Defending the flip (2/12/2012)

Political flip-flopping, as old as the republic and never far from the hurly-burly of politics, has again become a Page One story.

Flip-flopping, viewed by many as a cynical exercise in individual gerrymandering, an art exquisitely practiced by some and clumsily pursued by others, may in fact be viewed as healthy and eminently defensible.

The distinction is to be found in the sincerity and motives of those who change their positions on issues, policies and programs. Indeed, it is the rather widespread tendency to criticize and dismiss as weak, vacillating and indecisive those officials who have changed their minds that is objectionable and harmful to our system.

The current GOP frontrunner, Mitt Romney, has been repeatedly attacked as a flip-flopper, as was Democrat John Kerry before him. President Obama is sure to meet similar criticisms for changing his position on an administration rule that would require health insurance plans — including those offered by Roman Catholic churches, hospitals and universities — to provide free birth control to employees.

It’s not easy for citizens to distinguish those conversions that reflect cynical political aims from those that reflect an open-minded assessment of changing circumstances and a reappraisal of one’s position based on a re-examination of information, facts and evidence, but when flip-flopping is undertaken upon reflection and deliberation, we ought to hail and applaud that official.

Such changes, after all, require courage. More than that, shouldn’t we trumpet open-mindedness as a virtue? Education, an ongoing enterprise and critical to the success of the republic, requires constant review and reconsideration of policies and programs.

Consider the implications for our nation of the willingness of leaders to reassess their positions on key issues. Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday we celebrate today, surely changed his mind on issues of race and slavery. Lyndon Johnson, a southern Democrat who clearly understood the consequences for his own career and those of his party, nevertheless led the fight for passage of civil rights for African-Americans. He hadn’t always held the egalitarian principles that underlay the great Civil Rights Movement. Thank goodness that Lincoln and Johnson were willing to reconsider some of their views and values. Had it not been for Johnson’s stubbornness on the issue of the Vietnam War, historians would rank him as one of the nation’s great presidents. But we can be grateful for the open-mindedness exhibited by many members of Congress who did reverse course on that war, and came to oppose it and, ultimately, end it.

It falls to voters to ascertain the sincerity of those who change their minds, but those who dare to do so, deserve our attention.