Flip-flop (politics)

Flip-flop (politics)

A "flip-flop" (used mostly in the United States) or a U-turn (used in the United Kingdom) is a sudden real or apparent change of policy or opinion by a public official, sometimes while trying to claim that both positions are consistent with each other. Often it will occur during the period prior to an election in order to maximize the candidate's popularity.

Although the terms are often used against elected officials, non-elected public officials can also be accused of flip-flopping. Ben Bernanke, chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Board, was accused of "an apparent flip-flop" in 2007.Broder, John M., [http://www.thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=140971 "In past, clues to way Fed chief met mortgage crisis"] , "The International Herald-Tribune, August 19, 2007, retrieved June 23, 2008]


The charge was originally used to attack politicians for advocating contradictory policies, often during elections, and frequently while denying the self-contradiction.

*Example 1: "Candidate A, after finding out that weapons of mass destruction won't likely be found in Iraq, flip-flopped to keep Candidate B from using his previous stance against him."

*Example 2: "During his previous campaign, Candidate B promised to regulate the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide as a pollutant, but declined to do so after taking office. Candidate A could now cite this as a flip-flop."

The charge has more recently been used to attack politicians and in some cases other public figures for any change of policy for any reason whatsoever, including new information becoming available or a change in circumstances. Such changes in policy sometimes provoke charges that a public figure lacks political conviction.

* Example 3: "C opposed the treaty on greenhouse gas emissions but has since changed his mind". An opponent of C might describe this as a 'flip-flop' while C might claim that both positions were based on his interpretation of evidence at the time.


In his "On Language" column in "The New York Times", William Safire wrote in 1988 that "flip-flop" has a long history as a synonym for "somersault". (He cited George Lorimer in 1902: "... when a fellow's turning flip-flops up among the clouds, he's naturally going to have the farmers gaping at him.") In the late 19th century, a U.S. politician was called "the Florida flopper" by an opponent, Safire noted. The "fl" sound appearing twice is an indication of ridicule, he wrote. Citing grammarian Randolph Quirk, Safire pointed out that the doubling of the sound is also a feature in other two-word phrases used to disparage the actions or words of others, including "mumbo jumbo", "wishy-washy", and higgledy-piggledy".Saffire, William, [http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=940DE3D6113DF930A25750C0A96E948260&sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all "Phantom of the Phrases "] , "On Language" column, "The New York Times Magazine] , March 13, 1988 (comment from Wicker is as quoted by Safire), retrieved June 23, 2008]

In the archives of "The New York Times", which go back to 1851, the earliest unequivocal mention of "flip-flop" as a change in someone's opinion, is in an October 23, 1890, report of a campaign speech in New York City. John W. Goff, candidate for district attorney, said of one of his opponents: "I would like to hear Mr. Nicoll explain his great flip-flop, for three years ago, you know, as the Republican candidate for District Attorney, he bitterly denounced Tammany as a party run by bosses and in the interest of bossism. [...] Nicoll, who three years ago was denouncing Tammany, is its candidate to-day." [No byline, [http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9D01E3DC113BE533A25750C2A9669D94619ED7CF "Mighty cheers for Scott / A great meeting in Cooper Union last night."] , news article, "The New York Times", October 23, 1890, retrieved from "Times" subscription archives June 23, 2008 (sometimes accessible without subscription)]

The term was also used in 1967, when a "New York Times" editorial and "Times" columnist Tom Wicker both used it in commenting on different events, and in the 1976 election, President Gerald Ford used the phrase against his oppoinent Jimmy Carter. [ [http://query.nytimes.com/search/query?query=flip-flop&srchst=p Search results for "flip-flop"] , "New York Times" archives, 1850-1981, retrieved June 23, 2008] In the 1988 U.S. presidential election, Michael Dukakis used the term against opponent Richard Gephardt, saying, "There's a flip-flopper over here", pointing at Gephardt.

The term also was used extensively in the 2004 U.S. presidential election campaign. It was used by critics as a catch-phrase attack on John Kerry, claiming he was "flip-flopping" his stance on several issues, including the ongoing war in Iraq. Famously, on March 16 2004 during an appearance at Marshall University Kerry tried to explain his vote for an $87 billion supplemental appropriation for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan by telling the crowd "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it." After the remark became controversial, he explained that he had supported an earlier Democratic measure that would have paid for the $87 billion in war funding by reducing Bush's tax cuts. [cite news |title=Kerry discusses $87 billion comment |url=http://www.cnn.com/2004/ALLPOLITICS/09/30/kerry.comment/ |publisher=CNN |id= |pages= |page= |date=2004-09-30 |accessdate=2007-11-15] FactCheck stated that "Kerry has never wavered from his support for giving Bush authority to use force in Iraq, nor has he changed his position that he, as President, would not have gone to war without greater international support." [ [http://www.factcheck.org/bush_ad_twists_kerrys_words_on_iraq.html FactCheck.org: Bush Ad Twists Kerry's Words on Iraq] ]

The term "U-turn" in the UK was famously applied to Edward Heath, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1970-1974. Prior to the 1970 general election, the Conservative Party compiled a manifesto which highlighted free-market economic policies. Heath abandoned such policies when his government nationalised British Leyland (hence the actual "U-turn"). The Conservative government was later attacked for such a move because nationalisation was seen (by the Thatcher era) as antithetical to Conservative beliefs. This later led to one of Margaret Thatcher's most famous phrases: "you turn [U-turn] if you want to; the Lady's not for turning".

Exculpatory, ameliorating and aggravating circumstances affecting public reaction

The circumstances surrounding the flip-flop and its larger context can be crucial factors in whether or not a politician is hurt or helped more by a change in position. "Long hailed as a conservative champion, Ronald Reagan could shrug off his support of a tax increase in 1982 to curb the budget deficits his 1981 tax cut had exacerbated," according to an analysis of flip-flopping in "The New York Times". "Long suspect on the Republican right, [George H. W. Bush|George [H. W.] Bush] faced a crippling 1992 primary challenge after abandoning his 'no new taxes' campaign pledge in the White House."Harwood, John, [http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/23/us/politics/23caucus.html?_r=1&oref=slogin&ref=todayspaper&pagewanted=print "Flip-Flops Are Looking Like a Hot Summer Trend"] , "The Caucus" feature, "The New York Times", June 23, 2008, retrieved same day]

"Flip-flops are important when they reinforce a larger narrative about a candidate’s negative attribute", Kevin Madden, a senior official in the 2008 Republican presidential primary campaign of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Romney was hurt by changing positions on abortion, taxes and health care because his motives were suspected by conservative voters.

Kerry’s perceived equivocation on the Iraq war damaged his 2004 campaign, according to both Democratic and Republican political operatives. "It spoke to a pattern of calculation and indecisiveness that make him look like a weak commander in chief compared to [George W.] Bush", said Jonathan Prince, a strategist for 2008 presidential candidate John Edwards, Kerry's running mate in 2004. In the 2008 primary season, Edwards simply stated that "I was wrong" when he had voted in the U.S. Senate to authorize the Iraq War. "Progressives loved it because it was taking responsibility, not abdicating it," according to Prince.

United States commentator Jim Geraghty has written that politicians need to be allowed some leeway in changing their minds as the result of changing conditions. "I actually think that a candidate can even change his position in response to a changing political environment, as long as they're honest about it. 'The votes just aren't there, public support isn't there, so I have to put this proposal on the back burner for a while,' is a perfectly legitimate response to a difficult position." [Geraghty, Jim, [http://campaignspot.nationalreview.com/post/?q=MmVmYzM2NTEwZWI5MTI1ODgyNmUyZGMzMDU0ZTgyNzU= "Measuring the Flip-Flops"] post at "The Campaign Spot" blog at the "National Review Online" website, June 23, 2008, 12:32 p.m. post, accessed same day] The same general point was made in 1988 by "New York Times" editorial columnist Tom Wicker, writing shortly after Dukakis' charge against Gephart. Wicker commented that the accusation was not necessarily fair: "What's wrong with a Presidential candidate changing his position — though his opponents call it 'flip-flopping' — in order to improve his chances of winning? Nothing's wrong with it [...] unless the flipper [...] denies having done it," Wicker added that the charge can be "a tortured or dishonest interpretation of an opponent's record".

" [T] here's a difference between changing your policy position and breaking a promise," John Dickerson, wrote in "Slate" online magazine. "Breaking a promise is a problem of a higher order than changing a policy position. Our mothers told us not to break promises [...] " [Dickerson, John, [http://www.slate.com/id/2194083?nav=wp "The Flip-Flop Brothers: Both McCain and Obama wobbled. Who will pay the price?"] , "Slate" magazine, June 20, 2008, 6:32 p.m. Eastern Time, retrieved June 23, 2008]

James Pethokoukis, the "money and politics blogger" for "U.S. News & World Report" online, referring to 2008 presidential candidate John McCain, noted that in changing a position a candidate can "trot out that famous John Maynard Keynes line, 'When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?'" [Pethoukoukis, James, [http://www.usnews.com/blogs/capital-commerce/2008/6/16/7-ways-mccain-can-use-energy-to-beat-obama.html "7 Ways McCain Can Use Energy to Beat Obama"] , "Capital Commerce" blog, "U.S. News & World Report" online, June 16, 2008, 01:02 p.m. ET, retrieved June 23, 2008] The Keynes quote also has been mentioned by other commentators with regard to flip-flops, including James Broder, in a 2007 article in "The International Herald-Tribune".

See also

*Election promise


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