DAY OF THE DUMB: The history of flips!


Prince Nicholas in the can: This is a very dumb day in the New York Times. Just consider the way Gail Collins closes her column, live and direct from New Hampshire:
COLLINS (1/5/12): The highlight of the event was supposed to be an endorsement from John McCain, whose innermost thoughts we would love to be privy to. Or maybe not.

McCain’s old loathing of Romney has now been totally overshadowed by his hatred of President Obama. “You can’t hide from your record of making this country bankrupt, from destroying our national security and making this nation one that we have to restore with Mitt Romney as president of the United States of America!” McCain snarled into the mic. It was an endorsement, but not the feel-good moment we were sort of looking for. Fortunately, they did play the new Kid Rock theme song that implicitly compares Romney to a wild stallion.

Can’t wait to see what the Republicans do next. You have to admit they’re desperate. Rick Santorum. Geesh.

Did I ever mention that Romney once drove to Canada with the family Irish setter strapped to the roof of the car? The dog’s name was Seamus. New Hampshire Republicans, if you can’t think of anybody to vote for on Tuesday, consider writing in the name Seamus when you go to the polls. Maybe we can start a boomlet.

Makes as much sense as the Newt Gingrich moment.
Let us count the ways:

Like everyone else, Collins played the “old loathing of Romney” card. It’s an easy, low-IQ story.

As we noted two days ago, the dumb ones will always find a way to comment on a campaign’s "theme music." Right on cue, Collins plays that card.

In a truly troubling sign, Collins has started repeating herself about Rick Perry’s coyote. (She mentions this earlier in the column. It’s the sixth time in less than four months.)

Needless to say, Romney’s dog is back, identified by name for the first time since early September. Can she really be hoping that voters will actually write in his name?

As always, the drivel is organized around the desire to know the players’ “innermost thoughts” and to experience “feel-good moments.” We’d call this the face of The Dumb.

On the opposite edge of the page, Kristof’s column is different—and striking. Kristof’s column isn’t dumb in the standard Dowdian ways. Instead, his column reveals the gentleman’s standard impulse—the impulse to avoid blowing his very substantial establishment insider status by tilting too hard in certain directions.

Read his column! You will see Kristof praising Romney for his very respectable advisers—including the same economic geniuses who advised President Bush. And you will see Kristof fuzzing away the notion that Romney’s a worrisome flipper. As he closes, Kristof kisses the keister of insider power, as he tends to do in the end:
KRISTOF (1/5/12): On the economy, Romney has been advised by the likes of Professor Gregory Mankiw of Harvard and Professor Glenn Hubbard of Columbia. Both are experienced, prominent figures, albeit tending conservative. In foreign affairs, Romney’s advisers have included Richard Williamson, Eric Edelman, Meghan O’Sullivan, Paula Dobriansky, Daniel Senor and Dov Zakheim. These, too, are credible, respected figures.

So, in the coming months, the most interesting political battle may be between Romney and Romney. Now, do we really want a chameleon as a nominee for president? That’s a legitimate question. But I’d much rather have a cynical chameleon than a far-right ideologue who doesn’t require contortions to appeal to Republican primary voters, who says things that Republican candidates have all been saying and, God forbid, actually means it.
It isn't that any of this is "wrong." But Romney's flipping isn’t so bad! In such ways, establishment strivers kiss the ass of establishment power.

That said, we were most struck by Kristof’s history of flips and flip-floppers. This is the gentleman’s best recollection of the flips of the past twenty years:
KRISTOF: The narrative of a flip-flopper has been used effectively in the past against Democrats such as Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. In the 1992 Democratic primaries, Paul Tsongas accused Bill Clinton of being a “pander bear.” Romney should be forewarned: once the narrative gets started, it feeds itself.
Kristof’s statements are technically accurate, although the charge that Gore was a flipper was a minor part of the war against Gore—a war in which Kristof took part. But how odd! As he makes these technically accurate statements, Kristof remembers three major Dems who were tagged as flippers—and no major Republicans! He doesn’t remember Bush the Elder, who flipped on abortion rights, voodoo economics and his own dramatic tax pledge. He doesn’t remember Saint McCain, who has flipped on virtually every topic, approach and attitude currently known to man.

Kristof’s statements are technically accurate, if a bit strained. But this is the way the culture’s political narratives are sustained and spread. When Kristof recalls the history of flips, he remembers three Democrats—no one else. He can’t recall a single Republican—not even the former president who lost re-election in part because conservatives didn’t care for his most dramatic flip.

Romney’s flips just aren’t that bad! On balance, we aren’t real high on Kristof. Today’s column comes from a can.

Were Gore and Kerry flip-floppers: Were Gore and Kerry flip-floppers? In honesty, this theme was rarely used against Gore, except for a bogus claim about abortion rights during the New Hampshire primary. (Candidate Bradley was making the claim. For that reason, large segments of the “press corps” made the claim too.)

Four years later, Kerry was massively tagged as a flipper. Therein lies a tale.

Kerry was massively tagged as a flipper because he made a clumsy remark about a funding proposal. In early 2004, there were a pair of dueling proposals to fund the military. Kerry supported Proposal A, opposed Proposal B. On the other side of the aisle, President Bush supported Proposal B, said he would veto A.

No flips were involved in either case—unless you read the New York Times, which pimped the “Kerry flip-flopper” theme all around the town. Kristof advances this “narrative” further today. It’s how the Rhodes Scholars tend to roll.

Kristof’s column isn’t “dumb.” We would say he's tithing to power.


  1. While Bob's point is true about Kerry and the funding of the Iraq war, Kerry deserves a huge share of the blame for never making that clear to voters. If Kerry had simply said that there were two versions of the bill, both adding up to $87 billion but with different ways a raising the money and that it was the funding of the $87 billion that was the bone of contention, he could have set the record straight and shown that his position was being misrepresented by both the Bush camp and the news media. But, no. Kerry never made a point of correcting the slander and let both the Republicans and the news media run with it.

    Same goes with Al Gore and that whole invented-the-internet thing. He could have pointed out that the charge was bullcrap but never did, letting the slander stand. He deserves blame for allowing himself to be slimed too.

  2. I think Kristof is right to bring up the subject of competence. Partisans on both sides push us to think that that liberals and conservatives disagree on just about everything. However, I think there are more areas of agreement than disagreement. We all want honest government, effective foreign policy, an end to racism, prudent use of taxpayer money, an expanding economy, low unemployment, low inflation, protected civil liberties, clean air and water, an effective education system, an end to terrorist attacks, etc. I think administrations have sometimes failed to produce these things because of incompetence rather than political philosophy. In other words, I subscribe to Hanlon's Razor.

    If it's really the case that Romney and his advisors would make wise decisions, then that's a significant point in his favor.