Thursday, October 20, 2011

Serial certainty in the age of flip-flop -- Oct. 20, 2011 column


The Republican presidential candidates’ debate Tuesday in Las Vegas was riddled with charges, contradictions and confusion. Here’s a snippet:

Mitt Romney: “Actually, Newt, we got the idea of an individual mandate from you.”

Newt Gingrich: “That’s not true. You got it from the Heritage Foundation.”

Romney: “Yes, we got it from you, and you got it from the Heritage Foundation and from you.”

Gingrich: “Wait a second. What you just said is not true. You did not get that from me. You got it from the Heritage Foundation.”

After another volley of riveting verbal tennis, Romney: “OK, let me ask, have you supported in the past an individual mandate?”

Gingrich: “I absolutely did, with the Heritage Foundation against Hillarycare.”

Point for Romney, sort of. The exchange reminded Republican voters that Gingrich had been for the individual mandate – the requirement in the health care reform law that people purchase health insurance -- before he was against it. Flip-flop.

In the 1990s, Gingrich and the conservative Heritage Foundation advocated requiring people to purchase health insurance. At the time, Hillary Clinton’s health care plan lacked such a requirement.

Gingrich, a former speaker of the House, continued to back a mandate until he started running for president. In May, he told David Gregory on NBC’s Meet the Press, “I agree that all of us have a responsibility to pay—help pay for health care.”

And Gingrich said, “I’ve said consistently we ought to have some requirement that you either have health insurance or you post a bond.”

Naturally, a furor erupted among those on the right who now regard the individual mandate as an abomination. The next day, candidate Gingrich appeared in a campaign video, saying, “I am completely opposed to the Obamacare mandate on individuals.”

Serial certainty is hardly unusual in politics. Nearly every politician has changed sides on the requirement that people buy health insurance or pay a penalty. Hillary Clinton reversed course and as a presidential candidate in 2008 supported a mandate, which candidate Barrack Obama then opposed.

But as president, Obama made the mandate a central part of his health reform law, which was patterned after Mitt Romney’s health care reform law in Massachusetts, which did spring from the Heritage Foundation. The idea behind the mandate is to require nearly everyone, especially the young and healthy who are unlikely to need care, to carry insurance, spreading costs and risks, and making coverage more affordable and available for all.

Presidential candidates love to point out opponents’ inconsistencies and undermine their credibility. A winning candidate must inspire trust, and the last thing people want in these times of shifting economic and social sands is more uncertainty.

Claude S. Fischer, a sociology professor at University of California Berkeley, noted on his “Made in America” blog this week that, “Much of our civic and social discussions are dominated by the voices of people who are absolutely certain. The speakers brook no thought that their claims are provisional, that future evidence or future reflection might overturn them.

“Those who accept more ambiguity are at a disadvantage. Once these uncertain folks grant that their opponents just could be — perhaps in certain cases, perhaps partially — right, they have lost the initiative to the certain-truth warriors,” Fischer wrote.

In the debate, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., sounded like a certain-truth warrior when she said, “Even the Obama administration chose to reject part of Obamacare...Now the administration is arguing with itself.”

She was referring to Obama’s pulling the plug on the CLASS Act, a long-term care insurance program, after studies found the voluntary program would not be solvent for many decades. Conservatives were gleeful, and many Obama supporters dismayed by what they saw as Obama’s surrendering on another principle.

The New York Times, though, editorialized that Obama’s decision to drop the CLASS Act “shows a welcome flexibility by the White House that bodes well for carrying out all provisions.”

To which, a cynic might add: unless it doesn’t.

What should a voter make of flip-flops? We want leaders who have principles and stick to them but are also thoughtful and willing to learn. We can admit more uncertainty; most issues are not black and white but shades of gray.

Voters can decide whether a candidate’s flip-flops are motivated by the desire to improve public policy or to shore up his or her political fortune -- and vote accordingly.

c) 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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