illuminates an essential element of character or leadership. Good presidents should have an agenda - a strategic vision, a fundamental core of beliefs, ideas, and a burning passion; but they should also be pragmatic, flexible, cunning and be able to demonstrate the capacity to grow and change. A friend of mine from a Wall Street Investment bank tells me that his annual bonus - which makes up 90% of his yearly compensation - is determined not by a percentage of money he made for the bank last year, but by how much they anticipate he will make in the following year. They don't care what he did before - he may have lost an account, or he may have been lucky, not likely to be repeated. His multi-million dollar bonus is based on what they expect him to make in the future. This should be our modus operendi when picking a president. We should judge a candidate on what, we believe, he (or she) is really going to do when he (or she) becomes president, and not by whatever gibberish they have to spout to win the nomination. We need to pick a president who is going to be able to deal artfully with a most complicated, dangerous geopolitical situation; someone who can cobble together a coalition of Arab states which will make it possible for the US to get out of Iraq ...who can create an international climate that dries up anti-American terrorism, who can win over the Europeans and the Asians, and who can preserve and restore American hegemony, without being a bully. It doesn't really matter who opposed the Iraq war first and most ardently, or who apologizes the most for this or that vote or gaffe. This has nothing to do with what we need for our safety and prosperity. What matters is which candidate has the depth and dexterity to get us out of one of the stickiest and scariest situations America has ever faced. The maneuvering is going to take a deft and delicate hand, someone who can cut and run and change in a constantly fluid world. These skills are, coincidentally, similar to the skills that it takes to get the nomination. There once was a clever and rich New York politician named Howard Samuels who, leading in all the polls, was a shoe-in to get the democratic nomination for governor and win the election. Howie the Horse, as he was known, started giving high fallooting speeches about what he would do as governor.

He forgot one thing on his way to the inauguration: he hadn't won the nomination yet. Hugh Carey, a fighting Irishman, kept campaigning on traditional democratic themes. No surprise here. Carey won the nomination, and went on to run a great centrist campaign for governor, winning two subsequent terms. The moral is: you have to win the nomination first and do whatever it takes, then you can think about what kind of campaign you want to run in the general election; then you can think about how you want to govern and what you want, and can, accomplish. The history of the great presidents of yesteryear has shown that campaign themes/promises .... and subsequent governing, often have little to do with one another. Nor would we want them to. All of our great presidents have shown - for lack of a better phrase - a great deal of "ideological malleability" and pragmatism. Thomas Jefferson reviled public debt so much that in 1798 he proposed a constitutional amendment that would have prevented the federal government from borrowing. But in 1803, when presented with the opportunity to vastly increase the size of the United States by purchasing vast swaths of land known as the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson quickly abandoned his fears about borrowing monies. During the campaign of 1860, Abraham Lincoln persistently promised not to interfere with slavery in the Southern states. But when the Southern states declared their independence, Lincoln soon issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in states that had seceded from the Union. Franklin D. Roosevelt's 1932 campaign was based on his pledge to cut taxes as a way to deal with the Great Depression. He did nothing of the sort of course. His opponent, Herbert Hoover, tagged him as a "chameleon in plaid", but FDR went on to become one of our greatest presidents by increasing taxes and spending. In 1960, John F. Kennedy ran on a platform that shamelessly exploited fears that the U.S. had fallen grievously behind in the arms race against the Soviet Union --- the Phantom Missile Gap. We hadn't, of course, as it later became obvious. Lyndon B. Johnson pandered to his conservative southern roots during the 1960 election and yet, as president, he pushed through the most extensive civil rights reforms ever enacted. The first rule in politics is: if you don't succeed in the short run, there will be no long run. But somehow the voters knew, when these wannabe presidents were running, that they were tough enough, nimble enough, and artfully pragmatic enough to successfully negotiate through some of the thorniest problems this country has ever faced: Slavery and Rebellion, the Great Depression, World War II, the threat from Communism and the Civil Rights struggle - to turn into inspired leaders. Candidates with uncompromising ideals are very appealing. But ultimately politicians who practice calculated compromise tend to be our most successful presidents. Had these great presidents clung steadfastly and bull-headedly to their campaign positions, our country would be far worse off.