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A Foolish Consistency?

- May 17, 2012

Prominent journalist Marc Ambinder is leaving Washington for Los Angeles. In a recent farewell post on the GQ website Ambinder lists the “Ten Things I Learned During a Decade in D.C.” The first thing Ambinder learned is this:

Consistency is not a terribly interesting or useful proxy for effectiveness in a politician, and yet it seems to be the value held most high—or the value that, because someone is most easily able to convince you that someone else lacks it, becomes important. Politicians and the media haven’t developed the vocabulary to explain how positions evolve.

Of course the big political story of early 2012 is that Mitt Romney captured the Republican Presidential Nomination. As John Sides notes, The Monkey Cage “strives to be non-partisan.” Well, I think Democrats and Republicans can agree that the “foolish consistency” that Emerson called “the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines” has never plagued Governor Romney.

Ambinder is talking about what “Washington”, i.e journalists and politicos, purportedly values. Yet if “Washington” really valued consistency that highly then Romney’s success would suggest that “this town’s” preferences matter little where presidential nominations are concerned. If so, maybe we shouldn’t care much if Washingtonians overvalue consistency.

Yet Romney clearly was the favorite of the GOP political establishment. From early on the former Massachusetts Governor led his rivals on metrics of elite support such as endorsements (including those from Members of Congress, even though Romney has never served on Capitol Hill) and in fundraising. Evidently the GOP political elite in Washington AND the voters do not value consistency all that highly.

It is not just that Mitt Romney has changed his stands on many issues and somehow still became the Republican Presidential candidate. Romney’s very inconsistency was a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for his success in capturing his party’s presidential nomination this year. To believe otherwise one would have to find it a reasonable counterfactual that a candidate who was pro-choice, pro-gay rights, not a fan of the NRA, not a fan of Ronald Reagan and one who believed that an individual mandate for health insurance should be the foundation of health care reform at the national level could be nominated by the Republican Party for President in 2012.

Of course one counter-example, even a prominent one, only goes so far. We know that the political parties have changed positions on many issues. Recently the Democrats have drawn away from Republicans on LGBT rights as support for gays in the military and, increasingly, marriage rights become mainstream stands among Democratic officials. Beyond this Republicans were once the party of civil rights for African-Americans and women, of protectionism, of balancing budgets over cutting taxes and of limited defense spending. Both parties were once very divided on questions of abortion and gun control. None of this is true anymore.

If consistency were really highly valued in Washington these important changes in parties’ positioning on these issues would have to stem from old Members of Congress being gradually replaced by new candidates with new positions. Is that process of elite replacement how the Democrats and Republicans traded sides on these and other issues?

Not really. Instead on all of these issues individual elected officials changed their stands in large numbers, helping to alter their parties’ images on the issues in the process. We can see this playing out on gay rights as Democrats from President Obama on down “evolve” on the issue.

Yet this is hardly unique to the case of gay rights. The same LBJ who once backed Jim Crow said We Shall Overcome. The same Ronald Reagan who aligned the GOP with the pro-life movement signed a bill liberalizing abortion law in California even before Roe v. Wade. The first President Bush was once for the Equal Rights Amendment, gun control, abortion rights and called cutting taxes at all costs “voodoo economics.” On the way to the White House Bush dropped all these stands. It’s doubtful he would have been Reagan’s successor had he stuck to his original positions on these issues. Similarly, the Al Gore who served in Congress representing rural Tennessee and who was closer to the NRA than NARAL would have had trouble being nominated for President. The Al Gore who aligned his stands with the dominant views in his party was nominated in 2000.

Consistency is one of those virtues, like balancing the budget, that people prize far more in theory than in practice. The idea of consistency is appealing, but what voters and interest groups really want is politicians who agree with them. Practical politicians from Romney to Obama to Gore and Bush all understood this. It’s time journalists did as well.