Now that Tuesday’s elections are all settled, it’s time to hunker down for the slimiest of political seasons — the presidential primaries. The Republican party I grew up knowing wouldn’t allow this season’s field out of the barn to jog on the warmup track before the Kentucky Derby. If you want a respectable candidate, the national media says there is only one ticket you could be caught holding — Mitt Romney’s. The problem is that no one knows what kind of horse he really is.
As governor of Massachusetts, Romney signed the health care bill that inspired Obamacare, acknowledged human involvement in global warming, and said he wanted to “preserve and protect a woman’s right to choose.” Now he is staunchly pro-life, convinced people have nothing to do with climate change and vowing to repeal Obamacare. But even as Romney’s opponents highlight every incongruity in turn, his polls barely tremor. Maybe flip-flopping isn’t such a terrible thing.
Changing your mind when confronted with a convincing argument used to be considered a mark of mature intelligence. Last time around the presidential election track, it was disturbing to hear John McCain declare, “I don’t change in my positions.” Surely some experience, argument or evidence acquired over the course of a long career ought to have wiggled through to influence one of his positions unless he was sitting there with his fingers in his ears and eyes screwed shut like a toddler.
If Romney has honestly found more merit in a new position, it would be a splendid courtesy for him to publicly outline just what arguments incited that change. As it is, Romney has maneuvered impressively to find ground from which to claim, as he did last week in New Hampshire, that nefarious opponents “draw great attention to something which looks like a change [but] which, in fact, is entirely consistent.”
Romney changed his view on abortion rights after debate over stem cell research led him to consider other compelling arguments. Why can’t he just say that? Because the candidate knows that the Republican base would scorn him for not having always championed party doctrine.
So reasoned changes to policy positions are well and good as far as they go, but what about the other current of criticism, the just-another-politician-pandering-to-the-public line? Surely Americans would rather have strong characters than obsequious opportunists? In a representative democracy, talent for reading people well and conforming to public opinion shouldn’t be viewed as a shortcoming but an expected trait. In the GOP, it should not be hard to acknowledge that republics were first built on the premise that politicians should do what the people want them to do. That necessitates changing with public opinion.
Why, then, do we think Romney has done something wrong when he speaks to Republican primary voters from a platform that looks different from the one designed for Massachusetts constituents? If anything, Romney is the most genuine, up-front guy in the pack; he’s a businessman blatantly in the business of telling the people what he thinks they want to hear.
Perhaps the energy we expend decrying the flip-flop would be better spent decrying the vacuous stances candidates flip-flop between. Substance in politics hasn’t decayed because of politicians’ gelatinous spines. It has withered away because there has been no public urgency to bend politicians towards clear, practical solutions. We have become so apathetic and caught up in the game of watching them attempt to figure us out that we haven’t bothered to figure ourselves out. The only unified movement in the country has been toward sensationalism — our politicians can only follow suit. It’s not character but years of toeing an immobile party line that has calcified their spines.
I would rather have my politicians terrified enough of their constituents to ask them what they really want than standing firmly on unexamined principles. Romney may be struggling to discern our desires, but at least he is cognizant enough to realize that his job is to figure them out and act on them. At this point, such simple awareness seems reassuring.