“Trust me when I say I can be trusted. But he’s bending the truth – actually I’m being generous, he’s lying!” So goes the campaign on both sides.
The game is on, charges, and counter-charges abound. All of this tests our patience and our intelligence. And the tragic ways of FOXNEWS and NBCNews.com (the former MSNBC) have permeated the general way many of us think about the candidates – how we feel about what they do and say depends to a great extent on how we feel about them before we heard them – a political Rorschach test if you will. I’d like to suggest that what they say they will do in a policy sense matters less than something more long lasting.
It is true that Romney has been reframing and changing things he said in the primaries (and when he was Governor) to position himself for the general election. It is also true that this fits into the completely defensible narrative that Romney is a flip-flopper changing his positions on issues depending on the nature of the race ahead of him. There are so many Romneyflops, that one cannot seriously debate whether Romney has changed his position to suit the needs of his political circumstances. He has. But is that really all that bad or unusual?
Let’s take the bad first. Ideological purity and consistency in a political candidate is an over-rated vice. It doesn’t make sense for folks to want bipartisan decision making in Washington on the one hand, and then punish people in the polls for having compromised on the other hand. By the very nature of the animal, getting elected calls for highlighting differences between you and your opponent. In a world of short attention spans and a rather poorly informed electorate, the way to highlight these differences is to bumper sticker the positive and the negative messages you convey to the extreme. However, legislating and governing in a system with checks and balances calls for give and take. If you are in favor of making sure that politicians “get things done” without any individual or group having overwhelming power, then you should hope that politicians “flip-flop” regularly. Many a legislator who sticks to the pledge they made to Grover Norquist may not be flip-floppers, but are far from what anybody should think of as ideal and worthy of their vote. (For what I think about Norquist and his pledge, click here)
Now, to the unusual part. Democrats and Republicans in the past have been, or have been accused of being, flip-floppers to their detriment. George Bush (Sr.) and John Kerry are two clear examples. But let’s fast forward to Romney’s opponent for the presidency. In a recent interview President Obama argued that there has been “consistency with me,”( he says this starting at minute 3.54 of the video) the implication being that he doesn’t flip-flop, and that we know where he stands and WWSIWWG (Read as ‘Two Double U See Two Double U Gee – What We See IS What We Get)
This is an example of the testing our intelligence part of the story. President Obama has flip flopped often enough and many of these flip flops can clearly be linked to political and policy making expediency, rather than some nobler reason. He was against an individual mandate for health insurance when he ran for the Presidency. In fact this was a major difference between him and Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary. Also if you thought the public option was a good idea, the President was your man. But legislating is clumsy business and we’ve got the Obamacare (everybody likes this term now) we’ve got, sans the public option and with a mandate.
As the Obamacare sausage was being made, the President made an eloquent and logical defense of the individual mandate. Also, listen carefully to all the links and you will see, sometimes Obama described his differences with Mrs. Clinton on the mandate as a ‘substantive’ difference, and at other times the same differences were only ‘modest’. Nor was he very consistent with whether he and his administration thought the individual mandate was or was not a tax.
There are times when the President flip-flopped and the political advantage is less clear. Obama’s position on same sex marriage is one such flip-flop – he was against it on religious grounds, before he was for it, a transformation brought about by his being a parent. Even when the flop happened pundits were divided as to whether this was a political plus or minus on the cost-benefit risk analysis scale – politically it was a trade-off of political contributions for votes in conservative swing states. The money is in (a lot of it came in), but the jury is still out as to whether it was a gamble worth the moolah.
Given the system we live in, any successful politician will flip-flop a number of times, nay, should flip-flop a number of times. Partisans see the other side’s flip-flops as egregious, and their own candidate’s as minor changes which show an healthy tendency to learn and mature the longer they are in public life. Moreover given how evenly distributed the balance of power is in Washington between the Republicans and the Democrats, if any of us believes the suggestion that a politician makes that they are going to Washington and will change the culture of the place and remake the system, we have only ourselves to blame when Washington remains the same irrespective of who is elected. I am sure that there are differences between the Republicans and Democrats who get to Washington both at the legislative and executive levels, but given the system of government we have, these difference will translate to very small changes in actual policy when all is said and done.
However, there is one area in which we know that the two candidates will do very different things, and the power of the other side in Congress is minimal. This is in appointing Federal judges – the Supreme Court, Courts of Appeals, and District Courts. This power is especially important in the case of the first two, for they can change the status quo (what is already law) and thereby change the social and political equilibrium. The reason the President can exercise extra power in this case is because to turn down a Presidential appointee, the other side in Congress must show the appointee to be really outside the mainstream, and you cannot constantly turn down appointees as outside the mainstream, for you then look unreasonable. While you can block a judicial nomination from coming up for a vote, that is close to impossible when it comes to a Supreme Court nominee. So, when you decide whom to vote for in less than four weeks, ask yourselves which of the following group of justices you like more – Group O also called Group D (Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan, Sotamayor, ) or Group R (Alito, Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia, Thomas), for these folks have more power to decide a number of issues we care about in an everyday sense than the President, and so will their successors. And with four justices over the age of 70, the next four years may determine the ideological stripes of the Court for a long time to come, for those who get to the Supreme bench sit there for more than four or eight years.
While this is where the President can be thwarted the least in what he wants to do by the opposition in the legislative branches, it is also where the President should most conform to the consensus in his own party. So even in this decision it isn’t Romney or Obama that matter in terms of judicial appointments over the next four years, but Republican or Democrat. So what really matters is not the short run, but the long run; and it is not the individual but his party affiliation.
So who will I vote for? In the first draft to this blog piece I actually answered that question. However, I have decided that it really doesn’t matter, and I would like the argument sketched out above to rise or fall irrespective of the candidate for whom I will be voting. Not that my vote really matters. I live in Indiana, and Romney will win Indiana whether I vote for him or not.