Ralph Waldo Emerson was only half right: While foolish consistency moonlights as the hobgoblin of little minds, it is also the Holy Grail of varsity-level democratic politics, because voters want to know where a candidate stands, especially when he or she aspires to the Oval Office.
Some people are more forgiving of inconsistency than others. Asked to comment on presidential politics, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger volunteered that he thinks Republican Senator John McCain is too far right. On the Democrat side of the aisle, Schwarzenegger pronounced himself unruffled by arguments over whether the messages that Senator Barack Obama has been retooling actually subvert the narrative they were supposed to improve.
“Flip-flopping is getting a bad rap, because I think it is great,” Schwarzenegger told ABC. “Someone has made a mistake. I mean, someone has, for 20 or 30 years, been in the wrong place with his idea and with his ideology and says, ‘You know something? I changed my mind. I am now for this. As long as he’s honest or she’s honest, I think that is a wonderful thing.”
Begging the governor’s pardon, but a clarification may help: when a change of mind marks intellectual or moral growth, then it is indeed a wonderful thing. But not every change of mind meets such criteria, which is why rapid shifts can also be dizzying or cringe-inducing, as Janet Albrechtsen observed while commenting on the speed with which Obama performs “the Potomac Shuffle.” Such haste makes it hard to believe that anything other than political expediency can account for Obama’s willingness to revisit the positions for which he is already known.
“Presidential candidates traditionally move centre to shore up the swing voters and try to take votes from their opponents,” Albrechtsen explained to readers of The Australian. “But even by the standards of yore, Obama is, as one American commentator said, ‘quite a mover on the dance floor.'”
The problem, in a nutshell, is that more people are watching the “dance floor” than ever before. In an age of blogging, YouTube, Web news forums, and talk radio, “plausible deniability” and the “modified limited hangout” are forms of evasion as obsolete as dances like the Locomotion and the Macarena. Nowadays the bouncer at the Information Club is everyone’s best friend, and almost anyone who wants to can “go to the videotape,” as the late Tim Russert was fond of saying.
Moreover, having been taught to pay more attention by a Democratic president who enlivened the impeachment proceedings against him by disputing the meaning of verb “is,” we all know we’re in for backpedaling when any politician seeks to “clarify” previous remarks. The hothouse political climate bequeathed to the republic by Team Clinton and its full-time “War Room” makes even Obamanian refinement of a position on troops in Iraq look like an attempt to move the goal posts, and cynicism of that kind is especially toxic to a candidacy fueled by appeals to judgment rather than experience. Having spent half of the last decade running for office, Obama does not even start with the assets that Eddie Murphy’s character had in “Trading Places,” when he tried to convince disbelieving cops that he had served in Vietnam by citing deployment with a “Green Beret Specialist Tactics Unit Battalion” to places like “Sang Bang” and “Dang Gong.”
Look again at the qualifier buried in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s seemingly jovial defense of politics as usual: Behind the cigar and the accent that gets more pronounced when he wants it to, the Austrian-American operator is a shrewd cookie who knows that if a change of mind is going to be Some Kind of Wonderful, it must first be honest. That some of us hoot derisively at rhetoric from Barack Obama has a lot to do with what one bookworm friend sarcastically calls his “rabbinic wisdom,” and his unwillingness to admit when he changes his mind. The junior senator’s apparent belief that he alone is capable of parsing his own speech was never tenable to begin with, and sometimes what he does not say is as telling as what he does say.
The asterisked items on the grievance list are familiar: ignoring a promise to accept public financing, embracing a troop surge he had sneered at, and failing to make good on a threat to filibuster against the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. In each case, the “nuanced” sequel to an original position was defended as Not His Fault. Beyond that, and in deference to some kind of twisted sister pluralism unknown to the congregation where his children were baptized, Obama asked colleagues to take religion seriously while simultaneously demanding that people of faith dumb down their vocabularies so as to be less irritating or incomprehensible to nonbelievers.
Obama’s Cheshire Cat defense of actions like these makes his playbook easy to parody. Let me just say, for example, that in spite of the manifestly furry and meowing evidence to the contrary, I do not own cats and never did. The felines in the O’Hannigan household either belong to my wife and children, or simply choose to live with us. We address them as “Walter” and “Pikabu” as a mark of esteem rather than ownership. Certainly we can no more disown Walter and Pikabu than we can disown the dogs with which they share space, but “disown” is obviously a figure of speech, although there are those who will try to tell you differently.
If any family pet should require expensive medical care, then we never had this conversation.
Challenge that assertion, and I (in Obama Mode) will examine your challenge for racism or outmoded thinking. (I’d offer a more comprehensive exam, but Hillary Clinton took the stethoscope that checks for sexism, and doesn’t want to give it back). Following a superficial but smooth review conducted exclusively through polished rhetoric, I will then invite you to support me in the name of responsible change.
Patrick O’Hannigan writes from North Carolina.