Consistency is important to politicians. They have staff to track their every vote, year after year, and expend lots of energy to maintain constancy. When asked a seemingly innocuous question they often hesitate to answer or obfuscate their response as they search the card catalogs of their mind for fear of revealing a contradiction. Voters can forgive many sins (ahem, Bill Clinton) but flip-flops are not among them: ask John Kerry.
When I worked with candidates I stressed a failsafe technique for making decisions without flip-flopping. I advocated honesty and sincerity. By arguing that all decisions should be made on the application of first principles I offered every would-be office holder a method to avoid saying one thing now and another thing later.
My counsel was usually disregarded.
Consistency in politics and policy can be inordinately difficult – much more so than the average person realizes. In the first place it is really difficult to tell someone something they do not want to hear. We all have a human tendency to downplay differences and conflict. This alone can lead to varied positions, but then introduce pressures from a home community and a party hierarchy, professional advocates and impassioned family members, the risk and reward of maintaining a career and funding that effort, and the self-evident fact that application of principles can appear dramatically different depending on context. Together it is a perfect storm for self-contradiction.
Consistency is difficult, but it is not impossible.
As an admirer of Marcus Aurelius I labor to identify first principle. So, to stake a position I apply not a political judgment but an underlying value. Drug policy is a good example.
As a “tough on crime” sort, I am inclined to harsh penalties for drug possession and use. I have seen the effects of drugs and have seen lives threatened through drug use. However, I believe greatly in individual liberty. I fervently hold that a person is a sovereign creation over whom the state holds no dominion. If a persons actions do no harm to another (read: do not violate their sovereignty) the state has no business.
Thus, I can personally think that drug use is self-destructive, but as I am commited to individual liberty I must concede that a person has the right to be self-destructive. So, while I maintain that drugs are a terrible scourge I also maintain that people have a right to use them.
Inconsistency infuriates me.
I will pick on Democrats because they control the White House (and I admittedly like picking on Democrats) but the problem is absolutely non-partisan. During the W. Bush years Karl Rove was the top White House advisor and head of the campaign. Democrats howled at this conflict between national interest and partisan work. Today, David Axelrod holds the same two responsibilities as Rove, and there is only silence.
When enacted the PATRIOT Act invoked fury in everyone from the New York Times editorial page to your local librarian. The archetypal left wing rally sign was “Bush=Hitler.” The hysterics and accusations were unending. Yet recent extensions of the PATRIOT Act by the Obama White House are unchallenged.
The point is, that if something is right, it is right. A policy or practice cannot be right for one side and wrong for another. We are right to disdain the hypocrisy of convenience and the pathologies of partisanship. We should demand more from our elected leaders. We can start by demanding more of ourselves.