Now that Newt Gingrich is the Republican front-runner (I know, it still sounds like a joke, but it's true), people are starting to pay attention to the fact that if you go through his public statements, you'll find as many changes of position as you will for any other candidate, including Mitt Romney. Some of these are in-the-moment howlers, like the time he assailed President Obama for not imposing a no-fly zone on Libya, then when Obama did just that a few days later, Gingrich assailed him for doing it. Others are position changes familiar to other candidates, like acknowledging and then denying climate change, and supporting and then opposing an individual mandate in health insurance.
So do Gingrich and Romney share the same character flaw of unbridled opportunism that causes these changes? The answer is no. In fact, even though they share some of the same flips, the way they happened illuminates something essential about who each man is and how they make decisions. Mitt Romney flip-flops carefully, after a period of calculation in which he determines the most appropriate strategic positioning required to achieve his short- and long-term goals. Newt Gingrich flip-flops impulsively, taking positions that sound good at a particular moment without any apparent regard for the past or the future.
Take Romney's abortion position. Before he ran for office, in his role as a bishop in the Mormon church, he worked hard to prevent women under his authority from getting abortions. But when he ran for Senate and then governor of Massachusetts, he proclaimed himself a strong advocate of abortion rights. But then when he ran for president, he proclaimed himself a strong opponent of abortion rights. This is probably familiar to you. Each of these changes made perfect political sense; indeed, had he been pro-life, he would have had zero chance of getting elected in Massachusetts, and had he remained pro-choice, he'd have zero chance of competing for the GOP nomination for president.
Whenever Romney is asked to explain a flip-flop, he always has an answer, and it's the same one he'll give if he gets asked about it tomorrow or next month. It may not be entirely convincing, but you can tell he thought about it, worked through it with his advisors, and is offering the best explanation they could come up with. The explanations are crafted so that they account for whatever he has said in the past and what he intends to say in the future.
Gingrich, on the other hand, has flip-flops that swing wildly from one extreme to another. His natural rhetorical style is one of extremity, in which good things are "profound," "transformative," and "fundamental," while bad things are not just bad but horrific, the worst things that have ever happened. That means that when he embraces a position, it's the greatest thing ever, and when he rejects a position, it's the worst thing ever, even if what today is the worst thing ever was the greatest thing ever yesterday. Consequently, Newt finds himself saying things like, "Any ad which quotes what I said on Sunday is a falsehood." When questioned about a flip-flop, he's clever enough to find a vaguely reasonable-sounding answer — made more convincing by the fact that he says everything with the same emphatic certainty — but he'll probably give a completely different answer if you ask him tomorrow.
When Republicans worry that Gingrich is "undisciplined," they aren't just referring to the way he'll take off for a cruise to Greece in the middle of a campaign. It's this shooting-off-in-all-directions approach where everything seems improvisational, grand visions of his history-defining personality completely untethered to anything that resembles a concrete plan to get from here to there, whether it's in policy or in politics.
So that's where the flip-flops differ: Romney's are cautious and calculated, while Gingrich's are impulsive and erratic. You can decide which you find more unsettling.