Jumping on the flip-floppery bandwagon

As the accusations of flip-floppery reach crescendo in the op-ed pages of our major dailies and weeklies, it is appropriate to consider the underlying logic of this accusation. Virtually all of the prominent conservative pundits have devoted a column or two to demonstrating Kerry’s flip-floppery, but their details are essentially the same. Last week there were two columns that stand out: Krauthammer’s editorial in the Washington Post and the Weekly Standard’s Kagan and Kristol’s (the latter seems to be writing nothing but flip-flop columns) co-authored editorial.

What the pundits are trying to demonstrate is that John Kerry has changed his position on Iraq. Now this by itself would not suggest anything. All politicians presumably should change their positions when circumstances demand it, or when they discover their previous position to have been mistaken. For example, George Bush argued that the military should not be in the business of “nation building” during the 2000 election. After 9/11, of course, he saw that his previous view was mistaken and has chosen to engage in acts of nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet none of these pundits see fit to accuse Bush of “flip-floppery.” Surely something more than change is at stake here. And given the course of the war over the last three years (including planning and build-up), one would think it could be a virtue to be able to change one’s assessment in response to the changing “facts on the ground.”

The real accusation that the pundits are striving to make is that Kerry changes his position for the wrong reasons. This is an old accusation trundled out against “liberals” every four years. In essence, it claims that liberals change their positions for matters of mere political expediency and therefore cannot be trusted to do what they think is right. The implicit conclusion is that we cannot trust John Kerry to be President. As such it is an ad hominem argument.

It is, however, important to keep in mind that not all ad hominem arguments are fallacious. Often a person’s character or past is relevant to our inferences concerning that person. It only becomes fallacious if the claim about Kerry’s character is irrelevant to the conclusion about trustworthiness.

For example, although the argument would be ad hominem, the following would not be fallacious:

John Kerry uses political power to enrich his friends and family at the expense of the state. Therefore, John Kerry cannot be trusted with the office of president.

Certainly the premise of the argument attacks Kerry’s character, but because this characteristic is relevant to trustworthiness the argument is not seemingly fallacious.

So we can never conclude simply because an argument is an “attack” on a candidate that it is fallacious. If, as people often say, the public does not like “negative attack ads,” this is not necessarily a sign of their virtue. The relevant difference lies between fallacious and unsound attacks ads and valid and sound attacks.

In general, it seems plausible that flip-floppery, of the kind with which Kerry is accused, is potentially relevant to his trustworthiness.

But this is not the end of the story. First of all we must determine how we can recognize flip-flopping when it occurs. Let’s look at two putative examples.

  1. Source (WkSt. 9/7/04):

    Wiliam Kristol, who has seemingly become a full time flip-flop detector, finds the following “flip-flop” (though he does not call it by this name).

  2. JOHN KERRY said yesterday that Iraq was “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Translation: We would be better off if Saddam Hussein were still in power.

    Dean also said, “The difficulties and tragedies we have faced in Iraq show the administration launched the war in the wrong way, at the wrong time, with inadequate planning, insufficient help, and at the extraordinary cost, so far, of $166 billion.”

    But who challenged Dean immediately? John Kerry. On December 16, at Drake University in Iowa, Kerry asserted that “those who doubted whether Iraq or the world would be better off without Saddam Hussein, and those who believe today that we are not safer with his capture, don’t have the judgment to be president or the credibility to be elected president.”

    The first quote contains an obvious “straw man”–a deliberate misconstrual in order to generate the contradiction with the last quote.

    “The wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.” would be contradicted by claim such as that it is the “right war” or the “wrong war in the right place” or the “wrong war in the wrong place at the right time.” But, Kristol wants a flip-flop at any cost. So he “translates Kerry’s words into the claim that “we would be better off if Saddam Hussein were still in power.”

    The claim might be translated into the claim that “it was not worth the cost to the U.S. to remove Saddam Hussein from power.” But unfortunately if Kerry intended this, he would be perfectly consistent with his earlier claim. The Dean quote makes it quite clear that Kerry probably means this.

    But, Kristol does not let problems like journalistic accuracy thwart him in his pursuit of a flip-flop. In the last quote, Kerry only claims that those who think that capturing or removing Saddam from power does not make us safer are unfit for the presidency.

    To put the relationship between these various quotes clearly. The last quote speaks about an end, the former two question the means to that end. There is no inconsistency and thus no “flip-flop.”

  3. Source (WaPo 09/17/04):
  4. alls Iraq “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. But, of course, he voted to authorize the war. And shortly after the fall of Baghdad he emphatically repeated his approval of the war: “It was the right decision to disarm Saddam Hussein. And when the president made the decision, I supported him.”

    Of course, the center piece of all the accusations of flip-flopping on Iraq is the perceived contradiction between Kerry’s “vote for the war in 2002 and his recent criticisms of the war. Once again the contradiction between the two takes a little editing work to generate, and rests ultimately on the obfuscation of the relevant aspects of our system of government. With a simple conception of decision making in Washington abetted by a media that is unwilling to instuct its viewers on the nature of our government, it seems to many that Kerry has changed his mind on the Iraq war. The very terms in which the media portrays the vote to authorize the President to use force as a “vote for the war” obscures the basic facts of our government.

    Here is John Kerry in 1991 speaking about the vote to authorize the first George Bush’s first Gulf war.

    75 percent or more of those who will vote for the use of force do not want it to be used, and a significant number will vote for it only becuase they want to prevent the president from being reversed.” (quote from Eric Alterman’s Sound and Fury

    Before both wars, in fact, the Presidents Bush and Bush asked for the authority to use force in order to be able to avoid using force. Here’s George Bush the younger on the vote:

    Q Mr. President, how important is it that that resolution give you an authorization of the use of force?

    BUSH: That will be part of the resolution, the authorization to use force. If you want to keep the peace, you’ve got to have the authorization to use force. But it’s — this will be — this is a chance for Congress to indicate support. It’s a chance for Congress to say, we support the administration’s ability to keep the peace. That’s what this is all about. Source (Al Franken’s Blog)

    So, according to Bush in 2002 Kerry’s vote for authorization of the president to use force, was not a “vote for the war” as the pundits claim, it was a vote in support of the “administration’s ability to keep the peace.”

    But once again, if John Kerry was not endorsing an invasion of Iraq, never mind an invasion that lacked any clear strategy for the occupation, then there is no necessary contradiction between his later claim that “it was the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.” These statements are seemingly consistent.

    And as apparently Kerry said at the time (once again from Franken’s blog):

    Let me be clear, the vote I will give to the President is for one reason and one reason only: To disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction, if we cannot accomplish that objective through new, tough weapons inspections in joint concert with our allies.

Identifying “flip-flops” takes logic: At the root of the question is the identification of contradictory and contrary claims. The real challenge faced by the pundits, however, is obscuring the lack of a contradiction and generating a seeming contradiction, by either deliberately misconstruing the meaning (Kristol and Krauthammer above) or by taking comments out of their context. These pundits know that they must obscure context and intention, never mind nuance, if they are to make the charge of “flip-floppery” stick. We can see that in the first example from William Kristol. There he goes so far as to replace without explanation or justification Kerry’s own words with a straw man translation that allows Kristol to claim “flip-floppery.”

This is not to say that Kerry hasn’t “flip-flopped,” or perhaps better that he hasn’t changed his mind on the issues. There are other examples in Krauthammer’s, and Kristol’s and Kagan’s editorials. Whether these are plausible accusations of “flip-floppery,” or accusations contrived in the author’s enthusiasm to jump on the “flip-flop” bandwagon and at the expense of the rules of logic, I will leave for the reader to consider.