Politics & Government

Flip? Flop? Must be a campaign going on

Woodrow Wilson, shown here at his 1917 inauguration, changed positions on whether the United States should get involved in World War I.
Woodrow Wilson, shown here at his 1917 inauguration, changed positions on whether the United States should get involved in World War I. Library of Congress / MCT

WASHINGTON — Just in time for the Fourth of July holiday weekend comes that great American tradition, flip-flops. No, not the kind you wear to the pool. The kind you hear in the presidential campaign.

Barack Obama flips on campaign financing — rejecting public funds and the limits that go with them — and on protecting telecommunications companies that helped spy on Americans. He used to oppose that, now he favors it.

John McCain has flopped on immigration — he's emphasizing tough border enforcement first now — and tax cuts. He used to oppose them as irresponsible and now favors making them permanent.

Yet for all the screaming that these and other flip-flops have inspired about hypocrisy, it's nothing new.

Woodrow Wilson flipped on going to war. Franklin Roosevelt flopped on balancing the budget. Ronald Reagan flipped on abortion. The elder George Bush flopped on raising taxes.

In fact, it happens so often, it's hard to keep score.

When the other guy does it, it's pandering. When your guy does it, it's pragmatic leadership. Some get away with it, such as Wilson, Roosevelt and Reagan. Some, like the first Bush, don't.

A key factor is timing.

Candidates running for president are arguably more vulnerable to charges that they're changing positions just to win votes.

"It makes one look unprincipled and unreliable," said George Edwards, a presidential scholar at Texas A&M University. "If you're going to vote for someone, in theory it's because you anticipate they're going to do certain things. If they're just pandering, that's not what we tend to look for in leaders."

That's particularly true if they switch just before running, as Mitt Romney did on abortion before seeking this year's Republican presidential nomination, a move that rendered him suspect, especially to social conservatives.

It's also true if candidates change positions while running, as Democrat John Kerry did on funding the Iraq war during the 2004 campaign. Kerry's quote on an appropriation for the war — "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it" — lives on in political infamy.

They're also vulnerable to charges of sacrificing principle if they start changing positions after winning the nomination battle and start pivoting for a broader general election audience, as Obama is doing now.

Obama vowed during the primaries to block legislation granting immunity from lawsuits to telecommunications companies that helped the government spy on U.S. citizens, then he switched after clinching the nomination. He also dropped an earlier promise to take public financing — and spending limits — for the general election campaign.

"For Obama, his support among liberals is rock solid. His only risk is maybe losing the enthusiasm of younger voters," independent pollster John Zogby said. "If they see him as just another politico, that could be a problem."

Not every flip-flop registers with voters. Changing on hot-button issues such as abortion or war draws far more attention and resonates with more voters than changing on something such as lawsuit immunity for telecom companies.

Once in office, presidents have more room to switch positions as the political, economic or global landscape changes. An attack such as 9-11 or an economic crisis such as the Great Depression gives a president room to maneuver.

"Every president has to deal with new realities," Edwards said. "People say, quite rightly, that things change. The political conditions change. The world changes. If people agree that the world has changed, they don't hold it against you."

However, Edwards added, "If you change in a short period of time, like a campaign, that looks like you're not changing in response to changes in the world. That looks like pandering."


Woodrow Wilson wins re-election in 1916 on the slogan, "he kept us out of war," then leads the United States into World War I the next year.

Franklin Roosevelt vows to balance the budget when running in 1932, then jacks up federal spending and creates record deficits to fight the Great Depression.

Ronald Reagan vows in the 1960s not to raise taxes as California's governor. "My feet are in concrete," he says. After signing the largest tax increase in state history, he says, ""That sound you hear is the concrete breaking around my feet."

Also as California's governor, Reagan signs permissive abortion legislation that leads to many abortions. As a presidential candidate, he pledges to seek an anti-abortion constitutional amendment, but never fights hard for one.

George H.W. Bush promises not to raise taxes while running in 1988. "Read my lips, no new taxes," he says defiantly. He later raises taxes.

George W. Bush runs in 2000 with a vow not to engage in "nation building." He later commits the U.S. to nation building in Iraq.