When a Candidate's Flip Isn't Always a Flop

Barack Obama has a harder task when he flips, as voters are still scratching their heads about him.

Voters are trying to figure out Obama's character by looking at his policy decisions.

Voters are trying to figure out Obama's character by looking at his policy decisions.

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"When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" the economist John Maynard Keynes once asked famously. But in American politics today, changing your mind is a very bad thing to do. It is taken as evidence of weakness. Or confusion. Or worse yet, a sign of pandering for votes (as if that would be a political stunner).

Yet in this campaign, both candidates have flipped. First John McCain, who reversed an earlier position by calling for an end to the federal ban on offshore drilling as "something we have to do," given the nation's dependence on foreign energy. Then, after criticizing McCain, Barack Obama followed him, allowing that he might consider some offshore drilling, but only as part of a larger, comprehensive energy bill.

Sure, we get it: They're running for president, and $4-a-gallon gasoline refocuses the mind, not to mention the talking points. But what, exactly, is wrong with that? If high gas prices are causing Americans to change their thinking and, in fact, their lifestyles—buying smaller cars, moving closer to their workplaces—why should politicians remain stagnant? After all, as the man said, the facts have changed.

Still, suspicions remain, and with good reason. We've been burned before on this flip-flop business. Consider Mitt Romney—firmly pro-abortion rights (while running for office in Democratic Massachusetts) until he became firmly antiabortion (before running for the Republican presidential nomination). All of which leads voters to the obvious question: How do we decide when a presidential candidate's flips are because of conviction or craven calculation?

Character assessment. Truth is, there's really no clear answer, except this: Voters view these policy decisions through the prism of their overall assessments of a candidate's character. If we think we know who you are—and consider you to be a truth-teller, for instance—we're likely to draw a direct line between our sense of you and your policy choice. So when McCain says he changed his mind about offshore drilling because times have changed, some voters will say, "OK, he's a straight talker," and give him a pass. After all, what was valid thinking when gas was at $2 a gallon may not be sustainable now.

But Obama has a harder task when he flips. He's new, and voters are still scratching their heads about him. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll made that very clear. About 4 in 10 voters said they could not identify with Obama's values or background. So he becomes the mirror image of McCain: While voters see McCain's decisions as an extension of his character, they're trying to figure out Obama's character by looking at his policy decisions. Does his shift on offshore drilling mean he's just another pol who switched after he figured out he's on the losing side of the issue? Or does it mean he really wants to end gridlock in Washington and is truly a different kind of politician? Voters don't know, and they're uneasy about it. "People won't vote for you unless there's a great deal of comfort with who you are," says William Galston, a former domestic policy adviser for Bill Clinton. "They want to see the whole package."

So why not turn the problem into an opportunity? If McCain is telling voters you're just another pol, what about Obama making the pitch that the flip on offshore drilling is really part of a plan to actually get something done in Washington? And, by the way, why not loudly point out that you differ from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on the matter? If voters have any fear of an Obama-Pelosi-Reid liberal axis, that would tell them that's not the way you work. They understand that when majorities abuse their power, nothing gets accomplished. And they want Washington to work.

Instead, as both candidates flip—for the right reasons—their campaigns are running ads that live in a silly parallel universe. One McCain ad blatantly blames Obama for high gas prices, a ludicrous charge. (After all, if Obama hasn't done anything, as they claim, how can he be blamed for everything?) And an Obama ad calls McCain bought and paid for by Big Oil, another total stretch. Then the McCain campaign belittles Obama by saying he wants to solve the energy crisis by having us inflate our tires, please.