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Confessions from a Flip-Flopping Democrat

Summer Flip-Flops, Back in Style?

A few weeks ago, several girls on Northwestern University’s national championship lacrosse team were criticized for wearing flip-flops to the White House. The players justified their fashion decisions by saying that the sandals they wore were dressier than regular flip-flops and matched their outfits. Besides, they were way more comfortable. After a few headlines and articles containing witty jars at John Kerry, the controversy passed.

While the issue is probably not worth dwelling on, there does seem to be a larger issue at stake here — one that goes well beyond this one fashion-related incident: why are flip-flops so unwelcome at the White House, and in Washington at large?

Bush won a presidential re-election campaign on basically one issue: flip-flops. The Bush campaign’s success at painting Kerry as a pandering, indecisive flip-flopper scored huge points with the conservative base, and threw much of the nescient Democratic base off-kilter. It exposed Kerry’s weakness as a leader, and even seemed to spill over to the nation’s perception of Democrats as a whole. Now, you can ask any conservative, and he’ll tell you that Democrats are flip-floppers. The terms have almost become interchangeable for liberal-bashers.

Well, conservatives, there are a few recent flip-flops I wanted to point out to you. And these aren’t from Democrats; not even from centrists. Nope, indeed, these indecisive, pandering flip-floppers are straight out of the GOP’s back pocket: televangelist Pat Robertson and House Majority Leader Bill Frist.

For quite some time, Pat Robertson, one of the most outspoken leaders of the Christian Coalition, has strongly opposed public funding for providing condoms as a way to curb sexually transmitted diseases. Conservative leaders, at the behest of their evangelical base, (many of whom are Robertson apostles) had to lobby against funding condoms in the 2003 African AIDS relief package because they promote immoral sexual behavior. Instead, the money was to go toward teaching abstinence.

Well, shockingly, it didn’t work; and Robertson has decided to go back on his original stance, now saying that the AIDS situation in Africa has gotten so bad that condoms are necessary. That’s right — the same man who once called AIDS a conspiracy of homosexuals trying to destroy society has now realized that the problem must be addressed. Fancy that.

Another recent flip-flop was House majority leader and surgeon Bill Frist, who recently reversed his position on federally-funded stem cell research, saying that he would now support the reversal of the policy restricting federal research funds that was enacted in 2001. While the Right has come out hard against Frist’s new stance, potentially costing him a bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008, he’s stuck to his guns.

I spend a lot of time bashing conservatives; but I’ve got to admit, I’m starting to like this flip-flopping thing. Generally I think of conservatives as provincial, idea-imposing bigots more fixed on conviction than common sense. To them, rationally synthesized opinions are out of style and often out of line. Instead, they seem to default to a two-pronged hierarchy of interests: large corporations and Christian churches (in that order). But lately, that hasn’t always been the case. Robertson and Frist were willing to relax their idealist value-focused principles in favor of pragmatism. And more importantly, they figured out that flip-flopping isn’t as big a deal is it’s cracked up to be. But why don’t the rest of us see it that way?

It seems the general public usually likes to simplify issues down to buzzwords and catchy phrases. While the tacky foam sandals connoted by the term “flip-flops” may not be appropriate for a meeting with the president, that wasn’t exactly what the girls were wearing. And while John Kerry may have reversed his vote for the $87 billion war package (which was the Bush campaign’s biggest shot at Kerry), voters didn’t seem to realize that the bills weren’t entirely the same. In both cases, it was easier to look at overriding characteristics than to assess the specific details. When criticism starts flying, the media really ought to be asking questions like: what did the sandals look like? What were the provisions of the bill? What circumstances in Iraq changed between the two votes?

The media on both sides of the political spectrum love to assign names to their opponents and will run with them whenever they can. And the public seems to have forgotten the old aphorism, what’s in a name? and instead has fallen prey to the insidious stranglehold of these media political machines. It’s not hard to paint any politician as a flip-flopper, and once anyone is determined to do it, a politician may be hard-pressed to ever rid himself of the stain.

The reality is this: the name “flip-flopper” shouldn’t be a stain. The flip-flopper accusation seems only to be pulled out of the arsenal when politically convenient, and the public and the centrist media seem not to recognize that. When a politician flip-flops, we need to ask why, and to realize that often it is for the better. Times change, circumstances change, and if we live in a one-dimensional, value driven world described merely by buzzwords and catch phrases, we’ll miss a lot of what the world has to offer. And we might never be able to wear comfortable shoes.

Nick Haschka is a member of the class of 2008.