Perhaps no cardinal sin is quite as grave in contemporary American politics as "flip-flopping." A windsurfing for-it-before-I-was-against-it John Kerry can certainly attest to that, and in the current election cycle, the charge has used to great effect against Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who has battled accusations of flip-flopping from the early primaries through the final stretch of the general election, where President Barack Obama has taken to diagnosing the former Massachusetts governor with "Romnesia."
This charge is not without merit. Even in the realm of foreign policy, where he has arguably been more consistent than on domestic issues, Romney has vacillated between divergent positions on a number of key issues, including the wisdom of: military raids against senior al Qaeda operatives on Pakistani territory, U.S. forces withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan, breaking with former Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, seeking a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and allowing Iran to retain some nuclear enrichment capability as part of a deal to rein in Tehran's alleged nuclear weapons ambitions. Romney has also appeared internally conflicted over whether al Qaeda, Iran, or Russia constitutes America's greatest national security threat.
Flip-flopping is not entirely a trivial matter either. After all, in a representative democracy like America's, voters have to have faith that their elected officials will dutifully carry out their interests. If they can't be sure of a candidate's positions beforehand, they can hardly be certain that the candidate will ably carry out their wishes if elected to office, right?
Nonetheless, at least in foreign policy, America has historically been far better served by flip-floppers than by uncompromising leaders wedded to predetermined policies and ideology. The fast-changing nature of the world today magnifies the importance of electing a president who isn't afraid to change his mind when the facts dictate it.
You might even say flip-flopping is as American as apple pie -- and the practice actually predates the Republic itself. After throwing off the yoke of the British monarchy, the American colonists established a weak confederacy out of their fear of creating another political leviathan. Faced with a perilous external environment -- surrounded, as they were by all of the era's great powers -- and soon beset by internal unrest, the founding fathers quickly reversed this decision, wrote a new constitution, and created a capable federal government.
And the flip-flopping didn't stop there. George Washington, for instance, abdicated from America's treaty responsibilities to France once Paris became embroiled in a war with its European neighbors. Thomas Jefferson derided the Federalists for expanding the country territorially and enlarging the powers of the federal government before becoming president, only to vastly expand the country by purchasing Louisiana from Napoleon and deploy U.S. marines halfway around the world to combat the Barbary pirates. Jefferson's successor and closest political confidant, James Madison, belied his agrarian and small government leanings by taking the young Republic to war against England, ostensibly to protect America's merchant shipping, and by attempting to seize Canada no less than three times during the course of that conflict.