The Flip-Flop Fallacy

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POLITICS JULY 3, 2008

The Flip-Flop Fallacy

My colleague Noam Scheiber argues in his piece yesterday ("Is This Man a Typical Pol?”) that John McCain’s new campaign strategy of painting Barack Obama as an unprincipled flip-flopper is bound to fail. Noam posits that painting Obama as a “typical politician” is not a damaging enough accusation in a year when the public overwhelmingly prefers a Democratic president. Maybe--but I think McCain’s strategy is a little more potent than Noam gives it credit for.

First, bad press is bad press. Noam argues that McCain is hitting Obama with the wrong line of attack, but the bottom line is that McCain’s painting of Obama as a flip-flopper is producing a lot of skeptical coverage of Obama. Maybe it’s not the exact kind of skeptical coverage that would be most damaging to Obama. But skeptical coverage of Obama of any sort is preferable for McCain to positive or neutral coverage of Obama. If people are reading or watching critical reports about Obama, they’re going to think less of him.

Second, I think a “flip-flopper” image is extremely damaging no matter what the general circumstances. A politician’s perceived trustworthiness is the basic platform for his entire message. If the voters don’t trust him, then they tend to discount everything he says about any topic at all. Noam says the more damaging accusation against Obama is that he’s not “one of us.” I agree. But if voters don’t trust him, then they won’t believe him when he explains that he’s a Christian who really does love America. So the “flip-flopper” label, if it sinks in, can leech into other issues.

Look at poor John Kerry: The “flip-flopper” label completely disqualified him. Political reporters were constantly finding voters who agreed with Kerry on most or all the issues but refused to vote for him because they didn’t trust him. Here’s a classic example (not online) from the Baltimore Sun:

Irwin, a 64-year-old lifelong Democrat, says things have been “terrible” during the nearly four years that Bush has been in the White House. She's scared that he's “ruined” Medicare and would do the same to Social Security, the programs she depends on to get by. Irwin believes Bush planned to invade Iraq from the moment he took office and says he bungled the war there. But she can't bear to vote for Sen. John Kerry, whom she calls a dishonest waffler whose ideas are no better than Bush's. “I don't like Bush either, but if I've got to choose between the two, count me for Bush,” Irwin said. “With Kerry, one minute he would vote for something and the next minute he would change his mind.”

Third, Noam thinks that painting Obama as a flip-flopper will weaken the more damaging charge that he’s a radical. Noam writes:

[T]he typical pol charge isn’t just ineffective; it’s actually counter-productive. Recall what McCain is alleging--that Obama will shift any position or abandon any principle if there’s an advantage to be gained from it. Well, if someone is prepared to take any position to succeed politically, then he’s probably not going to pursue some crazy out-of-the-mainstream policy, even if it’s one he privately supports. He’ll do what politicians always do, which is consult polls and follow public opinion. Obama’s biggest problem is that he’s not typical enough, and the McCain campaign is helping him solve it.

If all voters were as logical as Noam, it surely would. By the same token, the charge that he’s too close to his preacher should weaken the suspicion that he’s a Muslim, but it hasn’t. Voters aren’t always logical. It surely isn’t logical to vote for the candidate you disagree with, and against the candidate you do agree with, on the grounds that the latter might change his mind. But sometimes that’s the way it goes.

Noam likewise has far more faith than I do that the press corps will turn the tables on McCain’s charges of flip-floppery. As I pointed out in 2004, objectively speaking, John Kerry’s policy reversals were no more numerous or more serious than Bush’s, yet Kerry was overwhelmingly portrayed as a flip-flopper.

From a substantive point of view, McCain accusing Obama of making politically calculated policy reversals makes about as much sense as Obama accusing McCain of lacking experience. Obama may have trimmed his sails a couple times, but McCain has the longest and deepest list of flip-flops of any major candidate I can ever recall. He has completely reinvented himself, changing his mind on the most basic questions like progressive taxation, torture, the role of the religious right, and on and on and on. But very little of this has penetrated the basic McCain narrative in the media, and I don’t expect it ever will. Wednesday’s Washington Post story on McCain focused on his willingness to take unpopular stances, and included his self-aggrandizing statements (“I take stands on principle, and I don't switch positions depending on what audience or what time it is in the electoral calendar”) without any skeptical context by the reporter.

I agree with Noam that painting Obama as a cynical triangulator is probably not enough to win the election for McCain. McCain has a bad hand to play. Noam implies he should try to paint Obama as “the other.” McCain is doing that, too, with television ads calling himself “the American president Americans have been waiting for.” But pushing this line too hard risks destroying McCain’s good-guy reputation. McCain just doesn’t have any great options right now. It may be wildly hypocritical for him to attack Obama as a flip-flopper, but that doesn’t mean it can’t work.

Click here
to see Scheiber’s response to Chait’s
arguments.

Jonathan Chait is a senior editor of The New Republic.

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