2006: The Year of Changing Your Mind in Politics

by Stuart Rothenberg February 23, 2006 · 4:02 PM EST

OK, so I really don’t expect a lot of consistency from politicians. They change their positions and their arguments from cycle to cycle. But this cycle, change has become the rule in more ways than one.

At least two candidates have turned down pleas to run for Congress, only to change their minds after others got in races to fill the apparent vacuums. Two other candidates entered races only to jump back out less than 48 hours later. And one of them jumped back into the race a few months later.

The best known case is in Ohio, where Rep. Sherrod Brown (D) turned down repeated appeals to get into the Senate race, only to jump into the contest after Democratic strategists and party insiders, desperate for a potentially strong challenger for Sen. Mike DeWine (R), succeeded in wooing Paul Hackett into the contest.

Hackett, quite rightly, was incensed. After trying to compete, he threw in the towel last week and, even more surprising, passed up a House bid as well. He was bitter. And he certainly deserved to be.

Ironically, Hackett’s exit may marginally improve DeWine’s chances of holding his seat, since he will now face a liberal Democrat with a lengthy legislative record.

In Minnesota’s 6th district, Democrats waited to see whether Patty Wetterling would run for the open U.S. House seat or for the U.S. Senate. Since she ran well against Mark Kennedy (R) in his 2004 House race, party insiders rightly figured that she had first claim on his ’06 open House seat.

After hemming and hawing for a while, Wetterling ruled out the House race. After more delay, she jumped into the Senate race. That opened the way for former state Transportation Commissioner Elwyn Tinklenberg to enter the House contest. He did, and party strategists and activists almost immediately coalesced behind his effort, giving Democrats a chance to win a Republican-leaning seat.

But then Wetterling dropped out of the Senate race and jumped into the House race. When Tinklenberg challenged Wetterling to explain why she would go back on her word, she uttered “things change, the world moves on.” How profound. That’s the kind of insight we’ve been missing in government.

Corey Day, a spokesperson, explained Wetterling’s decision by telling Roll Call, “Folks in the district came to Patty to do this, (sic) there was an overwhelming display of support for her.”

Give me a break. I’m sure some people encouraged Wetterling to run. There are more than half a million people in the district. Wetterling probably could find a few hundred loyalists to encourage her to run for the House. So what? It would have been nice if she had kept her word.

A St. Paul Pioneer Press story also quoted an EMILY’s List spokesperson as “very excited” that Wetterling had entered the race. Well, since Tinklenberg is a pro-life guy, EMILY’s List obviously prefers Wetterling. But can’t somebody finally stand up and scream that candidates should keep their word when they decide not to run and another candidate takes that as a cue to proceed?

Wetterling’s race switch enhances Democrats’ chances of holding Minnesota’s open Senate seat but damages her party’s chances of winning Kennedy’s open House seat.

Wetterling’s and Brown’s initial decisions caused others to enter races to which they otherwise would not have committed. That didn’t happen in the Michigan Senate race or in New York’s 29th district, two cases where candidate flip-flops didn’t involve questions of character or trust.

In Michigan, Republican Mike Bouchard entered the Senate race very briefly before announcing that medical issues forced him to drop out of the contest. But now Bouchard, believing that he has those issues under control, has re-entered the race, and he’s probably the favorite to win the GOP nomination.

But Bouchard’s exit from the race didn’t bring other hopefuls into the contest. Keith Butler and Jerry Zandstra were already in the race, so Bouchard’s flip-flop-flip was nothing more than a weird sequence of events.

Similarly, in New York’s 29th, Democrat David Nachbar announced a week ago that he would seek the Democratic nomination, pitting him against retired Navy officer Eric Massa, who has been running for months. But two days later, Nachbar left the race. While his flip-flop was bizarre, Nachbar had never promised Massa that he would not run.

I’m certainly not saying that politicians don’t have a right to change their minds. But in the Ohio and Minnesota cases, Brown and Wetterling showed that their promises were hollow. Is that really the way to start a bid for public office? Going back on one’s word, without even trying to clear the air first with the person harmed, isn’t a great character recommendation.