Consistency vs. Moral Rightness in Political Flip-Flops

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The Jesuit school I teach at, Le Moyne College, has a new politically liberal newspaper called Lemocracy. They've long had a conservative paper, but this one is new this semester. In the February 21 edition, there's an op-ed by John Doyle (president of the College Democrats), criticizing Jim Walsh, our local representative in the U.S. House, a fairly conservative Republican who barely won his reelection last November to a very liberal Democrat. This is his first election in a very long time that was even close, and it took bringing in carpetbagger Dan Maffei from another state to mount a close challenge.

In the aftermath of the election, Walsh seems to be backing down from his strong support for President Bush in at least one respect. He's one of the Republicans opposing the troop increase in Iraq. He's also sponsored environmental legislation, but he's always been somewhat friendly to environmental regulation that he doesn't think will be have too negative an effect on people with low incomes. It's his opposition to what the president wants to do in Iraq that seems like a real reversal. What strikes me as funny about this is that Doyle, who opposes the U.S. presence in Iraq to begin with, does not welcome this from Walsh, because he doesn't think he's doing it for the right reasons. He thinks it's just political self-defense, so he won't face another close election like the last one. I'm not sure that's necessarily the right way to view this, and I think the problem here is connected to some conservative criticisms of others who have changed their minds in the other direction.

My suspicion is that Walsh feels as if the district he's representing has a view far from the one he's been supporting, and if they had been willing to continue to elect him by a landslide, then he'd probably be willing to continue supporting the president in full. As it is, he did win, but he barely won. He probably takes that as an indication that his district is divided enough on the issue for him not to go quite as far with it. That leads him to oppose increasing the troops but not to go as far as condemning the president's policies so far. He's thus trying to take a middle ground in order to reflect the wishes of his constituents, having been dealt a fairly strong blow by those who might normally have voted for him but were willing to prefer a carpetbagger on the far extreme of the political spectrum because of this issue.

I've addressed the fundamental issue here before. I don't happen to think representatives should take this approach. I prefer for my representatives to do what is right even if those who elected them would disapprove. That may mean sacrificing their position in the next election, but if the issue is important enough then they ought to do what's right. Some issues, of course, are not important enough to risk letting someone who will vote wrong on every issue get into office. I wouldn't want that. So some compromise is necessary, particularly on the issues that are less important, in order to be there to do what's right when it really matters. This happens to be an issue that really matters, and my advice to Walsh would be to rethink his stance. Perhaps it will still come out that enough other issues would be threatened with a Democrat in his position that he would conclude that he should compromise on this issue to keep a conservative in place. But I would want him to make his decision on that basis.

But that's the best motivation I could find to take such a view. I don't expect Walsh to have gone through exactly that reasoning, but it would be nice if he did before making this sort of decision. But even if he hasn't decided to give in on this issue as a compromise for the greater good of staying in his position as compared with someone as liberal as his last opponent, I think a decent enough motivation is possible. He may just hold the view that he should represent his constituency when they speak with a clear enough voice on them. The constituency is divided enough on abortion, say, that he can feel free to vote his conscience on that, but the last election shows that he ought to soften his support for the president when it comes to Iraq.

Since both motivations I've just outlined seem to me to be honorable motives, and the one Doyle attributes to Walsh is not (but is just to save his career without thinking there's any moral reason to do so), I have to condemn such dirtying of Walsh's motivations without strong evidence that he's doing this for exactly the reasons Doyle claims. It's quite possible that Doyle's supposition is correct. I don't know Walsh personally and have no clue what motivates him on a fundamental level. But charging him with one of three possible motivations, the only one of them that is bad, seems to me to be morally as bad as slander, because it's basically assuming the worst of him and them publicly charging him according to that (as far as we know) false assumption.

When did consistency become more important than getting it right? I happen to think Doyle's view of the Iraq situation is fundamentally wrong. I don't have any indication that Doyle would really be happier with Walsh if he had supported the troop increase. Maybe he wouldn't be. But he clearly doesn't think it's much better to have people like Walsh on his side, since he doesn't trust that he really means it. This is strikingly similar to what some conservatives have been saying about Mitt Romney with respect to his change of mind on abortion (although Sam Brownback seems not to be drawing as much fire, even though his situation is extremely similar). Even if Romney's change of mind is not genuine (and I find it plausible that it is genuine), it's pretty clear that he's been supporting conservative views on this and other issues for pretty much his entire time as governor and putting into practice what he could to further those views. He had promised before his pro-life conversion not to try to scale back abortion in Massachusetts. But he did everything in his power to resist further expansion of abortion.

Yet we have people like Bill Bennett proposing that pro-lifers prefer Giuliani to Romney simply because Giuliani has consistently been pro-choice, while Romney didn't have the inner strength to maintain his immoral position on the issue. Does that reasoning make sense? If the pro-choice view is wrong, shouldn't pro-lifers welcome people who switch views? Shouldn't pro-lifers even welcome those whose policies reflect pro-life positions even if they don't really believe those views? Conservatives had no problem supporting George H.W. Bush even though he clearly had switched to a pro-life position because Ronald Reagan had asked him to for unity's sake. He continued to maintain that position when he ran for president. Conservatives supported Ronald Reagan even though he had switched to a pro-life position one year before his first run for president in 1976. Then why is it that we need to criticize someone who did so even further before his run for presidency, when he's been doing exactly what pro-lifers would want him to do? Why is it preferable to vote for someone who we can expect to do what he says he will do if what he says he will do is the wrong thing?

I just don't understand this preference for consistency over moral rightness. Why is that the new reason to prefer a candidate? If a member of the KKK were to run on the basis of consistently maintaining extreme views over a lifetime, we wouldn't support such a person. If pro-lifers are right that abortion is the biggest holocaust of our time, then why do we do the same thing with someone who consistently supports that holocaust, as compared with someone who has at least publicly indicated a repentance over having formerly taken such a stance? That strikes me as morally insane.


Lots of Americans who previously supported the war in Iraq have genuinely changed their mind, or at least genuinely think that the best policy now is to reduce rather than increase the US troop presence. Is it not at least possible that Walsh is one of them? I think you should at least give him the benefit of the doubt.

That's a good point. It would be another interpretation that attributes better motives to him than this author did. But I think it's actually very unlikely, in this case (even if it's true of some people). Walsh did soften the "stay the course" rhetoric during the election, but he didn't ultimately abandon that view until after the election. He just toned his rhetoric down a bit. The timing does seem to indicate that his change has something to do with the election. I also don't think he's changed his mind in general on this issue. He still supports being there and opposes a timeline for withdrawal. He just went against the president on increasing the troop levels despite being with the president all along (and supporting the president's official line of "staying the course" does seem to imply logically that the troop levels need to go up in order to gain more control over the situation on the ground).

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