Why There Is Nothing Wrong With Going “Wobbly.”

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
July 6 2012 3:20 PM

In Defense of “Wobbly”

John Roberts’ critics say he went “wobbly” on health care. Good for him.

(Continued from Page 1)

We tend to assume that every time a public official changes his mind, it’s because he never really believed his original talking points. Either that or his earlier views hold firm, but he has opted to play-act for political advantage. (Romney has criticized Roberts’ decision. One would think that, if anyone had sympathy for a public official who changed his mind, it would be the erstwhile architect of Massachusetts’ health care mandate.) Take the reaction to President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage. Many pundits found it almost impossible to imagine that POTUS’ stance had truly, organically evolved over the years—even if those years were notable for bringing homosexuality more into the mainstream. 

This distrust of ideological adaptiveness wasn’t always the norm. In fact, a healthy appreciation for mental flexibility dates back to the fifth century B.C., when the historian Thucydides, setting down a funeral oration by Athenian statesman Pericles, wrote that the city-state profited from its citizens’ ability to adjust their ideas to the times. “I say that Athens is the school of Hellas, and that the individual Athenian in his own person seems to have the power of adapting himself to the most varied forms of action with the utmost versatility and grace,” Thucydides reports that Pericles claimed. Rather than iron-clad convictions, Athenians cultivated open minds.

And successful politicians have often switched paths mid-career. The young Ronald Reagan identified as a liberal Democrat, not to mention a Hollywood heartthrob. Tony Blair went through a Tory phase before landing solidly in the Labour camp. Sens. Arlen Specter and Joe Lieberman strayed from the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively, to pursue more individualized platforms.

Advertisement

Meanwhile, in 2012, “wobbly” is the new meme that’s emerged to indict Roberts for thinking one thing and then, a little later and upon more reflection, thinking another. The chief justice has wandered into the territory of the American political bogeyman—that spineless (often effete or out-of-touch) flibbertigibbet who doesn’t stand for anything. (It’s no coincidence that, faced with the prospect of flip-flopper Kerry in 2004, the country re-elected a man known for “staying the course.”)

One problem is that wobbly, which suggests “small uncontrollable bodily movements,” banishes the possibility that changing one’s mind can be moral, tactical—even noble. It implies some sort of built-in deficiency that prevents one from standing up straight. But I prefer to think of the wobbling of a compass needle just before it locks into the right position. It would be a shame if the flip-flopping bugbear loomed so large over American politics that our public officials didn’t feel safe revising their old opinions into even better ones.          

Because, if Roberts did change his mind, so what? Why shouldn’t he be open to persuasion? Why shouldn’t a Supreme Court justice consider an issue from all 360 degrees, confident in his life tenure and his unaccountability to the world outside the courtroom? As foolish as it is to encourage judges to hide from potentially convincing arguments in the papers, on the news, in the mouths of friends or foes, it’s even more insulting to imply that they can’t withstand the gales of public opinion. “Give [Roberts] some credit for knowing his own mind,” chided McGough in May. And, as may be the case, for changing it.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

The Democrats’ War at Home

How can the president’s party defend itself from the president’s foreign policy blunders?

Congress’ Public Shaming of the Secret Service Was Political Grandstanding at Its Best

Michigan’s Tradition of Football “Toughness” Needs to Go—Starting With Coach Hoke

A Plentiful, Renewable Resource That America Keeps Overlooking

Animal manure.

Windows 8 Was So Bad That Microsoft Will Skip Straight to Windows 10

Politics

Cringing. Ducking. Mumbling.

How GOP candidates react whenever someone brings up reproductive rights or gay marriage.

Building a Better Workplace

You Deserve a Pre-cation

The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.

Hasbro Is Cracking Down on Scrabble Players Who Turn Its Official Word List Into Popular Apps

The Ludicrous Claims You’ll Hear at This Company’s “Egg Freezing Parties”

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 30 2014 9:33 PM Political Theater With a Purpose Darrell Issa’s public shaming of the head of the Secret Service was congressional grandstanding at its best.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM Going Private To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 1 2014 10:49 AM James Meredith, Determined to Enroll at Ole Miss, Declares His Purpose in a 1961 Letter
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 10:54 AM “I Need a Pair of Pants That Won’t Bore Me to Death” Troy Patterson talks about looking sharp, flat-top fades, and being Slate’s Gentleman Scholar.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 10:44 AM Everyone’s Favorite Bob’s Burgers Character Gets a Remix You Can Dance to
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 10:27 AM 3,000 French Scientists Are Marching to Demand More Research Funding
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 1 2014 7:30 AM Say Hello to Our Quasi-Moon, 2014 OL339
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 30 2014 5:54 PM Goodbye, Tough Guy It’s time for Michigan to fire its toughness-obsessed coach, Brady Hoke.