Voters are a finicky bunch. They like their politicians to be smart, but not too intellectual. Bill Clinton was just right, Adlai Stevenson was not. They like their politicians to be shrewd but not cunning. Johnson was fine, Nixon was not. They like their politicians to be flexible pragmatists, but not wishy-washy. FDR was just right, John Kerry was not.
It is that balance between flexibility and cravenness which voters frequently struggle with, perhaps more acutely this election because of the experience of the current president and the last failed Democratic candidate. George Bush is either resolute or pigheadedly stubborn, depending on your viewpoint. Like the characters in Arsenic and Old Lace who could hardly conceal the crazy aunt in the basement uncomfortably popping up whenever guests arrived, he insisted for months that all was going smoothly in Iraq when chaos reigned. For too long, he personified to many a stubborn resistance to change a game plan that was failing. John Kerry was the polar opposite. Ridiculed for “voting for the $87 billion before he was against it,” and bearing a meager legislative record, he seemed without firm convictions and unwilling to project or persevere with ideas. With these examples fresh in voters’ minds, it seems that in this election more than others voters’ antennae will be tuned to the “flexibility vs. resoluteness” debate.
There is plenty of position changing going on this political season. Hillary is scooting left, and fast, on the Iraq War. John McCain has discovered the benefits of tax cuts. Mitt Romney’s position changes have given observers political whiplash but have also made him some new conservative friends. So what’s wrong with changing your mind a few times? What is a little evolution between friends? It matters and matters greatly to voters in some but not all cases.
First, it matters most obviously to those who embrace either the position you had or the position you now have. Of course “one issue” voters who hold firmly to the position the candidate has now discarded may abandon the candidate who no longer toes the line. Besides these, voters on both sides of the changed issue now either feel jilted or suspicious. Those who favored the position now left behind feel like the spouse who has cooked the dinner only to find out the mate no longer likes the previously favored dish. “When did you stop liking pot roast and why did I waste my time?” they hurtfully ask. Those who are pleased the candidate has “come around” to their view nevertheless fret about how long it will be before they too are cast aside.
Second, voters tolerate changes on fact-based, empirical issues much more readily than issues of “conscience.” Voters understand that when facts change, positions can change. George Bush was against nation building but voters accepted that we might need to build a nation or two if the old ones were going to help terrorists get on planes to kill us. Many governors get away with raising taxes or cutting spending after “discovering” the state’s budgetary situation was much worse than previously known. Many a Democrat trying to escape the wrath of the party base for his Iraq vote now says he was misled and lacked the facts he now has. But barring a religious epiphany, voters find it harder to accept changes on non-empirically based issues. Change on deeply held moral beliefs, especially more than one of them, leaves the voters with the impression of someone fickle, too eager to please and without a moral rudder that will guide them.
Third, it matters greatly how and when a candidate changes his position or affiliation. Ronald Reagan explained that the Democratic Party “left him” when it failed to aggressively challenge the Soviet Union. His transformation over a significant period of time, distinct from any campaign cycle was perceived as genuine and heartfelt. That is a far cry from quickly adopting or dropping positions just in time for the next primary season. In 1988, Bush 41 barely escaped his retraction of the “voodoo economics” line which he had voiced only eight years earlier.
Fourth, changes on positions aimed at a key demographic group or geographic constituency immediately raise suspicions. How many candidates have changed their position on ethanol just in time for the Iowa caucus? It usually doesn’t fly with highly informed caucus goers. Democrats from conservative states like Al Gore or Dick Gephardt who were formerly pro-life face scorn within and outside the party when they need to mend fences with pro-choice voters in time to run for the presidency.
After George Bush voters may crave less ideology and more flexibility from their candidates. But I suspect that savvy voters who watched with either glee or horror as John Kerry was destroyed for perceived flip-flopping on just one (albeit major) issue will be wary of choosing a candidate who does not have a solid explanation for his changes of heart. You can only evolve so much.