OP-ED | Changing One’s Mind Gracefully Pays Off
The primaries for U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman’s open seat have been wading through mud for a while now, and the latest brown, sticky gobs of nastiness are all about flip-flopping.
Linda McMahon’s campaign, nervously checking their diamond-encrusted rear-view mirror for former U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays, has accused him of flip-flopping his position on banning so-called “partial-birth” abortions. McMahon’s accusation comes from Shays’ vote against a partial-birth abortion ban in 1995. Shays retorted that he’d initially believed that procedure was very rare, and changed his mind when he found out more information. He voted for the ban since 1997, and voted for the law signed by President Bush in 2003.
On the other side, as Thursday’s Democratic debate got underway, the Bysiewicz campaign sent out a “fact-check” suggesting Rep. Chris Murphy was augmenting his position on Afghanistan, citing evidence in stories from as far back as 2007 in which Murphy endorsed the idea of a long-term presence in the region and supported initiatives like the troop surge in 2009, among other things. This is part of a long-standing dust up between the two candidates, and part of Bysiewicz’s effort to position herself to Murphy’s left. Is it a change in position for Murphy? Only if you squint at it and turn it sideways.
It’s not hard to see why Bysiewicz and McMahon are making these kinds of attacks, though. Inconsistency is one of those things that can haunt candidates forever. Democrats remember with an agonized groan how the Kerry campaign in 2004 listed under the weight of their candidate’s reversal on the Iraq War. The Republicans made that into a huge issue, which happened to feed into their narrative of Kerry as an out-of-touch opportunist. We’re getting a replay of that this year with Mitt Romney, another uninspiring candidate whose positions on everything from abortion to health care mandates have been in flux, to put it kindly. Neither Kerry in 2004 nor present-day Romney had a lot of success in explaining themselves to a skeptical public, and suffered greatly for it. Voters, the conventional wisdom goes, value consistency because the lack of it suggests that a candidate will do or say anything to get elected, and that’s one of the cardinal sins of American politics.
And yet politicians are just as human as the rest of us, and there isn’t anybody out there whose attitudes and beliefs haven’t grown and changed over time. Those evolutions, whether they be sudden or occur over the course of years and years, happen to politicians, too. One of the finer moments of this year’s legislative session was a very personal, passionate and moving speech by Sen. Gayle Slossberg explaining how she came to change her own mind on the death penalty. Here’s the whole thing, go ahead and read it, it’s worth the time.
So is that a flip-flop, to use the derisive term? Is some Republican opponent going to be able to come after Sen. Slossberg in the fall and say that she changed her position, and that she’s therefore inconsistent and perhaps opportunistic? Maybe. But the story she tells is so powerful and human that she can only benefit from telling it over again.
There’s a graceful way to change one’s mind. Shays almost gets there with his explanation of his 1995 vote on partial-birth abortion ban, though I doubt it would have made much of an impact on voters anyway. His position’s been consistent since 1997, and that particular issue isn’t likely to come up again in the immediate future. As for Chris Murphy, so far none of the rather esoteric attacks the Bysiewicz campaign has thrown at him has stuck, and Afghanistan isn’t foremost in voters’ minds in any case. The McMahon and Bysiewicz campaigns will have to look for better, stickier mud somewhere else. Mitt Romney may have more of a problem, however, since his own inconsistencies loom much larger in the national mindset, and they are more numerous, easier to exploit, and aren’t balanced by his strengths.
But Sen. Slossberg shouldn’t have to worry. She did it right.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner of CTLocalPolitics and an author. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.