Can politicians change positions without being accused of the now familiar criticism that they are flip-flopping?
Take, for example, Barack Obama's trip to Iraq. When he announced at the beginning of the month that he would be making his second visit to the war-torn country, he said that he would be making a "thorough assessment" of the situation while he was there, adding, "I'm sure I'll have more information and continue to refine my policy."
That immediately opened him up to questions about whether he would alter his position that, as president, he would take the United States out of Iraq within 16 months of his election.
John Harris, editor-in-chief of Politico.com, says it is possible for politicians to change their stands without being perceived as flip-floppers, but he says it depends on the issue, the political climate, and the agility of the politician.
Obama is walking a line, he says, and if he is going to change his position, "it will tell us about how skillful a politician he really is."
McCain has what is perhaps the flip side of the flip-flop question on Iraq. Harris says that McCain, long identified as a strong supporter of the war, "knows that he's sort of exposed on this issue." Harris says McCain won't try to alter his position substantially. Instead, he says, McCain will highlight his support of the war head-on: "Rather than trying to talk his way out of the issue or downplay the issue, he's going to say, 'Look, let's have an argument about Iraq and who's been right over this past year about the surge."
On the issue of the war in Iraq, says Harris, he thinks most Americans have already made up their minds, deciding that the war was a mistake in the first place. These voters, says Harris, don't look at whether the war is going well for the U.S. on any particular month. "At least, that's what Barack Obama will hope," Harris says.
Harris believes that the American public will allow politicians to change their positions, but only under the correct circumstances. "On the one hand," he says, "we don't want politicians who look just nakedly expedient, totally transparent — they're flip-floppers." He says that there are many times when the electorate will admire politicians who change their positions: "They're flexible, they're shrewd, they're willing to stand up to the extremists in their own party, and they're willing to fight for maneuvering room."
"I believe that with the exception of the most ideologically committed partisans, most voters are not that worked up about flip-flops," says Harris. "They know that situations change, politicians change their mind. What they are looking for is strength, and the key is projecting strength."
"Strength can be consistency," says Harris. "It can also be judgment."