by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

Can a wise man change his mind?

Apparently not if he is running for office. Nowadays, a change in thinking by a political candidate never results from the receipt of new data or information, new wisdom from experience with an issue, a better analysis of an issue or even a change in public opinion.

Nope, we all know – because the mainstream media tell us so – that any candidate who changes a position does so because of an inherent genetic disorder: the “flip-flop” gene. “Flip-floppers,” as they are known, have probably possessed this defective trait since birth, but only in the heat of a campaign can the flaw be observed.

No one wants to vote for a flip-flopper, and most of us never have. Right? We all know the best candidates are the ones who laid out their positions on all the issues a long time ago and haven’t budged an inch since. You know the type of candidates I’m talking about, the successful ones like Ralph Nader, Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich.

Just about every officeholder who has been around for a while has changed his or her view – er, I mean flip-flopped – on at least a few issues. In fact, there seems to be a direct correlation between the length of term in office and the severity of the flip-flop. Consider the Senate’s longest-serving member, Sen. Robert Bryd, who was once a member of the KKK. However, for the past decades in the Senate he has worked hard to support civil rights. Now, that is one hell of a flip-flop.

The naive person might think Sen. Bryd became more enlightened on the issue of race, or that the people he represents had changed their viewpoint and as a good representative Sen. Bryd reacted to that change. Nope, just another lousy flip-flopper.

In the presidential race, each campaign has accused the other of flip-flopping on a variety of issues. One attack of flip-flopping is countered by an attack on the other as an even bigger flip-flopper, the assumption being that voters will always cast their ballot for the lesser of two flip-floppers.

Of course, covering the flip-flop issue provides another great way for the media to handicap the presidential horse race without having to deal with all the nasty details of the issues at hand. It is a lot easier to say that McCain or Obama has “flip-flopped” on campaign finance than to take 20 minutes to explain the convoluted and twisted system of campaign finance laws with which candidates have to cope. That would take way too much work, and with a 24-hour news cycle to fill with copy, you can’t waste time doing detailed reporting. Not to mention that fact that hyping the flip-flop battle is guaranteed to get ratings, whereas explaining campaign-finance laws just doesn’t sound that sexy.

Which, oddly enough, brings us to the antidote for the flip-flop defect: a well-informed electorate. An electorate that understands and thinks critically about the issues and understand why a change in policy might be a great idea – and not a sign of weakness – can cure the flip-flop disease forever. Because such an electorate knows a candidate’s current position on an issue – the position he is running on and will promise to carry out when elected – is much more important than any past stand.

Unfortunately, the delivery mechanism for this antidote – the mainstream media – is severely dysfunctional and perhaps unwilling to give us the shot we need. After all, the side effects could be severe.

A well-informed electorate might start asking questions about why our government provides so much to large corporations and their wealthy owners and asks for so little in return. A well-informed electorate might even start asking why the giant media corporations have been allowed to circumvent media ownership laws and create media monopolies to dominate print, radio and television broadcasting in certain lucrative markets. Or why after wave upon wave of telecommunications deregulation, the United States is falling behind other nations in broadband access, including some with highly regulated telecommunications markets. These aren’t the types of questions you want to see brought up if you are an anchor or reporter whose paycheck is signed by Rupert Murdoch or the president of General Electric.

So, for now, it looks like the great flip-flop epidemic of 2008 will continue to run rampant through our political system.