In the 2004 presidential election, Sen. John Kerry, a man who had a plan for everything but winning, had this to say about his vote for an $87 billion supplemental bill for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it.” It was the kind of flip-flop that would make Jimmy Buffett proud.
As a political term, the flip-flop traces its roots all the way back to the Tammany Hall days. The term suggests a politician who’s squishy on principles, someone who can’t be trusted to keep a promise.
In the presidential election, many of the 79 million Americans who voted for Joe Biden (highest vote total in history) can’t fathom why 73 million chose Donald Trump (second-highest vote total in history). The president has many faults, but flip-flopping is not among them. He said what he would do and, if he didn’t do those things, he never wavered rhetorically. For a populous that doesn’t trust politicians, that’s a powerful currency.
A politician pays a high price for flip-flopping, but the opposite, a rigidity and failure to modify positions when presented with inconvenient facts, is just as bad. It can make a leader seem stubborn to the point of ineffectiveness. Recent examples include Tony Blair’s support for George W. Bush and the war in Iraq, even as that backing proved disastrous for the Labour Party. Closer to home, Sam Brownback clung to the economic benefits of tax cuts even as Kansans, including those who normally support conservative candidates, became increasingly alarmed about underfunding local schools.
The key is to remain steadfast on principle without appearing oblivious to changing circumstances on specific details. It’s something Gov. Mike Parson should consider as Missourians deal with surging coronavirus cases just as families prepare to meet for holiday gatherings.
The president of the Missouri Hospital Association, saying the “wolf is at the door,” publicly called upon on Parson to drop his opposition to a statewide mask mandate. The teachers union in St. Louis, citing intensive care unit availability that’s down to 30% capacity statewide and 16% in the northwestern part of the state, issued a similar call.
Republican governors in Iowa, Utah and North Dakota, some facing metrics that are even worse than Missouri, dropped blanket opposition to mask mandates. Parson remains dug in, but he might want to consider the words of John Maynard Keynes, an economist who never had to bother with winning elections and therefore was unconcerned about the dreaded flip-flop.
“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”