The Flip Side of Flip-Flopping
Presidential candidates Sen. John Mccain and Sen. Barack Obama have both been accused of political flip-flopping.
Credit: AP Photo

The economy has brought the dire state of the American financial markets into the public's consciousness with sharp focus—along with the presidential candidates' positions on the issue.

When insurance megacorporation AIG requested $85 million in taxpayer bailouts, John McCain stood firmly against it, saying "We cannot have the taxpayers bail out AIG or anyone else." For nearly three decades, Senator McCain has been loudly and proudly against market regulation; as he told the "Wall Street Journal" in March, "I'm always for less regulation."

Yet the federal government did bail out AIG, and within days McCain changed his position, defending not only the Wall Street bailout but also calling for more market regulation to prevent future collapses. This seems like a prudent, if painful position. But was that an infamous "flip-flop," in political speak?

Politicians have made a pastime of calling each other "flip-floppers." Senator John Kerry, during his presidential bid, was widely ridiculed as a flip-flopper for his infamous statement, "I actually did vote for the $87 billion [troop funding bill] before I voted against it."

Such zingers make for memorable political theater and pop culture sound bites, but gloss over a fair question: What's wrong with changing your mind?

Americans want to know where candidates stand on issues; they want a decisive leader who sticks by his or her convictions. That's all well and good, but where's the flexibility? Do we really want leaders whose positions on important issues are engraved in stone, facts be damned?

Obviously no one wants a president whose opinions and policies change with the wind, but the political and economic world is constantly changing. Policies and positions that work well at one time, under one set of circumstances, might be misguided or even devastating later on. Intelligent people can and do change their minds as circumstances and facts change. Perhaps the most important quality the president can have is good judgment, and that requires a mind open to alternatives. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines."

In the case of market regulation, there is certainly reason to reconsider the long-standing deregulation policies that helped create the economic crisis. While McCain said that the "fundamentals of the economy are strong," Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson declared that the U.S. economy was within days of a "meltdown."

Is McCain's sudden support of market regulation a flip-flop, a convenient political stunt to court voters, or does he really believe he's been wrong on the issue for the last quarter-century? It's not clear, but in any case no one should be criticized for coming to the truth, however belatedly. Ultimately, of course, flip-flopping is in the eye of the beholder (or spin doctor); while I have "advisors," my opponent has "cronies" I change my mind after "considered judgment," but he "flip-flops."

Candidates should be able to actually be candid and say, "I was wrong and I changed my mind." Wouldn't that be refreshing?

Benjamin Radford is managing editor of the Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. He wrote about the media and pop culture in his book" Media Mythmakers: How Journalists, Activists, and Advertisers Mislead Us." His books, films, and other projects can be found on his website.