So far this presidential election final has been very disappointing. Here we have history in the making, either the first president over 71, or the first black president. We also have a ton of serious issues on the table. So what is the media talking about? Which wife said what about who, what the candidates think about cats and poker, and of course, whether Obama is a flip flopper and what in the world McCain was thinking when he joked about our exported cigarettes killing Iranians.
"Flip flop" is a word that is tossed around so much these days it has gotten as meaningless as "racist" is when uttered by Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. It used to be a perfectly sound word used to describe a politician whose opinions bounced from pro, then con, and back to pro again, for political gain. Think Mitt Romney on abortion. A simple change of position from pro to con could be explained by other matters, the most obvious being a change of mind, or of circumstance. But going back and forth is a tough sell as an ideological path, and suspicions of political hanky panky are warranted.
However, these days the term "flip flop" is applied to any change of mind, or appearance of same even to the extent of including mere clarification of position. This approach will brand any person who has put a lot of thought into their opinions as a flip flopper, because the popular mediums (driven by our ever-shortening attention spans) demand sound-bite answers, even when it is a six paragraph question. It creates a natural catch-22. Try to squeeze the six paragraph answer into the 45 second space, or god forbid ask for a clarification, and get dismissed as dodging. Give a sound bite that isn't exactly the same as the previous one, and you are a flip flopper.
This is Obama's problem on Iraq, and most of the other larger issues the next president will face that are monumentally more important than gay marriage and flag pins. He's an intellectual, and he has complicated nuanced opinions to complicated issues. He is not going to give the same answer to any complicated question twice in a row. The question "Do you think we should pull of out Iraq immediately?" is not a yes or no question. The world is just not that simple. Obama's opinions, once you trim away the political wrapping that comes with the territory, simply reveal the intellectual he is. Labelling this as "flip flopping" runs the serious risk of excluding from the office anyone with some serious intellect, and will send politicians right back into not answering the questions at all.
Likewise, when we hear John McCain wisecrack about our cigarette exports to Iran being "one way to kill them", we need to be really careful how we react to that. Every election we hear the complaint that politicians are plastic, stiff and insincere, and "Why can't they just be like a normal person?" Yet, when they accede to our wishes, we hammer them for any remark that is slightly off the safe path. Be careful what you ask for.
John McCain is simply showing us who he is. He is not a politician who used to be a soldier. He is a soldier who tries to be a politician. He thinks like a soldier, and he looks at the world like a soldier. And in his mind, as it is in the mind of many, Iran is the enemy in a war where the first shot has not been fired yet. And what do soldiers do to the enemy? They kill the enemy, and they on occasion make jokes about it. Making it anything else is to deny who the man is and make much of nothing.
Now one might argue that a president needs more clarity of vision than Obama does, and needs to appear to be more consistent. And one might argue that John McCain's diplomatic skill is suspect to make such a joke. Those are the arguments we should have, along with [gasp] what the presidential candidates plan to do about the big issues of the day. What we do not need is gotcha games that call every nuance of opinion a flip flop, and brand everyone with a sense of humor as insensitive.