Once upon a time, there was a tried and true, nearly sure-fire way to win an election.
You’d get your oppo book — a packet you paid a researcher to put together, digging up your opponent’s vulnerabilities — and you’d turn straight to the section on flip-flops.
If the poor, bumbling rival had changed his positions on more than one or two topics, you’d struck gold: he was a serial flip-flopper who could not be trusted on anything that he ever said. Ever. Your message was written for you.
This was the basis for a mayoral campaign I worked on back in 2001, when my candidate’s primary opponent had changed his position on the death penalty and abortion. What we did next was so standard it almost feels redundant to write it: We went to his headquarters, called the press, and brandished a pair of big flip-flops for the helpless enemy to wear on his feet.
Indeed, so damning has the flip-flop tag been that George W. Bush essentially centered his entire 2004 reelection campaign around it. You may not have agreed with him on major issues, Bush told the nation. But, unlike his opponent, at least you knew where he stood. Despite a 49 percent approval rating, the line helped usher Bush into a second term.
It is with this context that we find ourselves eight years later, just twenty-seven days from the presidential election. And one of the candidates, Mitt Romney, is staking his campaign on a very different gamble: that the era of the flip-flop as untenable, campaign-ending, non-starter is over.
The tag, of course, has dogged Romney since he entered the presidential arena nearly six years ago. His arrival as a Republican candidate was met with a youtube video assembled by one of his opponents, that displayed some of his greatest “changes of mind" — a move right out of the standard “flip-flop as game-changer” playbook mentioned above.
And, following years of political tradition, the play worked. The toxic label stuck, and inflicted damage to Romney’s losing campaign, which had tried to position the candidate as a conservative, until the video showed he had been otherwise.
This time, when the 2012 campaign rolled around, Romney was determined to disprove the idea that he was an unreliable conservative. So when his aide controversially told an interviewer that the campaign was like an etch-a-sketch that could be “reset” after the primary, the candidate became ever more determined to prove the flipflop-predicting skeptics wrong, by refusing to shift his positions.
Then came last week’s debate.
Facing the final month of a campaign with your polls lagging, supporters whining, staff leaking, and donors panicking can make even the most stalwart of candidates consider a shift in strategy. For Romney, that meant “being Mitt” — or pivoting back toward the identity as "Massachusetts moderate" his conservative critics always feared.
It also meant altering or softening his positions on a handful of bedrock issues — in the campaign's final month.
As a result, postures on no less than abortion, financial regulation, health care, immigration, and tax policy have all shifted to the center in the past week.
Now, it’s hardly unusual for a candidate to adjust a position based on new facts on the ground, in the middle of a campaign. And it’s certainly not the first time a candidate has contradicted himself.
But this is not John Kerry making a clumsy comment about voting for funding before voting against it — or having a Senate record with votes on different sides of an issue after years of complicated legislative sessions with multi-issue bills.
Instead, this is the embrace of new stands and proposals en masse, in the span of one week, with a month left to go.
For Romney, the calculus appears to be that voters will care more that he enunciate the “right” position now, and less about the journey it took to get him there. In other words, better to be viewed as a flip-flopper than as too extreme.
It’s an ambitious gambit. And one that means enduring a label formerly seen as so poisonous in American politics, that no one else seeking the presidency in modern times has risked the same level of exposure to it.
And, so far? It’s working.
Part of that may be that it’s early, and the flip-flop attack has yet to register. Or that facing an incumbent who has yet to seal the deal in a tough economic year, the bar becomes lower.
But the label has also lost some of its sting. In a sign of the attack’s fading potency, US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) is cruising to her second decisive victory in two years (due to a special election in 2010 after she was appointed to the seat), despite changing her positions on guns, gay marriage, and immigration. A rising star in the national Democratic party, Gillibrand’s electoral strength suggests that voters will countenance a shift if they believe it’s sincere and that you’ve ended up in the right place.
The challenge for Romney is that, so far, these don’t appear to be decisions of principle. He has not, for example, accompanied the shifts with explanations of how he reached them.
One unfortunate byproduct of the toxicity of flip-flops has been that sometimes a sincere act of reflection can be penalized by our political process. Under the right circumstances, you might expect Bush’s critics — who reviled his certitude, and determination to stick to a principle even in the face of insurmountable evidence — to encourage, or at least, tolerate the willingness to shift one’s position upon new evidence. By this thinking, the politician who never questions her belief system is one who isn’t likely to get better at her job.
But this is not a conversation that Romney has embarked upon with the country. To wit, he doesn’t even acknowledge that the changes in position have occurred.
His opponent, though, will see to it that voters are aware. And the risk to the former governor will then be that the sheer number, frequency, and timing of the shifts suggests a politician willing to do or say anything to get elected.
Usually, Romney's approach would backfire. The political graveyard is filled with flip-floppers who never lived to see another day.
But so far, voters aren’t penalizing him. If he pulls it off — and slays the flip-flop dragon — Romney will have not only won an unlikely gamble. He will have helped re-write the rules of an exceedingly high-stakes game.