Look at poor John Kerry: The "flip-flopper" label completely disqualified him. Political reporters were constantly finding voters who agreed with Kerry on most or all the issues but refused to vote for him because they didn't trust him. Here's a classic example (not online) from the Baltimore Sun:
Irwin, a 64-year-old lifelong Democrat, says things have been "terrible" during the nearly four years that Bush has been in the White House. She's scared that he's "ruined" Medicare and would do the same to Social Security, the programs she depends on to get by. Irwin believes Bush planned to invade Iraq from the moment he took office and says he bungled the war there. But she can't bear to vote for Sen. John Kerry, whom she calls a dishonest waffler whose ideas are no better than Bush's. "I don't like Bush either, but if I've got to choose between the two, count me for Bush," Irwin said. "With Kerry, one minute he would vote for something and the next minute he would change his mind."
I agree that the flip-flopper label really hurt Kerry. But Kerry's problems were deeper than "flip-flopping." He just wasn't a particularly likeable or inspiring candidate. I think "flip-flopping" became a short-hand for all those related-but-not-quite-identical liabilities. Take Bill Clinton, for example. The GOP tried but failed to stick him with a similar rap--untrustworthy, opportunistic--and it didn't cripple him because: a.) people felt a rapport with him, and b.) they were pretty down on the incumbent party and wanted a change.
Which brings me to the second point. Even with all the damage the flip-flopper charge did to Kerry, he'd almost certainly have won if he'd been running in the current political climate. The GOP is much, much weaker than it was in 2004; the desire for change is much, much stronger. However much of a flip-flopper Kerry turned out to be (or however much of an opportunist Obama looks like), he'd still be a Democrat in a year when the country overwhelmingly wants to vote for a Democrat. Or, put differently, the bar a Democrat has to clear this year is much lower than it was in 2004, and Kerry would very likely have cleared it.
2.) Chait writes:
I agree with Noam that painting Obama as a cynical triangulator is probably not enough to win the election for McCain. McCain has a bad hand to play. Noam implies he should try to paint Obama as "the other." McCain is doing that, too, with television ads calling himself "the American president Americans have been waiting for." But pushing this line too hard risks destroying McCain's good-guy reputation.
Yes, but that's really the crux of my argument. McCain is going to need to make the "other" charge stick (that, or the Obama-can't-protect-us charge) if he's going to win. Anything that steps on that message, even if it's somewhat damaging to Obama, is a net negative for him. And I think the "cynical triangular" argument steps on it--albeit to varying degress with different voters.