How Do We Define A Political Flip-Flop? Sen. John McCain has drawn fire for changing his stance on offshore drilling for oil. Sen. Barack Obama has been grilled about opting out of the public campaign finance system. Did they flip-flop? Or did their positions merely evolve?
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How Do We Define A Political Flip-Flop?

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How Do We Define A Political Flip-Flop?

How Do We Define A Political Flip-Flop?

How Do We Define A Political Flip-Flop?

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/92426950/92426925" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

This is the season for flip-flops — the political u-turns that candidates make when they need to change their positions.

The word itself has become the political epithet of the season and is so ubiquitous that it is easy to lose track of what it means.

According to William Safire, author of Safire's Political Dictionary, the term "flip-flop" dates to Richard Nixon's presidency. Safire worked for Nixon as a speechwriter.

"I was doing a speech on imposing wage in price controls," Safire said. "John Connolly, who is the secretary of the treasury, then warned Nixon that he'd be charged with flip-flopping. Nixon's response was, 'Circumstances change.' "

Circumstances change for a lot of politicians, and not all flip-flops are created equal. Voters take some of them in stride. Others are devastating.

When Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry ran for president in 2004, his opponents used the word flip-flop as a way to paint Kerry as a political waffler with no core convictions. They based their claim on Kerry's statement about additional funding for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan: "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it."

Then there was former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's campaign for this year's GOP presidential nomination, which flopped partly because Republican primary voters thought he had flipped on too many issues.

His opponent, Arizona Sen. John McCain, was only too happy to point this out. "Governor Romney, we disagree on a lot of issues but I agree: You are the candidate of change," McCain once said.

McCain Not Immune

McCain is vulnerable to the flip-flop label, too. In May, he said that offshore drilling "would only postpone or temporarily relieve our dependence on fossil fuels."

In June, he said: "I certainly think there are areas off our coast that should be open to exploration and exploitation."

But will the flip-flop on offshore drilling hurt McCain's candidacy?

Maybe not as much as his change of heart on President Bush's tax cuts or his new tolerance for the conservative religious leaders he once called "agents of intolerance." After all, offshore drilling is more popular now that gas is $4 a gallon and climbing. Even the Democratic leadership in Congress is considering it.

Obama's 'Shifting' Positions

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's recent pronouncements on the FISA bill, NAFTA, campaign finance and the Washington, D.C., gun ban strike some as flip-flops. The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee says they are consistent with his previous statements on all those issues.

"This whole notion that I am shifting to the center, that I'm flip-flopping this, that or the other — you know, the people who say that apparently have not been listening to me," Obama said.

Politicians might never agree that what they say constitutes a flip-flop, but they all know that being seen as a flip-flopper is a very bad thing.

"Anybody can switch on some issues," Safire said. "But if it becomes a pattern, then you can make a powerful commercial about it."

This might have been on Obama's mind when he held two news conferences in one afternoon last week. During the first one, he said he would refine the details of his plan to leave Iraq after talking to military commanders on the ground.

This sounded like a sensible approach, but it was one that news organizations immediately began reporting as a shift. Since a shift can also be seen as a flip-flop, Obama again fielded questions from reporters three hours later.

"We're going to try this again. Apparently, I wasn't clear enough this morning with respect to my position on the war in Iraq," he said.

Obama then said his position was that he would bring troops home at a pace of one to two brigades a month. "At that pace, we would have our combat troops out in 16 months. That position has not changed. I have not equivocated on that position. I am not searching for maneuvering room with respect to that position."

But the senator did say he would get out carefully in a way that would keep troops safe and Iraq stable. And what if commanders on the ground told him he needed a different timetable to accomplish those goals?

Obama said he would take facts on the ground into account, which sounded like he was laying the groundwork for what could be a future flip-flop, or maybe just another sensible reaction to changing circumstances.

Flip-Flopping: Savvy Or Dangerous?

It is rare that a politician stands up and says, "I changed my mind." When they do, they do not always win. (Think former presidential candidate John Edwards on the Iraq war.)

But sometimes flip-flopping is worth the political heat. Since Obama clinched the nomination, the number of voters who consider him a liberal has declined to 56 percent from 67 percent, and the number of voters who consider him very liberal has dropped to 22 percent from 36 percent, according to the latest Rasmussen poll.

That's an indication that Obama is looking a lot more moderate and pragmatic than he did during the primaries — which might just be the result that he intended when he flipped, or rather "refined," his positions