The Noble History of Flip-Flopping

So it has already come to this. At the end of its first month, the great and noble general-election campaign of 2008 has been defined by a single question: who is the biggest flip-flopper? Barack Obama has reversed himself on campaign financing (he opted out of the public system that, as recently as last November, he swore to uphold) and on FISA legislation (he signed on to a compromise granting immunity to telecom companies that had cooperated with the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping after filibustering a similar measure last year). John McCain switched sides on offshore drilling—after years of opposing the idea, he announced last month that it would play a major role in his energy policy—and reminded us of earlier reinventions as a Bush tax-cut supporter and opponent of Roe v. Wade. True believers in both men are glum: if Mr. Maverick and Mr. New Politics won't stick to their principles, who on earth will?

It is worth remembering, before the depression sets in too deep, that flip-flopping has a noble history in this country. In his first run for the presidency, Abraham Lincoln vowed not to force the end of slavery in the South. But by his second Inaugural, he could swear that, God willing, "every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid with another drawn by the sword." Where was the greatness when Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964? In the fact that a white politician, who'd come of age in Jim Crow Texas and had been a sometime segregationist in the Senate, knew he was sacrificing his party's domination of the South—and did the right thing all the same. What made Bobby Kennedy's antiwar campaign of 1968 so remarkable? In part, the fact that he had been the fiercest of cold warriors, a lieutenant to Joseph McCarthy himself. Schoolchildren know what grace means in America: I once was lost but now am found,'twas blind but now I see.

Those were conversions of courage, but changing one's mind in politics is more often lambasted than lionized. The muddle of our modern political coalitions—affluent liberals paired with the industrial working class; country-club rich folk paired with conservative Christians—has made it virtually impossible for ambitious politicians not to change their position on some issue as they rise from local to national prominence. Witness the abortion debate, in which a slew of candidates, including George H.W. Bush, Al Gore and Dick Gephardt, were able to reverse themselves without ever really offering a convincing moment of epiphany. Too many candidates have offered conversion narratives that track too perfectly with the course of political expediency. The nation has lost its faith. In 2008, Mitt Romney tried to transform himself from Massachusetts governor to chief spokesman of the cultural right. A weary Republican Party simply said, "Enough."

Yet it is dangerous to ask for a president who never changes his mind. The evidence on this point is obvious and fresh. President George W. Bush watched his father reverse himself on the "Read my lips: no new taxes" pledge and pay the price, losing re-election in 1992. His son overcompensated by refusing to reverse course on anything—even when the weight of facts and history and reason commanded it. A flip-flop or two from George W. Bush might have gone a long way.

That doesn't mean that the men who seek to replace him should feel free to reinvent themselves with full impunity. But the partisan activists, and perhaps especially the press, ought to give them the chance to prove that their conversions have been genuine ones. Rather than obsessing over the flip-flops, we might dig deeper at the motives behind them. When was Obama being honest: last year when he supported public financing, or now, when he has abandoned it? What does that say about him as a man? Does John McCain really now believe in offshore drilling? Or is he just taking advantage of anxiety over the high price of gas? Both McCain and Obama are seeking the White House in a year when the new president will have to restore Americans' faith in so many things, not least in courageous conversion narratives. How do they do that? By starting with three words seldom heard in contemporary politics: "I was wrong."