Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Politics: Flip-Flops Are Not Important

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Voters in the United States have a nice resource for vetting claims made by the presidential candidates., run by my old favorite Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, and, run by the Congressional Quarterly and the St. Petersburg Times, both provide non-partisan evaluations of statements made by the candidates themselves and other other things (including chain e-mails and even condom packaging) containing political messages. These sites provide an invaluable way to independently judge whether a given claim or overall campaign is trustworthy without having to rely on either not especially challenging or (in some cases) increasingly partisan sources in the mainstream media.

(As an aside, the Annenberg Public Policy Center used the term "inappropriate discourse" to describe negative ads and other false claims made by candidates in the 2006 elections. It was much to my disappointment that the terms "inappropriate discourse" and "appropriate discourse" did not stick in the political lexicon, though it is fairly obvious why they did not. I had to quit using them, as nobody understood what I meant.)

One disappointing thing I have found about PolitiFact, though, is its devoting an entire tab to a "Flip-O-Meter." I have never understood why the so-called "Flip-Flop," when it occurs during a campaign, should be viewed as a negative thing.

A distinction needs to be made between a "flip-flop" and a "broken promise." A "flip-flop" means a change in position from something the candidate has stated or supported during a previous term or campaign. A "broken promise" means actually doing something different in office than was promised during a campaign. The broken promise strikes me as a much more serious matter. The voters may have made their decision based on that promise, and they have every right to evaluate whether that betrayal might cause them to never vote for the candidate again, or perhaps the voter might conclude that circumstances had changed and it was a good decision to break the promise.

That latter point is exactly why I don't have problems with "flip-flops" during the campaign. Circumstances change. People grow and become more mature in their thoughts. I would much rather have a candidate decide that their past view was wrong and change it than continue to campaign on something that they had concluded was no longer correct. To me, this demonstrates that the candidate is still thinking about the issues, which should be what we all want them to do.

A key point is that the "flip-flop" occur during the campaign (and sufficiently early in the campaign). The candidate has a chance to explain their change in position, and the voter has the opportunity to decide whether or not he or she wants to vote for that politician based on their new position.

In the 2004 campaign, John Kerry was consistently called a "flip-flopper" and his statement about being "before it before I was against it" with respect to the war in Iraq has become so famous that even Barack Obama has brought it up, referring to Sarah Palin's position on the "Bridge to Nowhere" as also being "before it before she was against it." Yet, John Kerry's flip-flops were substantially to positions that the country supported. As Ira Glass put it when speaking with voter James Hackett in Act One of Episode 276 of This American Life, Kerry "was sucking up to YOU," the American voter. That's exactly what politicians should be doing, assuming voters want something that is actually good for them.

There are even cases in which a broken promise might be the right thing to do. President George H.W. Bush famously promised no new taxes in the 1988 campaign, but the tax increases he negotiated with a Democrat-controlled Congress are now widely viewed as setting the stage for the prosperity in the 1990's under the Clinton administration. That broken promise took courage by Bush, but history seems to have vindicated him.

So, I don't care about flip-flops and believe that PolitiFact should drop the "Flip-O-Meter" category entirely in favor of focusing on the "Truth-O-Meter."

In contrast, the fact checking organizations do a great service in evaluating political claims for their accuracy. In this election, it is almost impossible to not conclude that the Obama campaign is substantially more truthful than the McCain campaign. On at least six occasions, John McCain has personally earned PolitiFact's "Pants On Fire" rating. Obama has never earned this rating.

Furthermore, the difference in honesty between the two campaigns runs deeper, as will be explored in tomorrow's post.

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