In politics–and perhaps in life–saying “I was wrong” can be the hardest thing to do.
Paul Krugman recently considered the refusal of political actors to admit error when their predictions (generally of doom and gloom) fail to materialize.
You see, you shouldn’t care whether a candidate is someone you’d like to have a beer with. Nor should you care about politicians’ sex lives, or even their spending habits unless they involve clear corruption. No, what you should really look for, in a world that keeps throwing nasty surprises at us, is intellectual integrity: the willingness to face facts even if they’re at odds with one’s preconceptions, the willingness to admit mistakes and change course.
Of course, changing one’s position on an issue–evolving, as it were–is politically dangerous. Being labeled a “flip flopper” is often fatal to electoral success. (As Krugman notes, “gotcha” journalism is a lot easier than policy analysis.) Krugman goes through several high-profile predictions that failed to materialize without triggering much in the way of media finger pointing; the political figures who made those predictions have been allowed to pretend they never said that–or in the case of the more rigid ideologues, to insist that they were right, and the administration is “cooking the books” to hide the “real” facts.
[A]s far as I can tell no important Republican figure has admitted that none of the terrible consequences that were supposed to follow health reform — mass cancellation of existing policies, soaring premiums, job destruction — has actually happened.
The point is that we’re not just talking about being wrong on specific policy questions. We’re talking about never admitting error, and never revising one’s views. Never being able to say that you were wrong is a serious character flaw even if the consequences of that refusal to admit error fall only on a few people. But moral cowardice should be outright disqualifying in anyone seeking high office.
Krugman’s focus, of course, is on economic predictions, but intellectual integrity is, as he insists, a character issue that manifests itself in many areas of life. People who refuse to admit to their mistakes are deeply flawed; they cannot be trusted to learn from experience. An ability to learn and grow is an essential attribute for someone who seeks public power, and an important and necessary characteristic of successful, well-adjusted people generally.
The problem is, we have a political system that rewards pandering, not honesty, and it is increasingly difficult to tell whether a purported change of mind is an appropriate response to evidence inconsistent with prior expectations or a cynical effort to win the approval of a critical voting block.