How politicians admit error

This year’s Republican presidential wannabes all have a past. They’ve all held responsible positions requiring hard decisions. Some decisions were controversial when made and remain so; others look more like mistakes now, with the advantage of hindsight.

In politics, opponents and critics try to hang every decision around the neck of the incumbent, and if possible, set fire to the tire. Every candidate with a record has to defend it, run from it or use it to his or her advantage. 

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Mitt Romney has RomneyCare; Tim Pawlenty supported cap-and-trade and agreed to some pretty silly renewable-energy mandates as governor of Minnesota; Mitch Daniels infuriated supporters of state right-to-work laws, backed a tax increase early in his first term and has suggested what he calls a “truce” on social issues. Mike Huckabee, as governor of Arkansas, pardoned a hardened criminal who went on to kill several law enforcement officers, and Haley Barbour worked for years as that most hated of all Washington professionals: a lobbyist.

President Obama faced none of these problems when he ran for president. He had never held a job that required him to make hard decisions, and did all he could to avoid tough votes as an Illinois state senator. Though a reliably liberal U.S. senator, he ran for president in a way that allowed voters to define him as they liked. 

Indeed, as is often the case when running against an incumbent with a record, he promised “change,” but didn’t really define the sort of change his election might bring. Obama benefited greatly from the fact that his opponent in the Democratic primaries also had a record and had taken positions on controversial issues for years — positions that contributed to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) ultimate defeat.

Part of the president’s problem as he prepares to run for a second term is that he now has a record. As president he’s had to make decisions, and some of them haven’t gone down very well with his base or with voters in general. It’s a record that he, like his Republican counterparts, is going to have to defend, and frankly, that’s going to make 2012 a very different kind of race from the one he won so easily in 2008.

What is becoming increasingly clear is that neither the president nor his Republican counterparts have learned the lesson that served Ronald Reagan so well during his career. Like every candidate and elected official, Reagan made mistakes. He sometimes got his facts wrong or headed down a road that could lead to political disaster.

However, Reagan seemed always able to backtrack, admit his mistake and even apologize. The American people found this admirable trait human and endearing. Most politicians seem incapable of admitting mistakes and fail not because of some bone-headed decision, but because they continue to defend their actions when everyone else has concluded they were wrong.

This doesn’t mean politicians should abandon positions because public attitudes have changed or because their pollster tells them a position hasn’t proven as enduringly popular as they had hoped. Reagan never did that. But a successful politician must be willing to admit that the facts that led to his initial decision are contradicted by new evidence, when programs he once supported didn’t work out or when times and attitudes have undermined the rationale for earlier positions.

Voters tend to dislike the politician who flip-flops on issues every time his pollsters raise their eyebrows as much as the politician who seems incapable of ever changing his mind when external events prove him wrong. Voters look instead for leaders with principles and a willingness to deal with the real world. 

As we approach 2012, voters will be confronted by an incumbent who dithers, takes incredibly inconsistent stands, then spends his time defending things like ObamaCare and an increasing willingness to invade countries like Libya without even bothering to think let alone articulate a rationale for doing so. The press would like all Obama’s opponents to be bogged down defending the decisions they made years ago, but the surprise will be that the enthusiasm and attention of the voter is more likely to be focused on his record, today’s problems and tomorrow’s solutions. 

David A. Keene, former chairman of the American Conservative Union, serves as first vice president of the National Rifle Association, and maintains an “of counsel” relationship with The Carmen Group, a Washington-based governmental affairs firm.