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In Defense of Flip-Flopping

by Jeff Cox, published
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) // Credit:

If you’ve seen Leonidas and his Spartans in the movie 300, then you have a pretty decent idea of how the ancient Greek phalanx worked. Line after line of men holding up their shields and pointing their spears forward to form a shield wall bristling with spear points.

Attacking a phalanx that was on the defensive was a dangerous and difficult proposition – if one was attacking from the front. Alexander the Great, among others, figured out that if you attacked the phalanx from the side, the phalanx was in big trouble, because it typically could not change directions so its shield wall with pointy things could face the enemy. The phalanx was inflexible. It could not adapt to changing circumstances.

Adaptability and flexibility are generally considered good things. Changing direction to react to changing circumstances is generally considered a good thing.

Unless one is an elected official. Then it becomes “flip-flopping.”

The prime example would be John Kerry. During his 2004 presidential run, Kerry commented on an $87 billion supplemental appropriation for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by saying, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” The line sounded worse than it actually was, but Kerry was justifiably criticized. His statement became Exhibit Uno for flip-flopping.

Flip-flopping often deserves the derision it receives. At least in today’s America, changing your mind on a public policy decision is usually done out of political expediency. Senator Whoever discovers their political position is unpopular so they change it. Even more obnoxious is taking a popular political position for election purposes, then changing it once you’re in office. Yes, I’m looking at you, Kelly Ayotte. You ran for office arguing against amnesty for illegal aliens; now you’re supporting it. Maybe now Kerry is off the hook as Exhibit Uno.

It’s the proverbial trying to have your cake and eat it, too (though, I’ve never understood that analogy. Really, what’s the point of having a cake if you can’t eat it?)

But is a public official changing their mind always bad? Should it always be portrayed as bad? Do we want our public officials to stick with a decision no matter what? Like the phalanx unable to change directions when Alexander’s cavalry attacks it from the side? Or like a car approaching a dead end with the driver too proud to hit the brakes or turn the wheel?

The latest one hit with the flip-flopping is Ohio’s US Senator Rob Portman. He has even become a noun and a verb.

You see, Rob Portman is a longtime opponent of same sex marriage. Or was. Until he found out his son Will was gay. Then the senator began changing his opinion on gay marriage, until in a March 15 interview on CNN.

“I've come to the conclusion that for me, personally, I think this is something that we should allow people to do,” Portman told CNN in a March interview. “To get married, and to have the joy and stability of marriage that I've had for over 26 years. That I want all of my children to have, including our son, who is gay.”

So now “Portmanization” is to have your political position changed after discovering its effect on you personally or your family. It is not necessarily a compliment. Portman is being ripped as a flip flopper by both opponents and supporters of gay marriage.

Which of course makes perfect sense. How dare Rob Portman change his opinion after witnessing the negative personal effects of the prohibition of same sex marriage when he could continue to blindly support the abstract policy he has advocated for so long!

Too many say Portman’s change of heart is a sign of weakness, but it is actually a sign of strength. He knows he’ll be called a flip flopper, be told he’ll go to Hell, and have his parentage and manhood questioned. He doesn’t care. This is the right thing to do, because he has seen it first hand.

As have more and more Americans. Despite consistent condemnation of homosexual conduct on (rather dubious) religious grounds, the percentage of Americans supportive of same sex marriage continues to grow, with that support highest among the younger generations. Largely because more and more Americans have homosexuals in their circles of friends and know them to not be the bogeymen that they have been made out to be.

But “Portmanization” extends to issues far beyond same sex marriage. It’s easy to argue stiffening drug sentences until your best friend is saddled with a felony for smoking a single joint in his own home. It’s easy to argue for tough drunk driving laws until your girlfriend is busted for drunk driving after a single glass of wine. And it’s easy to argue for environmentally-friendly wind farms everywhere until one is about to ruin your view of Cape Cod

OK, that last one is a bad example. Hypocrisy is not Portmanization. But practicality is. Practicality over abstraction.

And isn’t that a good thing?

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