GOP Contenders and the Art of Changing Positions

Each of the top-three Republican presidential candidates has stumbled, tripping over a position he once held, and then changed.  Having changed his position on something big or small, he winds up spending entirely too much time either trying to deny the change, or to try and explain it all away.  Call it the Kerry Syndrome, in honor of the failed presidential candidate who was famously quoted as saying:"I was for the war before I was against it.” 

If you’re a politician, at some point you have changed your positions, regardless of who you are or how solid your views,.  This is in part a response to a natural evolution of views as individuals mature, and in part it reflects changes in the world, which require a re-assessment of long-cherished views that no longer align with reality. 

Some of the greatest politicians of the 20th Century performed remarkable political changes -- and not only survived, but prospered. Winston Churchill “crossed the floor” in Parliament, leaving the Conservative Party for the Liberal Party in 1904, allowing him to serve on the War Cabinet during the Great War.  Then, in 1924, he switched back to the Conservative Party.  This was remarkable, but Churchill was a remarkable man.

Equally remarkable was the man who’d become a New Deal Democrat, and ultimately a union president, before seeing the light and becoming a strong advocate for conservatism.  This transformation allowed Ronald Wilson Reagan to have a keen insight into his opposition -- his rapier wit seldom missed the targets that were so visible to him.

Unfortunately most Republican presidential candidates don’t have a clue how to deal with it.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Of this year’s cavalcade of candidates, only one -- Chris Christie -- seems to have handled his change at all well -- though for the true believers, the suspicion that his was a change of convenience still lingers.   

At one time, Chris Christie was publicly pro-abortion.  That is beyond question. Yet he’s changed that view based on a friend’s traumatic experience, and said so publicly. Instead of dodging the truth, he confronted the press and the public with his story, challenging them to prove him wrong.  His answer was plausible, impossible to disprove, and widely accepted -- except by ardent pro-life conservatives and members of the media whose job in life seems to be stirring the pot by playing “Gotcha.”

However, if Iowa is any example, Chris Christie has bigger campaign problems than his shift toward more conservative positions on abortion or gun control.

Setting Governor Christie aside, the top-three candidates to come out of Iowa all have changed positions -- on important conservative issues. In a recent and effective ad, Marco Rubio offered a decent explanation for his changing his position on amnesty; however, he has not yet carried this level of candor into the debates, at least not in any effective way.  That was good, but an ad is almost never enough.  People need to see him say this in public, to themselves and to the media.  Until Rubio boldly confronts this issue in public -- then puts it to rest, once and for all -- amnesty will continue to dog him.  Not every die-hard closed-border anti-amnesty advocate will accept his change message -- that after Paris and San Bernadino and the tide of illegal-immigrant children who recently flooded our borders, we can do nothing about amnesty until we close our borders -- or his one-time alliance with Chuck Schumer.  Yet some conservatives will be able to set that aside and move on. 

At the outset, Donald Trump tried to explain away his complex set of position changes, but he hasn’t tried very hard.  Early in the pre-primary campaign, Trump has found that he can be effective without being specific.  At some point, however, he will either become so dominant that it won’t matter, or he will be forced to confront the fact that he’s only become conservative since he decided to run for president.  As the competition tightens, the two more conservative top candidates will be forced to try and get conservative Trump supporters to “wake up,” at which point even The Donald will have to play by this rule.

Then there’s Ted Cruz.   In the January 14 debate, he was apparently caught off guard by questions about the parliamentary chicanery used in an attempt to kill the Gang of Eight’s Amnesty Bill.  He tried this by offering amendments that would push the bill beyond a point where its supporters could continue to support it.  At the time -- in 2013 -- Cruz gave a number of interviews, and made a number of public statements, expressing his support of the amnesty bill, if only his amendments were allowed to fix it.  This put the Senator on record as supporting amnesty -- which worked just fine in 2013, as he maneuvered to “kill it with kindness” -- but three years later, those video clips made him look like a classic flip-flopper in the John Kerry mold.  You know, “I was for amnesty before I was against amnesty.”

Since that flip-flop would look no different than what Senator Rubio actually did -- change his position on amnesty -- it could be a deal-killer among those looking for an authentic, uncompromising conservative.  He finally decided that his only safe position was to admit to the lesser sin -- admit to his political deception, even while he reaffirmed his firm opposition to amnesty.  That, he reasoned, was a position that conservatives might accept, even while they swallowed the fact that Cruz had lied in public about his intentions.

Yet Ted, when the issue came up in the January 14 debate -- and later in an interview on Fox, had no convincing answer, as if he’d never expected this to surface. Instead, Cruz fumbled around, unable to provide a coherent and convincing explanation. That made him look guilty … of something.

However, two weeks later, in an interview with Megyn Kelly on January 29, immediately after the last debate before the Iowa Caucus, Ted He finally admitted that his set of five amendments to the amnesty bill were all intended to be poison pills.

 All of his angst over a mis-step or an ineffective response to a pointed question about a changed opinion could have been avoided by any of the leading candidates by following a straightforward, four-step process that any candidate needs to take to address a change in positions. 

First, acknowledge to yourself that you have changed your position -- and the reason for the change.  Some people who are under attack in public are tempted to adopt a defensive mode, even one that borders on denial.  Hillary Clinton is an example of a candidate who -- when under attack -- seems to believe her own stories -- she so intensely wants people to believe her that she seems to believe herself, no matter how implausible the excuse. 

If you think sticking to your excuse might work for you, ask yourself how well it’s worked for Hillary.

Next, take that acknowledgement public.  If possible, get this out there before the press or your opponents make an issue of it -- that may sound counter-intuitive, but it is a remarkably effective way of burying a story. If you’ve already admitted changing positions, it’s hard for others to attack you.  However, if it’s already out there, it’s still not too late to put it to rest.  You may have to repeat yourself a few times, but if you stick to your honest story, eventually this will recede -- to be replaced by other problems, but they would have arisen anyway.  Next, explain this change in position by citing changed circumstances, as Marco Rubio has done in a commercial. 

Another way to explain the change is to cite a traumatic experience that opened your eyes to a different perspective. This is the approach Chris Christie used in explaining away his changed position on abortion.  What is important is that the explanation must be honest, because the press and opponents will fact-check, the better to punch holes in the reason for the change in position.

Finally, present an action plan that reflects your new position.  In Marco Rubio’s case, he then doubled down on this explanation for his change by pointing out that no amnesty would be possible until the borders were truly secure.  Finally, he vowed that no one would be able to enter the US unless he or she could explain who they were and what they intended to do in America. 

These four steps, modified for changing experiences, have proven themselves over four decades.  Getting out front of a potentially troubling story can put it to bed -- without scandal, there is no news. 

However, if it’s too late to get out front of it, admitting it -- and offering both a rational and honest explanation, followed by an action plan to put your new position into action, will quickly dampen the fires of opposition.  If your opponent pushes too hard, he will look the bully, and you, the honest and upright victim of his bullying.  There are worse positions to be in.

Ned Barnett is the owner of Barnett Marketing Communications in Las Vegas. He has been active in politics since the 1974 Ford campaign, and has worked on three state-level presidential campaigns, along with dozens of campaigns for other candidates and issues.  He has testified twice before Congress, and has written a dozen published books on professional communications.  He is currently working on a book about how to win political campaigns.

Each of the top-three Republican presidential candidates has stumbled, tripping over a position he once held, and then changed.  Having changed his position on something big or small, he winds up spending entirely too much time either trying to deny the change, or to try and explain it all away.  Call it the Kerry Syndrome, in honor of the failed presidential candidate who was famously quoted as saying:"I was for the war before I was against it.” 

If you’re a politician, at some point you have changed your positions, regardless of who you are or how solid your views,.  This is in part a response to a natural evolution of views as individuals mature, and in part it reflects changes in the world, which require a re-assessment of long-cherished views that no longer align with reality. 

Some of the greatest politicians of the 20th Century performed remarkable political changes -- and not only survived, but prospered. Winston Churchill “crossed the floor” in Parliament, leaving the Conservative Party for the Liberal Party in 1904, allowing him to serve on the War Cabinet during the Great War.  Then, in 1924, he switched back to the Conservative Party.  This was remarkable, but Churchill was a remarkable man.

Equally remarkable was the man who’d become a New Deal Democrat, and ultimately a union president, before seeing the light and becoming a strong advocate for conservatism.  This transformation allowed Ronald Wilson Reagan to have a keen insight into his opposition -- his rapier wit seldom missed the targets that were so visible to him.

Unfortunately most Republican presidential candidates don’t have a clue how to deal with it.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Of this year’s cavalcade of candidates, only one -- Chris Christie -- seems to have handled his change at all well -- though for the true believers, the suspicion that his was a change of convenience still lingers.   

At one time, Chris Christie was publicly pro-abortion.  That is beyond question. Yet he’s changed that view based on a friend’s traumatic experience, and said so publicly. Instead of dodging the truth, he confronted the press and the public with his story, challenging them to prove him wrong.  His answer was plausible, impossible to disprove, and widely accepted -- except by ardent pro-life conservatives and members of the media whose job in life seems to be stirring the pot by playing “Gotcha.”

However, if Iowa is any example, Chris Christie has bigger campaign problems than his shift toward more conservative positions on abortion or gun control.

Setting Governor Christie aside, the top-three candidates to come out of Iowa all have changed positions -- on important conservative issues. In a recent and effective ad, Marco Rubio offered a decent explanation for his changing his position on amnesty; however, he has not yet carried this level of candor into the debates, at least not in any effective way.  That was good, but an ad is almost never enough.  People need to see him say this in public, to themselves and to the media.  Until Rubio boldly confronts this issue in public -- then puts it to rest, once and for all -- amnesty will continue to dog him.  Not every die-hard closed-border anti-amnesty advocate will accept his change message -- that after Paris and San Bernadino and the tide of illegal-immigrant children who recently flooded our borders, we can do nothing about amnesty until we close our borders -- or his one-time alliance with Chuck Schumer.  Yet some conservatives will be able to set that aside and move on. 

At the outset, Donald Trump tried to explain away his complex set of position changes, but he hasn’t tried very hard.  Early in the pre-primary campaign, Trump has found that he can be effective without being specific.  At some point, however, he will either become so dominant that it won’t matter, or he will be forced to confront the fact that he’s only become conservative since he decided to run for president.  As the competition tightens, the two more conservative top candidates will be forced to try and get conservative Trump supporters to “wake up,” at which point even The Donald will have to play by this rule.

Then there’s Ted Cruz.   In the January 14 debate, he was apparently caught off guard by questions about the parliamentary chicanery used in an attempt to kill the Gang of Eight’s Amnesty Bill.  He tried this by offering amendments that would push the bill beyond a point where its supporters could continue to support it.  At the time -- in 2013 -- Cruz gave a number of interviews, and made a number of public statements, expressing his support of the amnesty bill, if only his amendments were allowed to fix it.  This put the Senator on record as supporting amnesty -- which worked just fine in 2013, as he maneuvered to “kill it with kindness” -- but three years later, those video clips made him look like a classic flip-flopper in the John Kerry mold.  You know, “I was for amnesty before I was against amnesty.”

Since that flip-flop would look no different than what Senator Rubio actually did -- change his position on amnesty -- it could be a deal-killer among those looking for an authentic, uncompromising conservative.  He finally decided that his only safe position was to admit to the lesser sin -- admit to his political deception, even while he reaffirmed his firm opposition to amnesty.  That, he reasoned, was a position that conservatives might accept, even while they swallowed the fact that Cruz had lied in public about his intentions.

Yet Ted, when the issue came up in the January 14 debate -- and later in an interview on Fox, had no convincing answer, as if he’d never expected this to surface. Instead, Cruz fumbled around, unable to provide a coherent and convincing explanation. That made him look guilty … of something.

However, two weeks later, in an interview with Megyn Kelly on January 29, immediately after the last debate before the Iowa Caucus, Ted He finally admitted that his set of five amendments to the amnesty bill were all intended to be poison pills.

 All of his angst over a mis-step or an ineffective response to a pointed question about a changed opinion could have been avoided by any of the leading candidates by following a straightforward, four-step process that any candidate needs to take to address a change in positions. 

First, acknowledge to yourself that you have changed your position -- and the reason for the change.  Some people who are under attack in public are tempted to adopt a defensive mode, even one that borders on denial.  Hillary Clinton is an example of a candidate who -- when under attack -- seems to believe her own stories -- she so intensely wants people to believe her that she seems to believe herself, no matter how implausible the excuse. 

If you think sticking to your excuse might work for you, ask yourself how well it’s worked for Hillary.

Next, take that acknowledgement public.  If possible, get this out there before the press or your opponents make an issue of it -- that may sound counter-intuitive, but it is a remarkably effective way of burying a story. If you’ve already admitted changing positions, it’s hard for others to attack you.  However, if it’s already out there, it’s still not too late to put it to rest.  You may have to repeat yourself a few times, but if you stick to your honest story, eventually this will recede -- to be replaced by other problems, but they would have arisen anyway.  Next, explain this change in position by citing changed circumstances, as Marco Rubio has done in a commercial. 

Another way to explain the change is to cite a traumatic experience that opened your eyes to a different perspective. This is the approach Chris Christie used in explaining away his changed position on abortion.  What is important is that the explanation must be honest, because the press and opponents will fact-check, the better to punch holes in the reason for the change in position.

Finally, present an action plan that reflects your new position.  In Marco Rubio’s case, he then doubled down on this explanation for his change by pointing out that no amnesty would be possible until the borders were truly secure.  Finally, he vowed that no one would be able to enter the US unless he or she could explain who they were and what they intended to do in America. 

These four steps, modified for changing experiences, have proven themselves over four decades.  Getting out front of a potentially troubling story can put it to bed -- without scandal, there is no news. 

However, if it’s too late to get out front of it, admitting it -- and offering both a rational and honest explanation, followed by an action plan to put your new position into action, will quickly dampen the fires of opposition.  If your opponent pushes too hard, he will look the bully, and you, the honest and upright victim of his bullying.  There are worse positions to be in.

Ned Barnett is the owner of Barnett Marketing Communications in Las Vegas. He has been active in politics since the 1974 Ford campaign, and has worked on three state-level presidential campaigns, along with dozens of campaigns for other candidates and issues.  He has testified twice before Congress, and has written a dozen published books on professional communications.  He is currently working on a book about how to win political campaigns.