[Mb-civic] Who is the Flip Flopper?
michael at michaelbutler.com
Thu Sep 23 21:56:13 PDT 2004
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Despite Bush Flip-Flops, Kerry Gets Label
By John F. Harris
The Washington Post
Thursday 23 September 2004
One of this year's candidates for president, to hear his opposition tell
it, has a long history of policy reversals and rhetorical about-faces -- a
zigzag trail that proves his willingness to massage positions and even
switch sides when politically convenient.
The flip-flopper, Democrats say, is President Bush. Over the past four
years, he abandoned positions on issues such as how to regulate air
pollution or whether states should be allowed to sanction same-sex marriage.
He changed his mind about the merits of creating the Homeland Security
Department, and made a major exception to his stance on free trade by
agreeing to tariffs on steel. After resisting, the president yielded to
pressure in supporting an independent commission to study policy failures
preceding the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Bush did the same with questions
about whether he would allow his national security adviser to testify, or
whether he would answer commissioners' questions for only an hour, or for as
long they needed.
Democrats working for John F. Kerry cite these twists and turns with glee
-- but even more frustration. Polls have shown overwhelmingly that Kerry --
with his long trail of confusing and sometimes contradictory statements,
especially on Iraq -- is this year's flip-flopper in the public mind, a
criticism that continued to echo across the campaign trail yesterday.
Once such a popular perception becomes fixed, public opinion experts and
strategists say, virtually every episode in the campaign is viewed through
that prism, while facts that do not fit with existing assumptions -- such as
Bush's history of policy shifts -- do not have much impact in the political
Why these impressions became so firmly fixed in the first place is a
source of debate. Bush strategists say the popular perception is true. The
president's principles on such issues as low taxes and confronting overseas
threats are not in doubt, no matter some occasional tactical shifts, they
say, while Kerry's maneuvering on Iraq and other issues raises questions
about whether he can stand steady for core beliefs.
Kerry defenders say the flip-flop charge has resonated through purposeful
repetition by the Bush campaign, which began striking the theme in ads in
the spring and has never let go. In the latest Bush campaign spot, released
yesterday, Kerry is shown windsurfing as the ad, scored with Johann Strauss
Jr.'s "Blue Danube" waltz, says the Democrat shifts positions on Iraq,
health care and education "whichever way the wind blows."
As Democrats see it, the flip-flopper allegation is this year's equivalent
of how the GOP four years ago portrayed Al Gore as a chronic
truth-stretcher, and now, as then, blame the news media for accepting and
promoting a caricature.
For a while this summer, Kerry's team tried to answer Bush's charge that
Kerry is equivocating and inconstant by alleging that Bush is just as much
or more so. But lately the campaign has laid off this line of argument after
concluding it was ineffective against an opponent who surveys show is seen
by a majority of voters as decisive, even to the point of stubbornness.
"When it comes to shifting positions, he can shift with the best," Kerry
spokesman Joe Lockhart said of Bush. "We are prosecuting a different case.
We are not arguing that he's a flip-flopper -- he is -- but that the policy
choices he has taken have failed miserably."
Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, said voters'
perceptions are too settled at this point to allow easily for alternate
arguments. Once the public concludes that a politician is strong in general,
he or she has more freedom to be flexible on certain delicate particulars,
Kohut said, adding that in the case of this year's nominees, "Bush can get
away with a little more, and Kerry can get away with a little less."
Stuart Stevens, one of Bush's media advisers, argued that the public's
judgments are fair. Voters do not believe that Bush has never changed his
mind, or penalize Kerry for every change of position, he said, but over time
have reached conclusions about both men's priorities and leadership styles.
"I think all these issues resonate with any candidate if they strike
people as part of a pattern and reasonable and true," Stevens said. "The
president is someone who has a core set of beliefs and values that are
guiding him as he tries to make decisions.
"I don't think he hesitates to change an approach if he feels it's not
working, but I don't think people sense remotely that he's doing it [based
on] a political compass," he added.
The record, however, suggests a fair degree of political calculation has
gone into some of Bush's about-faces. During his first term, the paramount
goals -- such as cutting taxes or pursuing a confrontation with Saddam
Hussein -- have been fixed. But this has allowed room for tactical
maneuvering on other questions.
In 2000, Bush said he would include carbon dioxide on a list of air
pollutants requiring federal oversight, a stand he abandoned within weeks of
taking office. A month after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush's spokesman said the
president believed a homeland security department that Democrats proposed
was "just not necessary." A year after that, Bush had switched course and
was lashing some Democrats for not moving quickly enough to approve the
While Bush professes himself a strong free-trader, most other free-trade
proponents said he bent on principle in March 2002 when he ordered tariffs
on imported steel -- a move that resonated politically in electorally
important industrial states such as Pennsylvania. Facing an escalating
global trade dispute, he lifted the tariffs at the end of last year.
In some cases, Democrats say, Bush's position stays the same even as his
reasons flip. The most famous examples involve taxes and Iraq. He supported
tax cuts in 2000 because he said they were affordable in a time of large
government surpluses, and once in power he supported them amid rising
deficits because he said the economy needed stimulation. The president's
principal rationale for the Iraq invasion was to end Baghdad's suspected
mass-weapons program and links to international terrorism. In the absence of
compelling evidence of these, the main post-invasion rationale has been to
rescue Iraq from a tyrant and support democracy in the greater Middle East.
Iraq, however, has been the source of the most damaging charges of
equivocation and wind-shifting against Kerry. The Massachusetts senator
voted for the Iraq war in October 2002, but a year later voted against
Bush's request for $87 billion for military and reconstruction spending in
Iraq and Afghanistan. The latter vote came when former Vermont governor
Howard Dean's antiwar candidacy was ascendant. The vote may have been wise
politics at the time, but came with a high price -- lending an aura of
plausibility to the subsequent charges by Bush that Kerry is motivated by
Kerry's statements have compounded the damage. In September 2003, he said
at a Democratic debate, "We should not send more American troops" to Iraq.
"That would be the worst thing." In April, he said on NBC's "Meet the Press"
that "if it requires more troops . . . that's what you have to do." In
August, he told ABC's "This Week" that if elected, "I will have significant,
enormous reduction in the level of troops." This week, he said that, as
president, he would not have launched an invasion if he had known that there
was not clear evidence of weapons of mass destruction or ties to al Qaeda,
though last month he said, knowing these things, he still would have voted
to give Bush congressional authority to wage the Iraq war.
Polls make clear the extent to which Bush's flip-flop charge has stuck. A
poll released last week by Kohut's Pew Center showed that 53 percent of
voters believe Kerry "changes his mind too much." This was down a few
percentage points from a poll the week earlier, apparently showing that the
effects of the Republican National Convention -- in which delegates swayed
in unison chanting "flip-flop, flip-flop" about Kerry -- are wearing off.
Even so, the latest data show that 62 percent said the attribute "takes a
stand" applies more to Bush than to Kerry, while 29 percent said the
opposite. Bush won by 57 percent to 34 percent on which candidate more
deserves the phrase "strong leader."
Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) blames the news media for such perceptions.
"Journalists decide a type, and then write to type," he said. "Gore as the
'exaggerator.' John Kerry has not done anything that George Bush has not
done in spades, but you guys all decide he's 'resolute.' "
Stevens, who has been studying Kerry since advising then-Massachusetts
Gov. William H. Weld (R) in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat the senator in
1996, said Kerry's very manner exacerbates the flip-flop impression: "He
says these things with great condescension, [suggesting]: 'If only you were
as smart as I and understand this that these issues are too complicated to
have a consistent position.' . . . People have a good internal detector of
the difference between nuance and confusion and opportunism."
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