Do you consider flip-flops cynical or sincere? Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty, for instance, recently considered global warming to be a significant threat and cap-and-trade an appealing response. Now, both of them flirt with climate denialism and both oppose cap-and-trade. Is this cynical? Did they decide that winning the Republican presidential primary was more important than saying what they know to be true? Or have they convinced themselves that this change, which just happens to be a necessary precondition for winning the Republican nomination, is an authentic response to new evidence? Similarly, does Mitt Romney really believe...Klein's answer, which is probably mostly correct, is based on motivated reasoning. But while I think this is an important topic, I think I'm going to somewhat dissent from the question. That is, when it comes to politics, I think it's important to stay as far away from attributing motivation as possible. I'm going to talk about that first, and then down at the bottom (starting with "But there's a bit more") I'm going to discuss how this relates to choosing candidates.
Let me clarify...obviously, much of what analysts do revolves around figuring out the motivations of political actors, and then deducing their logical next steps from that. So, pick a classic of political science -- David Mayhew's Congress: The Electoral Connection is all based on spinning out the likely consequences of a hypothetic interest in reelection among Members of Congress. With my empirical political scientist hat on, I'm all for figuring that stuff out.
But in terms of making democracy function properly, it turns out to be important for political actors to accept the stated preferences of other political actors, regardless of why they may have arrived at those preferences. That's presumably why, by the way, that "impugning the motives" of another Member of Congress is considered offensive, and not allowed on the House and Senate floors (also: googling around, I found this).
So why is it important to leave motives out of it? Hannah Arendt argued in On Revolution that motives, unlike words and actions, are inherently internal:
However deeply heartfelt a motive may be, once it is brought out and exposed for public inspection it becomes an object of suspicion rather than insight; when the light of the public falls upon it, it appears and even shines, but, unlike deeds and words which are meant to appear, whose very existence hinges on appearance, the motives behind such deeds and words are destroyed in their essence through appearance; when they appear they become 'mere appearances' behind which again other, ulterior motives may lurk, such as hypocrisy and deceit (96).For Arendt, the problem is that
[T]he search for motives, the demand that everybody display in public his innermost motivation, since it actually demands the impossible, transforms all actors into hypocrites; the moment the display of motives begins, hypocrisy begins to poison all human relations...it is, unfortunately, in the essence of these things that every effort to make goodness manifest in public ends with the appearance of crime and criminality on the political scene. In politics, more than anywhere else, we have no possibility of distinguishing between being and appearance. In the realm of human affairs, being and appearance are indeed one and the same (98).I won't try to recreate her argument here -- go and read the whole book! -- but I'll just say that I do believe she's correct, and that's one of the reasons you won't see me overly concerned about, say, corruption among public officials. If Senator Jones says that she supports a particular weapons system, it's reasonable for us as outside observers seeking to understand her behavior to note whether or not she's received campaign contributions from contractors, or whether the factory that produces the system is found in her district, or even whether she's received flat-out bribes. For political actors, the proposal should be debated on the merits, not on motives. End of story. And not only do "bad" motives not disqualify an argument, but the search for motives is highly destructive to the political system.
In other words, one answer to Klein's question is that it really doesn't matter.
But there's a bit more to it, isn't there? For ACA supporters, it really doesn't matter -- and really shouldn't matter -- whether Mitt Romney supports repeal because he's become convinced it's a bad approach to health care or whether he supports repeal because he's trying to win the Republican nomination for president and will say whatever he needs to say to do that.
If, however, you're a Republican trying to decide which candidate to support, it certainly does matter what their true motivations are -- if, that is, those motivations predict different future actions.
So which one do you want?
For me, as a citizen, the answer is clear: I'd rather support a politician who shifts positions for electoral reasons than one who puzzles things out for himself -- as long as those politicians show a record for staying bought (the famous quote is that "An honest politician is one who, when he is bought, will stay bought" -- attributed by Wikipedia to Simon Cameron. I did not remember that). If I, as a constituent, "buy" that kind of honest politician by having her take my side on an issue in order to win my vote, and she is subsequently elected, I can probably expect her to vote that way once in office. If, on the other hand, a politician has reached my position through her own reasoning, then I'm always going to be afraid that she'll be susceptible to being swayed by the next information that she receives. Granted, there are limits to this logic; since I myself may be open to changing my mind on an issue should I receive new information, I don't want my representatives to be entirely closed off to the possibility of change. For the most part, however, for issues on which I have clear and strong views, I'd rather have a pol who is in it for himself, and shifts his views to accommodate his ambition, as long as he has a clear record of sticking to those views (or even better the views of those who elected him, which might of course change over time). When it comes right down to it, I don't trust most politicians to think for themselves. As I've said before, that's not what they're trained to do; what they're really trained to do, what they're really experts in, is representation. And when it comes down to it, I'd rather have a pol who is a first-rate representative, broadly understood, than a pol who thinks for himself about public policy.