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Campaign ’04: The War Of The Flip Flops

13 minute read
Nancy Gibbs

Consistency is one of those qualities that act like a virtue without necessarily being one. While we would like our Presidents to be consistently wise, it is the wisdom we are really after. But consistency and its cousin certainty still hold a sacred place in our politics. The charge that a candidate has flip-flopped on some position is not a political attack so much as a personal one. It is less about the issues being debated than about the instincts being revealed, about honor and honesty and nerve under fire. How tight the label sticks depends a lot on the impression voters have already formed, which means that a less well-known candidate can be vulnerable in ways a familiar one may not be.

No mission has been more urgent for the Bush-Cheney operation than to seize this moment, in the springtime of the campaign, when all impressions about the challenger are new, to convince voters that John Kerry is an opportunist tethered to no core beliefs, a serial side switcher on everything from the war to gas taxes to gay marriage. “Indecision kills,” says Vice President Dick Cheney in his stump speech, with characteristic subtlety. “These are not times for leaders who shift with the political winds, saying one thing one day and another thing the next.” The President himself has leveled the charge, though more lightly than Cheney does, more mocking than warning. “My opponent clearly has strong beliefs,” George Bush says of Kerry. “They just don’t last very long.”

In fact, the very week that President Bush executed a spectacular backflip with a twist, agreeing after weeks of refusal to let National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice testify publicly and under oath before the 9/11 commission, the polls suggested that his strategy of painting Kerry as a waffler was working, especially in battleground states, where Kerry’s 28% advantage over Bush coming out of the primaries has all but disappeared. While the race remains very tight in most polls, some showed Kerry’s unfavorable ratings climbing 10 points in the weeks since he secured the nomination. In a Los Angeles Times poll that asked who was the stronger leader, 46% picked Bush; 38% chose Kerry.

How can a line of fire that is bruising Kerry seem to bounce off Bush? As Kerry’s defenders are quick to note, the President had a fairly acrobatic record even before the Condi flip, doubling back on everything from his “humble” foreign policy to steel tariffs, opposing the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance bill and then signing it, calling gay marriage a state issue and then backing a federal ban on it. In fact, the Times poll found, roughly equal numbers of voters see Bush and Kerry as flip-floppers (35% and 38%, respectively). But what matters is not the perception so much as the damage it does. Asked by a recent Gallup poll who is more likely to change his positions on issues for political reasons, 49% said Kerry, and 37% said Bush.

Now, after two quiet weeks of vacation followed by shoulder surgery, Kerry returns full force to the campaign trail with his own urgent mission: to define himself in some positive way and at the same time turn Bush’s attacks against him. And so begin the Waffle Wars. “The President’s decision to finally allow Condoleezza Rice to testify in public and under oath is the mother of all flip-flops,” says Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter. “What’s worse, for each important decision regarding the security of the American people at home over the past three years, the President has taken two positions–one based on stubborn ideology and one based on political expedience.”

If Bush has managed to drive up Kerry’s negative ratings, it is in part a measure of his firepower. Camp Kerry is celebrating its record-breaking first-quarter haul of more than $50 million–half of it raised, Howard Dean–style, from small donors online. Kerry will need every penny when facing an opponent who in March alone spent more than $40 million on advertising, much of it attacking Kerry at just the moment when he was largely out of sight, out of action, ripe for defining. Bush’s first attack ad, run on the Web, was titled “Unprincipled.” The Republican National Committee website claims to have had more than 1 million hits as of last week on its online Kerry-vs.-Kerry cartoon, which features the voice of boxing impresario Don King narrating a match between two John Kerrys fighting over sanctions on Cuba, the marriage penalty, the war in Iraq and 32 other topics.

If voters seem more inclined to hold Kerry’s somersaults against him, it may be because they don’t know enough about the Massachusetts Senator to put the charges in context. Any Senator with a 19-year record has cast thousands of votes that can be mined for contradiction. But presidential candidates live on a different planet than lawmakers, who can revise and amend their remarks at will. Thus candidate Kerry denounces greedy companies caught in financial scandals, though Senator Kerry voted to protect them from liability. Candidate Kerry slams Bush for the way he has carried out the No Child Left Behind Act, which Senator Kerry voted for. You have to know how the Senate works to begin to fathom Kerry’s now notorious statement defending his stance on appropriations for reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan: “I voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it.” That is shorthand for saying he voted in favor of a bill that would have rolled back some of Bush’s tax cuts to help cover the rebuilding costs; when that version failed, he voted against the bill that excluded the tax provision.

By what overall logic or principles, Kerry’s opponents ask, can he explain a 1991 vote against the first Gulf War, a 2002 vote for the second and a 2003 vote against the money to pay for it? Only the logic of political opportunism, they answer. A certain amount of meandering may be part of any Senator’s voting record, but Kerry also takes a walkabout in his own sentences. As voters get to know him better, they may see in his life, his choices and his principles a more complicated picture than Bush presents and one that the Republicans are sure to caricature. Kerry is a hunter who favors gun control, a Vietnam War hero who came home to protest the war, a former prosecutor who opposes the death penalty except in terrorism cases. His record is, as they say, a target-rich environment.

Bush, meanwhile, has made a fetish of constancy. He brags that he never revisits a decision or reads a poll. Intellectuals change their minds, he says; leaders know where they are going and act. “Steady leadership in times of change” is his campaign slogan, as though the steadiness is what matters, regardless of the direction in which he is leading. Voters have by now had plenty of opportunity to take the measure of his convictions, whether it’s his immovable commitment to cut taxes or his resolve to take out Saddam Hussein. That has given the President a weird advantage when he decides to change course, as he has on occasion throughout his tenure. There is no attempt to explain his turnabouts, no ruminations on the meaning of is. Bush does not utter the phrase, “What I meant to say was …” The sheer size of his reversals makes them, by some political alchemy, seem like acts of principle by a fearless Executive unafraid of bold actions, including bold retreats.

The clearest example came in the months after 9/11, when Bush resisted Democratic calls to reorganize the government to better coordinate domestic-security efforts. The last thing a conservative Republican wanted to do was create the biggest new federal bureaucracy in 50 years. But pressure grew to the point that even Republicans were abandoning him. When Bush finally did reverse course–on the day FBI agent Coleen Rowley went public about the 9/11 clues that had fallen through the cracks–he went on the air in a national address and insisted that a new Homeland Security Department was needed. And in the months that followed, he even helped Republicans ride the issue to victory in the 2002 midterm elections.

It helps Bush that when he backslides, he is typically shifting to a popular position from an unpopular one. He not only opposed Rice’s testifying publicly before the 9/11 commission, on the ground of Executive privilege, but had opposed creation of the com-mission until the pressure from, among others, the victims’ families became too hot. Yet any political damage, argues a senior Administration official, is “totally overwhelmed by the fact of her testifying.” Bush is allowing another commission to investigate prewar intelligence on Iraq, which he had also opposed; wooing the U.N., which he had derided; and signed the Sarbanes-Oxley corporate-reform bill, which he had resisted. In each case he ended up where a majority of the public sits.

Kerry reverses himself more subtly, over time and often with an intricate explanation, none of which can fit in a 30-sec. ad. A wise politician matures, Kerry allies argue. Back in 1988 the Senator opposed requiring a few hours of work by welfare mothers, then in 1996 voted for a Clinton reform bill that required more hours of work. That evolution, Kerry supporters say, just shows how he had come to appreciate the role of work requirements in combatting the culture of poverty. Kerry often claims that circumstances have changed between any given flip and flop. His equivocations often come over issues about which voters too have fairly textured feelingsabout gay marriage, for instance, or whether the security afforded by the Patriot Act is worth its cost in civil liberties or how to protect jobs in an economy that depends on globalization. Is the security fence that Israel is building in the West Bank a legitimate means of self-defense or a barrier to peace and reconciliation with the Palestinians? There is no consensus in the U.S. public, and Kerry has taken both positions. The problem is that he argued one way in front of Arab Americans in October and the opposite way when he met with Jewish leaders last month.

“What hurts him are his own statements and the way he does this,” says Bush campaign senior strategist Matthew Dowd. Whatever preconception voters may have about Kerry, he says, “is made much worse by what [Kerry does] than by anything we do about it.” Dowd savors a comparison between Kerry and the Democratic nominee who preceded him. “What hurt Gore was this idea that he was political and he would weigh things and do them for political reasons,” Dowd says. However politically motivated Bush’s own U-turns may have been, his advisers are confident that the President is inoculated. “People are never going to believe that Bush is a flip-flopper,” says Dowd. “Some may not agree with his policies, but they think he says what he means and does it.”

Some Democrats disagree and have been threatening a counterattack. There are plenty of websites allied with the Democrats that lay out Bush’s wandering record and rhetoric on matters small and very large. “The entire Bush record is one big flip-flop,” says Bruce Reed, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and an occasional adviser to the Kerry campaign. “He hasn’t changed the tone in Washington; he’s made it worse. He’s been an ardent conservative, not a compassionate one. He hasn’t been a reformer and hasn’t delivered results.” One soft spot exploited by Bush critics is that the President who promised fiscal discipline has added more than $1 trillion to the national debt.

Kerry’s response to Bush is not so much that Bush shifts as that he lies, though Kerry won’t say it quite that way. He calls this “the biggest say-one-thing-do-another Administration” ever, and points to the fine print of Bush’s budgets to make his case. One ad, now being previewed on Kerry’s website but likely to hit airwaves soon, is called “Keep Our Word” and contrasts video of Bush’s pledges with details about his actions during his Administration. It features Bush vowing that “my economic-security plan can be summed up in one word–jobs,” and the screen flashes the words “2.9 million jobs lost.” Bush is shown promising to “make health care affordable and available,” and the screen flashes, “3.8 million more Americans lost health insurance.” “On issue after issue,” Kerry said in a speech in Nevada, “George W. Bush keeps saying one thing to the people, and then doing another big favor for the special interests.”

The new Kerry ad aims to use Bush’s claim to be a straight talker against him. But because a majority of voters still say they believe Bush is basically honest, Kerry’s other play on the consistency front is to make his own faults a virtue, and Bush’s virtues a fault. Kerry’s allies talk about the sophistication of his thinking, all but drawing the contrast to a President they believe fixes on an idea and will not move off it even when the world around him transforms. “He stubbornly insists on tax cuts as he steadily loses jobs in this country,” Kerry says on the stump. “He stubbornly refuses to allow the importation of drugs from Canada, while steadily the prices are going up. I think his stubborn leadership has led America steadily in the wrong direction,” he says, winding up. “And that’s why we’re going to vote for change in November.”

But, as the slippage of the past few weeks has shown, Kerry faces the added burden of defining himself for voters even as he tries to adjust their view of a President they have had three years to get to know. That’s why we can expect to see a return of the ads that show Kerry in camouflage, that use his Vietnam experience to signal that he’s a guy with the guts to make life-and-death decisions under fire. Beyond biography, the Kerry campaign hopes to use some high-fiber policy speeches–one a week from now through May–to tell voters about his values as much as his positions. That was the idea behind his recent speeches on energy and corporate taxes. If Kerry can seize the voters’ imagination in this way, says a strategist, everything the Republicans want to make of his various statements on the campaign trail and the hiccups in his voting record won’t matter. “People will know where he’s coming from,” says an adviser, “and those charges won’t stick.”

As the war of the flip-flops drags on, voters can run a consistency check of their own. Kerry’s team will blast Bush for reversing himself on steel tariffs and then charge that he is too stubborn to change. The Bush machine will paint Kerry as an unreconstructed Massachusetts liberal, and then if he claims to be a centrist by citing his past statements challenging affirmative action and teacher tenure and promoting free trade, he’ll be back in the Waffle House. But maybe voters won’t care much. The only perfectly consistent man, Aldous Huxley mordantly noted, is a dead one, and we’ve yet to elect one of those. –Reported by Matthew Cooper, John F. Dickerson and Karen Tumulty/Washington

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