Politicians: Flip-Flopping Or Changing Their Minds? How tough is it for politicians to alter their opinions without being accused of flip-flopping? John Harris, editor-in-chief of Politico.com, says it depends on the issue and the skill of the politician.
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Politicians: Flip-Flopping Or Changing Their Minds?

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Politicians: Flip-Flopping Or Changing Their Minds?

Politicians: Flip-Flopping Or Changing Their Minds?

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We kick off this Monday morning with a look at politics. When we last left the campaign trail, both candidates were taking friendly fire, Barack Obama from Jesse Jackson - not that friendly, actually - John McCain from his former Senate colleague and economic advisor, Phil Gramm, more of a foot-in-the-mouth moment than trying to consciously undercut Senator McCain. John Harris is here to play referee. He's the editor in chief of Politico.com. Hi, John.

Mr. JOHN HARRIS (Editor in Chief, Politico.com): Good morning.

PESCA: Wow. You know, we've really been over the whole Jesse Jackson thing a lot. I think let's maybe put a period on the whole sentence.

Mr. HARRIS: Sure.

PESCA: Jesse Jackson, sad and bitter, or angry and irrelevant?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARRIS: You know, I think that is the way it's going to be perceived is a kind of angry, old man, Jesse Jackson in the Grandpa Simpson role. You know, I have to say, a little bit of sympathy here for Jesse Jackson. You know, that kind of trash talking is not unusual in politics, just a question of whether the mic is hot.

PESCA: Yeah. He should know that, though, shouldn't he?

Mr. HARRIS: I guess so.

PESCA: A Fox microphone, especially.

Mr. HARRIS: I know, you, as a professional broadcaster, would never make that mistake?

PESCA: No, no. But then again, I don't have a rainbow coalition behind me, so what do I know? Now, the Phil Gramm comment was one of those Kinsley gaffs, meaning say - you know, to some people, it was saying that which is true. He said, you know, we're not really in an economic malaise. We just think we are.

Mr. HARRIS: It's a bunch of whiners.

PESCA: Yeah. And then John McCain said, you could be the - our ambassador to Belarus.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HARRIS: I thought that was a deft way of handling an awkward moment. I'm sure that Phil Gramm was speaking the truth. I don't think he realized he was committing a gaff at the time he said it. For people who have been around him, that's how he talks. And that's definitely what he believes.

PESCA: Yeah. It was that sort of...

Mr. HARRIS: You're looking at foreclosure on your house, or you know, there's a lot paying five bucks a gallon for gas in some parts of the country. This looks pretty real, and there's actually something worth whining about.

PESCA: This was - you know, this underscored a political reality of the current moment, which is - there is - if you're somewhat lefty, you have your left media. And if you're somewhat right wing, you have your right media. And in the right-wing media, everyone was talking about something Barack Obama said about, you know, we shouldn't mandate that immigrants learn English. In fact, we should learn Spanish.

This just blew up in right-wing media. How dare he. And in left-wing media, Phil Gramm's comments became the how dare he. And I just wonder, you know, the people who are supposed to be swing voters, are they getting a little of each, or is it just, you know, the message goes to whoever is willing to receive it?

Mr. HARRIS: You know, that's the question of whether a story is big and really echoes, is whether it bounces out of the left-wing or the right-wing echo chamber and gets into the mainstream media. Obama, I think, is lucky that it didn't dig his comment on immigrants, which the right really wanted to turn into a big issue, pretty much stayed with the right. It didn't become - it didn't change the narrative. The Phil Gramm comment did for a day or two.

PESCA: Yeah. But then again, it was one person removed from John McCain, and no one thinks that Phil Gramm...

Mr. HARRIS: But I think that's a huge problem in the way we talk to each other as Americans these days, is that people have their own set of facts, their own narratives, and basically we're talking to people who already believe what they believe.

PESCA: Yeah. Let's - let me ask you a really big question, because for the past three months, I have - we've talked about many different things that bubbled up, this Phil Gramm comment, or a Jesse Jackson comment, or Barack Obama firing his advisor, James Johnson. And I think maybe most people who follow politics takes that - take that James Johnson story, they would say, oh, yeah, that. What the heck was that about? And I just get the feeling during these - the summer months before the vice-president is nominated, like, I wonder if any of these stories, unless there's some huge scandal, actually have any effect on how people will be voting in November. Your thoughts.

Mr. HARRIS: My hunch is, no. Really what we're talking about here is opportunity cost, especially if you're John McCain, who doesn't really have - who starts out somewhat behind because of the larger trends of this year. You really don't have that many days left to make your case. And so, every day, you're talking about something beyond what - that's different that what you want to talk about is a lost opportunity. Part of it's also this media culture that you described. Even I, and I'm paid to follow this stuff, I can't remember what the hell I was all up in arms about a week ago.

PESCA: Yeah. And then, that's why the Johnson thing was like, oh, yeah, he got a sweetheart deal from Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. And it seemed like such a big deal.

Mr. HARRIS: Wasn't there like - was James Johnson a Muslim? Something to do with that, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Was James Johnson on the cover of The New Yorker? I'm trying to keep score at home. Well, let's talk about John McCain, because, you know, I don't know if the signature issue of the campaign is going to be the economy or its going to be Iraq, but if it is Iraq, things could not be - it's weird to say, but things could not be trending better for John McCain. The question is, will anyone notice?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, and the - the question I think is, have Americans made up their mind? You know, probably a couple of years ago that Iraq - whatever, it's going well this month or not going well this month, it just wasn't worth the - it just wasn't worth - it wasn't worth the effort. It was a mistake to go in the first place. That's what Barack Obama will hope.

PESCA: Mm-hm.

Mr. HARRIS: John McCain looks like what he's going to try to do is essentially double down on his argument. He knows that he's sort of exposed on this issue. So, rather than trying to talk his way out of it or downplay the issue, he can say, look, let's have an argument about Iraq and who has been right over this past year about the surge.

PESCA: Now, Barack Obama has announced that he's planning to visit Iraq. Do you know when that's going to take place?

Mr. HARRIS: I do not. I think sometime within the next few weeks.

PESCA: OK. There's, I think, some intrigue going on there, because I think most people would say, yes, it's good that he visits Iraq, but then can he really change his mind about what he said without being tarnished as a flip-flopper? So, we have this situation where he says, I'm going to go to Iraq. I want to see what the facts on the ground are. But will we allow him to say, having seen what I've seen, I've decided to come up with a different plan. Is he kind of in a box and this is kind of - has to be a photo-op?

Mr. HARRIS: Well, it certainly is that, just like John McCain's travel is to some degree a photo-op. He is walking this line, and it will tell us about how skilful a politician he really is if he does this. On the one hand, we don't want politicians who are just nakedly expedient, totally transparent. They're foot-floppers. On the other hand, we tend to admire politicians who are flexible. They're shrewd. They're willing to stand up to the extremists in their own party. They're willing to, you know, fight for maneuvering room.

PESCA: Is - well, do you think Barack - I mean, what defines one as a flip-flopper, and one is you know, someone fighting with his own party?

Mr. HARRIS: You know, this is all in the eye of the beholder.


Mr. HARRIS: But I - if it looks - I think the - when it comes down to sort of deftness, a graceful politician can actually change his views pretty dramatically without looking like a John Kerry style, I was for it before I was against it, flip-flopper.

PESCA: Right. So, you've underlined something. Don't actually make the one-sentence phrase that they'll use against you in the ad, you know, explain your position, your evolution more. Do you think...

Mr. HARRIS: My view is - I believe that with the exception of the sort of most ideologically committed partisans, most voters are not that worked up about flip-floppers, about flip-flops. They know that circumstances change, that politicians change their mind. What they are looking for is strength.

PESCA: Mm-mm.

Mr. HARRIS: And the key is projecting strength.

PESCA: Strength doesn't have to be consistency? I mean, that - George Bush's definition of strength is you might not know - you might not agree with me, but you know where I stand, meaning I haven't changed.

Mr. HARRIS: That's right. Strength can be consistency. It can also be judgment.

PESCA: And you have to convince the voters that you exhibited judgment, not flip-floppery?

Mr. HARRIS: Exactly. These are fine distinctions we're making.

PESCA: Yeah. Yeah. John Harris, thank you.

Mr. HARRIS: Thanks a lot.

PESCA: Editor and chief of politico.com.

Mr. HARRIS: So, long, see you.

PESCA: Coming up on this, the big program, a very touching issue to some, penis thievery. Yes, it is going on. Actually, it probably isn't, but one guy did an examination of the concept of penis thievery in Africa. He wrote about it in Harpers, and we'll talk to him on this, the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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