What is a flip-flop?
Every time a politician changes his position on a subject, or suggests he may change his mind, he's immediately accused of flip-flopping. Is that accurate? Reasonable? Fair?
What is the difference between a sincere change of policy, and a flip-flop?
Well, the sincerity of the person, for starters. But since we don't have a method for determining that, we need more.
We can start by asking what, exactly, is a flip-flop?
That helps, because a flip-flop is actually more than just a policy shift. A flip-flop is taking Position A before taking Position B and then going back to Position A. Generally, this is done before groups that hold the related positions the candidate is taking. The most egregious example is that of John Kerry, apparently stuck before a mixed audience, so he took both positions at the same time. The accusation of "flip-flopping" as a result of that statement was devastating, so the accusation immediately became common, overplayed and misused.
What is not a flip-flop is when a candidate or official changes their position openly, or changes their view over time. Mitt Romney's lurching to the right during the 2008 primary was not a flip-flop, or series thereof. It may very well have been pandering, but pandering is not always flip-flopping. Pandering is taking positions or using rhetoric in order to win the votes of specific communities. While Mitt Romney may very well have been doing that, he did not, to my recollection, constantly shift and revise his positions to mirror whoever he was speaking too.
This is an important distinction, because while a panderer may very well live up to the promises he was pandering with, a flip-flopper cannot, despite John Kerry's claim cited earlier. Pandering is opportunistic, but it is, in small doses, generally accepted and often reflective of good government - pandering is done more for votes than donations, and may very well get some needs of a particular community served. A politician who is nothing but pandering is not one to be trusted, but a flip-flopper cannot be trusted no matter what the degree involved.
Flip-flopping is fundamentally dishonest - telling different groups with conflicting agenda what they want to hear in order to win their votes. It is generally today to spot them, because of the larger degree of media exposure, but local state races may still escape widespread exposure, and be more vulnerable to this kind of explicit dishonesty.
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