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How Does Barr Do It?

He's lowered the bar on flip-flopping all the way to his ankles, and no one much minds.

By 7.14.08

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Bob Barr has emerged as one of the shrewdest political players of our time. This isn't widely acknowledged -- yet. For a Republican to lose a House seat in Georgia in the first election after 9/11 (he lost a bruising primary fight to fellow Republican John Linder in a redrawn district) would seem a black mark on his permanent record. But even the greats stumble and sometimes it is in recovering from those stumbles that true quality is revealed.

No politician in recent history has flip-flopped as spectacularly as Barr has done while at the same time managing to avoid the charges of hypocrisy, rank cynicism, or spinelessness that such transformations inevitably bring with them.

People claim Bill Clinton was great at it, but really how good can you be when you're known far and wide as "Slick Willie"? To flip-flop and not only avoid such nicknames but to actually win the nomination of a political party that once led the charge against you, as Barr has done by winning the Libertarian Party presidential nod, well, that is taking it to a whole new level.

How did Barr accomplish this superhuman feat? Let's review the methods of the master:

1. Do Not Highlight Your Flip-Flops; Always, Always Downplay Them: This temptation when switching your stance on a fundamental issue is to make a clean break of it: hold a press conference, write a book, take gobs of money from George Soros, etc.

This is folly because it only fixes in the public mind that you have no backbone and/or rotten judgment. Even people who agree with your new position will never completely trust you. Ask John "I Was Wrong, Wrong, Wrong To Vote For the Iraq War" Edwards.. He has plenty of time talk now.

No, you boldly take up the banner of your new cause without any public anguish or reflection. History is after all history. Let it fade away.

So, if -- to take a case completely at random -- you were formerly a drug war loving, immigration-opposing, abortion restricting, gay marriage-fighting, PATRIOT Act-backing, Iraq War-authorizing congressman who is now seeking the nomination of a party whose official positions on all of those issues is exactly the opposite, just talk about something else. Force others to bring those issues up. A lot of times they won't even think to do it. You'd be surprised:

I'm not going to let nuanced differences on aspects of particular policies stand in the way of the most important mission. That's ensuring our liberties and protecting the Constitution.

2. When Your Flip-Flops Are Brought Up, Don't Deny Them; Continue to Downplay Them: This will happen a lot because that's what journalists do: play gotcha with politicians. Do not give them the soundbyte or the quote they want. Say, yes, I have changed and then rationalize it away. Then enjoy watching the frustration on the journalists' faces as you evade their trap.

The best way to do this is to say that you didn't change at all. Say that you are the rock of consistency and that others changed. Did you switch parties? Well you only did it because they abandoned their core principles. You, however, stood firm:

I concluded that the party I had been associated with for decades was no longer that party I had joined and no longer had an interest in smaller government. They no longer had an interest in increasing individual liberty and showed no signs of changing in my lifetime.

When doing this always invoke a higher cause or principle, like the Constitution. And be certain to frame the issue in such a way as to deny there is even the possibility that honest people can disagree over the issue. They are either with you and the Constitution or against you and the Constitution, and with the terrorists:

[T]he Constitution is under such assault in this day and age. In order to have any chance of saving the Constitution and our civil liberties, we need a party dedicated to that cause.

3. When Your Flip-Flops Are Too Stark To Be Downplayed; Split Hairs With a Laser Beam: Sometimes you just cannot brush past an issue. In those cases you must baffle them with bluster. Suppose -- to take another case completely at random -- you sponsored a federal law to prevent states from having to allow gay marriage and now that position is no longer politically convenient.

Here's what you do: say you didn't write the legislation because you were opposed to gay marriage. Say it was all about your support for federalism and state's rights.

With regard to gay marriage and the Federal Marriage Amendment, in my view the FMA does nothing except to protect liberty of citizens of each state on what basis they want to recognize marriage. Are there some libertarians who believe differently? I'm sure there are, and I'm sure we'll engage in some debates down the road.

If it's absolutely necessary, say you'll repeal the law you wrote yourself, because now things are different:

The second provision, I've come to view as both unnecessary and disruptive. It has the federal definition of marriage as being "a lawful union between a man and a woman only." I've committed to repeal that part of DOMA.

4. Suck Up Like An Industrial Strength Vacuum Cleaner: It is crucial whenever you are flip-flopping to win over the people you are flipping towards. If they buy it, you're home free. They'll take you in and defend you against any criticism, however warranted.

Most flip-flops fail because the flipper doesn't really believe what he is saying and he doesn't bother to try to convince those people who really believe. Thus he earns not their admiration but their contempt.

You avoid this trap by through aggressive flattery. Let them believe the dazzling brilliance of their arguments got you to switch sides. One great way to do this is to give shout-outs in interview after interview to your new allies:

I was asked (to join the LP) by two individuals I respect. One is Bill Redpath, the national chairman, and the other is Executive Director Shane Cory. I know both very well. When they asked me to consider it was very important to them.

[...]

The Libertarian Party also worked against me in 2002 It caused me to take a close, hard look: Why would they work against me? The more I looked, the more I liked what I saw.

5. Always Portray Your Flip-Flopping As The Culmination of Your Ideological rEVOLution: Do not portray yourself as a maverick, an independent, a free-thinker or any other kind of spineless wimp. Do not think that doing so is a way to win over the mushy middle. All it does is give people a chance to think, "Well, he keeps changing his positions. How long will he hold the ones he has now?"

No, tell people you've seen the light. You were blind, but now you see. Glory, glory, hallelujah:

I chose to join the Libertarian Party because at this time in our nation's history, it's fundamentally essential to join a party, work with a party, that's 100 percent committed to protecting liberty.

There. Five simple steps to political reincarnation so solid they'll allow you to come back even if you wound up on the business end of that Borat movie. Alan Keyes, take notes.

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About the Author

Thirsty McWormwood is the nom de cyber of a writer in Washington, D.C.