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Why Obama’s Flip-Flops Matter

And McCain's Really Don't

Obama to the left

If you looked at Barack Obama’s record, public statements and campaign platform as of any time before June 3, 2008 (the last day of the Democratic primaries), you could detect a trend: on issue after issue after issue, there was a conservative position, a moderate position, a liberal position…and then there was an Obama position.

Other liberals opposed the Iraq War; Obama called for complete withdrawal by March 2008. Other liberals opposed confrontation with Iran; Obama pledged to meet its leader unconditionally. Other liberals supported abortion on demand or even partial-birth abortion; Obama went beyond that to oppose any legal protection for a child born alive after a failed abortion. Other liberals supported amnesty to give illegal immigrants citizenship and “bring them out of the shadows”; Obama championed giving drivers licenses to illegal aliens even as they continued to live outside the law. Other liberals were concerned about surveillance outside of the FISA framework; Obama pledged to filibuster even a bill that brought surveillance into that framework unless it allowed civil lawsuits against phone companies that had complied with prior government requests. Other liberals voted against Justice Alito; Obama voted against Chief Justice Roberts, too, and for that matter voted to filibuster to prevent a vote on Alito. Other liberals courted liberal interest groups; Obama sought the nomination of a Marxist third party. Other liberals championed a “nuclear freeze” during the arms race of the early 1980s; Obama called for eliminating nuclear weapons and “slow[ing] our development of future combat systems” during a period of American nuclear and military predominance.

On issue after issue after issue – taxes, guns, energy, you name it – Obama not only stood outside the national political mainstream, but on the far left edge even of his own party, which is how he earned the National Journal’s “most liberal Senator” rating for 2007 despite the presence of a self-described Socialist in his caucus.

Indeed, he was the candidate who promised Democrats that he would eschew Clintonian triangulation to lead “not by polls, but by principle; not by calculation, but by conviction” – to run as the same arch-liberal he has been throughout his (admittedly brief) political career. Republicans, having enjoyed great success in presidential contests against openly liberal candidates between 1968 and 1988, salivated at the prospect.

Obama to the right

Once he won the Democratic nomination, though, Obama started moving so quickly to re-brand himself as a ‘centrist’ that you’d be forgiven getting whiplash watching him move. Suddenly, he was siding with the Supreme Court’s conservatives supporting the death penalty for child rapists and opposing the DC gun ban, and opposing an abortion bill he himself co-sponsors. Suddenly, he didn’t think it worth drawing a “line[] that cannot be crossed” on FISA. Suddenly, he was fudging on Iraq, muddying the waters on his position and newly willing to meet with our commander on the ground. And now, under fire from John McCain and the GOP, he’s been sending signals, however tepid, about buckling on his opposition to domestic oil drilling. (Other examples of Obama’s shifts here (trade), here (affirmative action), here (campaign finance pledge), and here (faith-based initiatives, Israel, education and Social Security taxes), and here (oil reserves).) His own supporters have ranged from bewildered to in denial to enraged to laying out lists of things he must not concede (H/T). Meanwhile, in some cases the McCain camp is simply refusing to accept that Obama has abandoned his former position, preferring to run against the less ambiguous left-winger.

Should Obama’s sudden and jarring shifts on such a broad menu of issues in the span of two months concern voters about what kind of man this is, and what he really believes in and stands for? Should he face the same sort of skepticism about his principles that eventually overwhelmed Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign? I say yes, and for essentially the same reasons.

I. The Mystery of Political Conviction

Here’s the thing: it can be frustratingly difficult to figure out what a politician, any politician, really believes on a given issue. It’s easy enough to say you are for a particular position, if it happens to be popular with your constituents or your party at a particular moment in time. For this reason, almost any significant political figure generates a cottage industry of pundits and would-be biographers trying to explain what it is he or she really believes. And to some extent, that ambiguity can be an asset, allowing supporters to project on the leader their own thought processes, and assume that the leader, when he disagrees, will come around in time to their way of thinking. But it can also present risks: voters who have been burned many times before may simply not believe a candidate’s words. They will say, instead: show me. Prove it.

1. Why We Care if They Keep Their Word

As I have argued before in contrasting Howard Dean to the allergic-to-principled-stands John Kerry, politicians can win over voters by taking and holding principled positions over a period of time – and they can make that approach work for them whether they actually believe in those positions or not, so long as they show the voters that they mean what they say and carry it through:

[W]hat matters more than anything is not a politician’s fealty to his own internal principles but his ability to take a principled position and stick to it, whether he believes in it or not. Regardless of [their] sincerity, Howard Dean’s positions on Iraq and on the Bush tax cuts were principled positions: he made sure everyone knew precisely where he stood, he made all the arguments for those positions as forcefully as he could, and he left himself no wiggle room to back away if those positions were rejected by the voters or if (as happened with the capture of Saddam) his principled position was discredited by subsequent events. What we look for in leaders, especially presidents, is that ability: the willingness to say, “here I stand,” let the voters judge the merits of that stand, and keep faith with your promises, even when the going gets rough.

That said, as I wrote back in my series on Romney, politicians can usually get away with some flip-flopping as long as they recognize its limitations:

[A]ll politicians flip-flop, hedge and straddle from time to time. Indeed, in a representative democracy, this is arguably a good thing. Let’s consider an obvious point: what if a candidate for public office is exceptionally well-qualified for the job and has positions you agree with on a number of important matters, but disagrees on a point that is relatively small, yet important to you personally? Would you rather the politician change his position? Is that better than rejecting a good candidate over one minor issue, or alternatively electing someone who takes a stance that troubles you? For most of us, if we are honest, the answer is yes; we want to be represented by people who will do what we want them to do. Voters like flip-flops; they reward flip-flops, especially when a candidate is moving from a local to statewide, or statewide to national electorates….

+++

Put simply: flip-flops buy votes, but do so at an escalating cost to a politician’s credibility. First, they erode a candidate’s reputation as a leader; then, in time, they come to cast doubt even on the candidate’s announced positions, creating fear that he will hold them only until a better offer comes along. Voters may not mind if you sold somebody else out to get their vote, but they will not vote for you if they expect you to sell them out as soon as he comes under fire. …

Thus, while voters are tolerant of some flip-flops, the first problem with flip-flopping is that it creates doubt in the voters about a candidate’s current promises because it undermines the sense that the voter can rely on what the candidate says today as a guide to what he will do tomorrow. As I discussed in the Romney and Kerry examples, this is a particular concern if the candidate can’t identify a set of “core” issues that justify trimming around the margins, but it’s also a problem if the flip-flops come too fast and furious in too short a time period and without a plausible justification beyond mere political expediency.

2. Why We Care If They Are Men of Conviction

The larger hazard of flip-flopping for some presidential candidates, though, goes beyond just issues of truth-in-advertising with regard to their policy proposals. A very large part of the president’s job – arguably the most important part – is the president’s ability to deal with unforeseen crises and challenges, especially in his role as Commander-in-Chief. Presidents must be ready for the full spectrum of crises a nation can face – wars and terrorist attacks, hostage taking and blackmail, man-made and natural disasters, epidemics and financial crises. There is no way to predict with certainty how any man or woman will bear up under these stresses, but voters traditionally look to a candidate’s record and biography for clues as to what they are made of. There are many personality traits we look for, but among the most important are constancy (the ability to stay the same under stress and over time), persistence, determination, resiliency, commitment…and a candidate whose positions seem to change with the wind, who panics at the slightest squall, will give voters good reason to believe that he will lack those virtues when faced with sterner forms of adversity. It’s the question that comes to mind again and again over the course of a presidential campaign, and which makes it fundamentally different from a legislative race: what are you made of?

II. Barack Obama and His Principles

A. The Words Are The Last To Go

Obama could go either waySo, in demonstrating to voters that he means what he says on the issues, and that he possesses the necessary character traits to be a strong and dependable Commander-in-Chief, what does Obama have to run on? As I have detailed before at length, Obama is almost totally lacking in the kinds of experience we look for in presidents – no executive experience, no national security/foreign policy experience, no military service record, no private sector business experience, and his political experience is limited to a single unfinished Senate term (which he essentially won by default) and 8 years representing a tiny, insular, idiosyncratic one-party state Senate district, mainly as a backbench member of the minority party. He simply hasn’t been road tested at all. Even his record as a State Senator is shockingly sparse, as he apparently destroyed his office’s records from those years, and few of his public statements are available (his life before entering politics in 1996 is similarly riddled with gaps and silences as to which we have little but Obama’s own memoirs to go on).

Obama’s partisans have spoken of his “judgment” as a substitute for experience. Of course, voters may have a harder time identifying examples of that judgment on so slim a record. It’s not his judgment in choosing his close friends and political associates – he bought his family’s home with the financial aid of a man now convicted of felony political corruption, he chose his faith, baptized his daughters and chose the name of his book under the tutelage of a man who preached racial resentment and peddled vicious conspiracy theories; he launched his political career with a fundraiser at the home of unrepentant terrorists. Nor is it his judgment in choosing his subordinates, as we’ve had almost too many examples to count of Obama sacking or distancing himself from aides over a variety of transgressions. Nor can it be his judgment on those very few occasions when he’s committed himself on national security issues, not after he staked his credibility on a policy diametrically opposed to the successful “surge” in Iraq, a blunder so egregious Obama has since scrubbed his website of evidence of his prior position.

In other words, Obama has nothing of substance to run on but his principles. Voters will judge him – have no choice but to judge him – by what he says he stands for. Every claim Obama can plausibly make for himself comes down to this: he says good things, and will do what he says. Indeed, the entire advantage that less-experienced candidates have in any race is less baggage – fewer shifts and changes over time. But Obama’s battery of flip-flops is undermining even this one, last remaining justification for seeing him as a man anybody can depend on in the White House. Obama and his partisans contend that he doesn’t need the kind of experience every other president has brought to the White House, doesn’t need the base of knowledge amassed by guys like McCain who have been doing this sort of thing for decades, because he already knows better. But how can he keep up the pretense of knowing better if he is still thinking things through? If Obama does not have the courage of his convictions after all, what then remains of the argument that he is ready for the job?

B. Where Does The Flop Land Him?

Obama could go both ways

So, if Obama is undermining the central surviving rationale of his candidacy, what is he really doing by flip-flopping? Is he simply a leap in the dark for liberals, as Richard Cohen argues? (H/T) Suckering either the left, the middle, or both, as Iowahawk brilliantly illustrated? An unusually smooth liar running his campaign like a graduate seminar, as blackhedd suggests? A man without a core, as Kevin Holtsberry contends? Or, as Jim Geraghty thinks, a man with out a home?

Certainly some of the “flip-flops” are really fudges, examples of Obama just using hedged language to obscure the policy differences between his position and the Republican position. And on the social issues, my own view is that Obama is basically running a cynical game of three-card monte on the electorate – he knows full well that, for example, he can say he supports the death penalty for child rapists because he intends to appoint federal judges who will make it impossible for the people’s representatives to actually carry out such sentences. Thus, Obama gets to fool people who think he’s not a hard-left-winger, and he can’t be directly called on it for years down the road.

But in most cases, it’s just impossible to tell who the suckers are or whether Obama is serially pandering or just can’t make up his mind on issues he hasn’t properly thought through. You may have your own theories, but what your theory and my theory have in common is that neither of them has any evidence to support them. We simply have nothing to give anyone real confidence of how Obama will handle adversity or crisis in the White House; just “hope” that he will do a good job.

III. John McCain: Principled Leader Abroad, Pragmatic Moderate at Home

McCain greets Kuwait's ambassador in 1991

Some readers, at this juncture, will wonder: what about McCain? Hasn’t he changed his positions at times over the years on a host of issues? Does anybody really think McCain is a man of unshakeable political principle?

There’s really two answers to that, and together they explain why the flip-flop charge just isn’t a big deal in McCain’s case.

A. Duty, Honor, Country

Vets for McCain

The first goes to the question of flip-flops as a proxy for the character traits we look for in a Commander-in-Chief. In McCain’s case, he has both a biography and a record we can examine – and they both point in the same direction. McCain has been a rock of stability for many years in his dedication to U.S. national security and his philosophy of how to protect it. It is the central cause to which he has dedicated his life and his political career.

McCain after VietnamYou know, of course, the story of McCain’s quarter century in the Navy and his time in a North Vietnamese prison; while that’s not in and of itself enough to qualify a man for the nation’s highest office, Uncle Jimbo at Blackfive reminds us what his sustained refusal over a period of years to accept early release from the POW camp in Hanoi should tell us about his character:

You would think it would be simple, but I forget that the concepts of Duty, Honor & Country are dirty words to the left/press. None who have served, well none with more than 4 months in the motor pool, wonder what John McCain proved to us. We know that a man who would refuse to be released ahead of others and allow the enemy a propaganda victory definitely understands and stays true to those three pillars….

Let’s compare the two:

John McCain was so loyal to the men he was imprisoned with he endured torture on their behalf.

Barack Obama associates with those who can help his career, and throws them right under the bus when they become inconvenient to his aspirations.

That single issue of character matters more than all the others combined. You can trust John McCain. You can trust Barack Obama to use you as a stepping stone.

Richard Cohen ties that together with McCain’s long career in politics:

McCain is a known commodity. It’s not just that he’s been around a long time and staked out positions antithetical to those of his Republican base. It’s also — and more important — that we know his bottom line. As his North Vietnamese captors found out, there is only so far he will go, and then his pride or his sense of honor takes over. This — not just his candor and nonstop verbosity on the Straight Talk Express — is what commends him to so many journalists.

Obama might have a similar bottom line, core principles for which, in some sense, he is willing to die. If so, we don’t know what they are. Nothing so far in his life approaches McCain’s decision to refuse repatriation as a POW so as to deny his jailors a propaganda coup. In fact, there is scant evidence the Illinois senator takes positions that challenge his base or otherwise threaten him politically. That’s why his reversal on campaign financing and his transparently false justification of it matter more than similar acts by McCain.

What you see when you review McCain’s record over the quarter century he’s been on the Senate Armed Services Committee is that he has stood up and stood in on national security – he’s been a leader and been willing to take the heat that comes with that, most recently with his staunch advocacy of the Iraq War and the “surge” even when the war was terribly unpopular and being given up in many quarters as lost. And he hasn’t changed his tune on national security based on the partisan composition of the White House or Congress. For example, in the case of both Bill Clinton’s prosecution of war in Kosovo in 1999 and George W. Bush’s terrorist surveillance program, McCain supported the president’s policy goals but also urged him to go to Congress for support. He’s traveled the globe, spoken at scores of overseas conferences, and worked on a bipartisan basis with John Kerry and the Clinton Administration in normalizing relations with Vietnam. He’s been part of pretty much every major foreign policy and military policy debate since the 80s, and his views on issues of American national interest and national security are extremely well-known not only here at home but around the globe. Nothing he does in the arena of domestic politics changes any of that.

B. The Moderate Pragmatist

McCain goes nuclearI’m a great believer in the importance of conservative principles, and my preference would be to run a presidential candidate who has an established record of standing foursquare for those principles. But that’s not the McCain record, and more importantly it’s not how McCain has marketed himself to the public over the years. Yes, on some issues, notably issues like free trade and immigration that have an internationalist/foreign policy component, McCain has been not just consistent but courageous (even foolhardy) over the course of his career. But while he professes faith in conservative principles at a general level – lower taxes, less spending, less regulation – one need not look too far for examples of him departing from those principles in practice in specific cases. McCain’s self-proclaimed “maverick” status derives from that record.

Basically, McCain over the years has presented himself to the public not as an ideas guy but as a moderate pragmatist, one who goes here and there sometimes without a ton of predictability or philosophical consistency. And there’s a goodly chunk of both the public and the press that likes moderation, pragmatism, willingness to change positions to follow the public mood. For voters who prefer that kind of leader, the fact that McCain is willing to change his spots from time to time on economic and regulatory issues and some social issues is a feature, not a bug; it’s precisely why they like the guy. Energy policy – where McCain jumped ahead of Obama by jettisoning McCain’s own prior opposition to offshore drilling – is a classic example of an issue where the public seems to actually prefer someone who won’t let prior stances get in the way of rethinking the right approach in the future.

At the end of the day, as I discussed above, John McCain can get away with this approach on domestic-policy issues because nobody doubts that the test of McCain’s leadership in foreign affairs or in times of crisis is his very lengthy record in those areas, regardless of the more mundane business of domestic government. Unlike Obama, McCain has earned that credibility, because unlike Obama, McCain has more to back up his words than the words themselves.

III. Conclusion

John McCain has the strength and determination to be the Commander in Chief, in good times and bad; by long years of trial we have seen what he is made of, what he stands for, and when he is and isn’t willing to change his position. His “maverick” nature may make it impossible to be 100% certain where he’ll come out in particular domestic-policy debates, but on the whole, any reasonably astute observer of the political scene knows what we are getting with McCain.

None of that can be said with any confidence about Obama. He’s a dot-com stock, a subprime loan, an email enticing you to help him transfer money if you send some now – no track record, no established management, no earnings, no visible means of support, just a lot of promises that keep changing every time you ask. He will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today. Obama has staked his entire campaign on the value of “just words,” and now even the words are changing. His appeal may prove durable to the young, seeing everything for the first time. But at the end of the day, how can we know what this man is made of? We can only hope. How can we know what he stands for? We can only hope. What can we do if we wake up early next year and discover he’s not what we hoped for? We can only pray.

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