If you have read any of those "man on the street" newspaper stories about the election this year, you've probably read something very much like the following. It's a Baltimore Sun interview with Shirley Irwin of Dunbar, West Virginia:
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."
The image of John Kerry as a "dishonest waffler" is so powerful in some voters' minds that it overcomes disagreement with George W. Bush on nearly every issue. You would think being consistently wrong would be worse than being irresolutely correct, but apparently not. And the notion of Kerry as a flip-flopper is so deeply embedded that it has penetrated the popular culture. Jay Leno, football announcer Al Michaels, and countless others have all cracked wise about Kerry as a flip-flopper.
You have to wonder, when was the last time a party nominated a presidential candidate of such low character? Oh, yes: That would be four years ago. In 2000, Bush painted Al Gore as a flip-flopper whenever possible. Voters, he declared, "don't want flip-floppers as president of the United States." Rather than dispute Gore's positions, he derided them as incoherent. When Gore criticized privatizing Social Security, Bush's spokesman mocked it as Gore's "third position in six months." This characterization was amplified in the media. "Mr. Gore has a bit of a reputation for flip-flopping and corner-cutting on issues like abortion and trade," reported a New York Times news story in August 2000.
The last candidate as opportunistic and unprincipled as Gore was Bill Clinton. In 1992, George H.W. Bush's campaign ran advertisements assailing Clinton's contradictions. "As the case of military service makes most clear, these differing positions are, in fact, more than mere flip-flops. They reflect a fundamental element of Governor Clinton's character," charged Dan Quayle. Bush mocked Clinton by visiting a Waffle House. This perception of Clinton became so ingrained that even liberal Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau depicted Clinton as a waffle. Four years later, reported the Times, Bob Dole spent "weeks portraying [Clinton] as a waffler without real convictions" and ran under the not-very-subtle slogan, "The better man for a better America."
There are two possible interpretations of this history. The first is that the Democratic Party, characterologically speaking, has had an astonishing run of bad luck. For four straight presidential elections, it has put forth nominees of such dismal personal integrity that they have been identified in the public mind largely by their prevarication and flip-floppery. This is the interpretation you'd reach if you believed the Sunday morning talking heads, the Republicans and their allied pundits, and the late-night comics.
That would make for quite a coincidence. So let us consider a second interpretation: There is nothing particularly dodgy about Kerry or the previous two Democratic nominees. Their inevitable portrayal as flip-floppers instead reflects larger structural forces in our political system that would result in almost any Democratic nominee acquiring a similar reputation. And the way we understand "character" in presidential elections tells us very little about the true character of the people who would be president.
Is the notion of Kerry as a flip-flopper a pure fiction contrived by his enemies? Not exactly. Kerry has flip-flopped on issues (as have Gore and Clinton), because flip-flopping, like kissing babies and raising money, is one of the things that politicians do. But defining flipflopping as the essence of Kerry's nature is ridiculous.
Bush's campaign provides a list of 37 Kerry flip-flops. Of these, six appear to be legitimate reversals. Some of them clearly reflect an attempt to abandon a politically unpopular stance. Kerry opposed capital punishment for terrorists and favored higher gasoline prices, but he later reversed himself on both issues. In 1992, he criticized affirmative action as "limited and divisive" but did not entirely reject it--before later embracing it without qualification. Like almost every presidential hopeful, he went from con to pro on ethanol subsidies. In all these cases, there's no plausible explanation for Kerry's change of heart other than political expediency.
On two other reversals, Kerry could at least credibly argue that he reversed positions due to changing circumstances. In 1993, he expressed doubt about how well the Federal Employees Health Benefits System worked. Today, he has made it a model for his health care plan. Kerry also opposed making companies count stock options as an expense before abandoning that position after the corporate scandals of 2002. In the former case, Kerry probably learned more about the issue at hand, having never had to draft a national health care plan previously. In the latter, Enron made Kerry's anti-expensing position look substantively stupid at the very same time it made it politically stupid. Whether Kerry was bowing to reason or to expediency is anybody's guess.
Republicans also count as flip-flops cases where Kerry emphasized different aspects of his position at different times. In 2000, Kerry called for a reevaluation of the Cuban embargo. Asked last year if he'd lift the embargo, Kerry replied, "Not unilaterally, not now, no." A few months after that, he explained that he favored some travel or cultural exchanges but not "opening up the embargo willy nilly." Last year, Kerry appeared before an Arab American group and criticized Israel's security fence for encroaching too far into Palestinian territory. A few months later, he defended the fence as a "legitimate act of self-defense." Kerry's position was internally consistent--he approved of the fence but not where it was being built--but he obviously went out of his way to give different impressions to different audiences.
The most well-known instance of this subtle shading is Kerry's position on Iraq. But, here as well, Kerry never altered his underlying stance. He favored a tightened inspections regime and recognized that only the threat of unilateral U.S. action embodied by congressional authorization for war would spur the United Nations to act. He subsequently opposed the way Bush used that authority. Bush now says that, by endorsing a use-of-force resolution, Kerry "voted for the war." At the time, though, Bush sold the resolution in exactly the way Kerry saw it. "If you want to keep the peace," Bush argued in 2002, "you've got to have the authorization to use force."
The rest of the Bush campaign's list of supposed Kerry flip-flops is simply phony. He voted for the No Child Left Behind Act but castigated Bush for failing to deliver the promised funds. He voted to develop missile defenses but opposed deploying them immediately on the grounds that they didn't work yet. He voted for a bill to spend $87 billion on fighting and rebuilding in Iraq and to pay for it by repealing upper-bracket tax cuts, but he voted against a bill to spend the same money financed by borrowing. (Thus his famous explanation, "I actually voted for the $87 billion before I voted against it.") And so on. Republicans ridicule Kerry for his "reversals," but, in these examples and others, there was a clear difference between what Kerry supported and what he opposed.
Does this record make Kerry a person of unusually weak convictions, or a normal politician? You can't answer that with mathematical precision, but it is enlightening to compare his flip-flops to those of noted Man of Principle George W. Bush. The liberal Center for American Progress has compiled a list of what it calls 30 Bush flip-flops. Of these, 13 are indisputable reversals. For instance, when running for Congress in 1978, Bush favored abortion rights, then later he flipped. He opposed the McCain-Feingold Act but later signed it. Bush insisted on holding a final vote on going to war at the U.N. Security Council in early 2003--"No matter what the whip count is, we're calling for the vote"--but dropped plans to do so. Bush opposed the creation of a Department of Homeland Security before embracing the idea. He did the same on creating an outside commission to investigate WMD intelligence failures. In turn, he opposed creating the 9/11 Commission, opposed allowing it a time extension to finish its work, opposed allowing Condoleezza Rice to testify, and insisted on limiting his testimony to one hour before eventually abandoning each impediment.
You could debate which man has flip-flopped more. But one thing is clear: If a stranger unfamiliar with the campaign examined the two men's records, he would never conclude that Kerry is a serial flip-flopper and Bush is the embodiment of consistency.
If we want to understand why Kerry is so widely seen as an untrustworthy flip-flopper, we must look beyond anything intrinsic to his character and consider deeper trends that result in every Democratic nominee being perceived the same way. If there was a single factor setting these tectonic shifts into motion, it was the rise of Bill Clinton.
Just consider one of Bush's favorite lines, which he used in his acceptance speech and repeated on the stump: "Even when we don't agree," he says, "at least you know what I believe and where I stand." It's an explicit attempt to persuade voters not that they support Bush's program but that they ought to support him regardless, based on his personality.
For a time, after September 11, 2001, it appeared Republicans would enjoy the same advantage on foreign policy that they held during the last two decades of the cold war. Iraq gave the Republicans an issue on which they could take a more hawkish and more popular stance than most Democrats. But the unraveling of the occupation neutralized this brief advantage from a policy perspective. Indeed, Bush spends much of his energy on Iraq, arguing that Kerry's position is no different from his own. "My opponent looked at the same intelligence I looked at," Bush said at a rally last week. "He concluded that Saddam Hussein was a serious threat. He voted `yes' when it came to the authorization of force. He may not want to admit it today."
As Peter Beinart argued in these pages three weeks ago ("Character Acting," September 17), Bush has turned the war on terrorism into a character issue. Bush may have an advantage on handling terrorism, but this derives from the character traits he seeks to project--his image of resolution and strength--not from any programmatic approach to fighting Al Qaeda. Kerry veered to Bush's right on using ground troops in Tora Bora and funding homeland security. Bush, of course, claims that his Iraq policy struck a blow against terrorism, but the public has not embraced that argument. An early September Harris poll found that just 43 percent of Americans thought the Iraq invasion strengthened the war on terrorism, versus 41 percent who thought it weakened it and 16 percent who were unsure.
You can see a similar dynamic on many domestic policy issues. For instance, polls show that respondents overwhelmingly prefer Kerry's plan to repeal the Bush tax cuts that benefit only those making more than $200,000 per year. But polls also show that Bush has a modest advantage on taxes overall. He has achieved this advantage by convincing voters that Kerry can't be trusted to carry out his (more appealing) platform. In Bush's stump speech, he often says, "So they said, `How are you going to pay for it?' [Kerry] said, `That's easy, we're going to tax the rich.' You've heard that before, haven't you?"
The alleged character flaws of whomever the Democrats nominate for president change from election to election. But the charge of flip-flopping always plays a central role for a very important reason: It's the natural parry to the Democrats' post-Clinton centrism. The moderation that has characterized the Democratic Party since Clinton has the natural advantage of avoiding unpopular stances. It also has two disadvantages. First, as the party has shifted right, it has forced Democrats in its mainstream to shift along with it. (Hence Kerry's flip-flop on the death penalty.)
Second, New Democrat-style centrism saddles its adherents with positions that straddle the political divide. Kerry supported developing missile defense but not deploying it immediately; he supported nafta, which had labor and environmental provisions, but opposed a trade bill that did not. When your position on many issues is "neither too much nor too little," you can appear inconsistent even if you're not. Sure, it doesn't help that Kerry has trouble explaining himself. But even a gifted communicator like Clinton, remember, was widely seen as a waffler.
In their elevation of character over policy, Republicans have found a powerful, though unwitting, ally in the mainstream news media. One of the curiosities of political journalism is that reporters tend to be assiduously even-handed about matters of policy (which can revolve around disputes over objective fact) but ruthlessly judgmental on questions of character (which are inherently subjective). In fact, most reporters don't know or care much about policy. They see politics primarily through the lens of the candidates' personal traits. Journalism fixture Jack Germond gives voice to this ethos when he writes, in Fat Man Fed Up, "[T]he only hope for better politics lies in the possibility of better people who can command the public's attention and win on the force of their personalities and the quality of their service."
Political reporters--outside of partisan outlets like the Murdoch media--do not intend any partisan bias in their character judgments. Historically, the process has been brutally unfair but essentially random, and therefore nonpartisan. Reporters and pundits seize upon isolated and generally meaningless incidents. In 1972, Democratic hopeful Ed Muskie appeared to shed a tear as he defended his wife. In 1992, Dan Quayle read the word "potatoe" from a misspelled cue card. In a 1992 debate, George H.W. Bush checked his watch for his response time. These incidents became proof that Muskie was too weak, Quayle too stupid, and Bush too aloof to be president. The character traits "revealed" by these anecdotes, once rendered and self-fulfillingly repeated, proved impossible to dislodge.
In recent years, however, Republicans have figured out that this process doesn't have to be random. You don't have to wait for the news media to seize upon some incident as emblematic of your opponent's character flaw. You can prime the pump yourself. The model for this kind of campaign began when Republicans set out to discredit presumptive Democratic nominee Al Gore. "After years of battling with President Clinton, House Republicans are shifting their sights to Vice President Al Gore and using ridicule as their weapon of choice," reported The New York Times in May 1999. This entailed a "clearinghouse of anti-Gore press releases and activity, with [Texas Representative Dick] Armey mocking Mr. Gore over his pronouncements on air travel, the Internet and traffic congestion.... In essence, they are trying to do to him what Democrats tried to do to former Vice President Dan Quayle: make him the foil for comedians on late-night television."
Republicans, at this point, are far more advanced than Democrats in circulating the kinds of damaging anecdotes that political reporters will repeat, and that can make the leap into the popular culture. First, they have a more sophisticated understanding of how narratives about candidates are established and how to play into them. Second, they have access to a partisan media network that Democrats are only in the formative stages of reproducing.
To get a sense of how this process works, consider one typical incident. On August 11, 2003, Kerry visited a famous Philadelphia cheesesteak stand. But, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported the next day, he eschewed the local custom of topping the sandwich with Cheez Whiz, instead requesting Swiss cheese. This fit perfectly with the portrait of Kerry as estranged from working-class habits. (Republicans had been whispering to reporters for months that Kerry "looks French." Switzerland was close enough.) "Massachusetts Democratic Senator and presidential candidate John Kerry, who's often needled by conservatives who say he looks and acts French, made, as you can see there, the obligatory stop in Philadelphia yesterday at the famous Pat's King of Steaks," intoned Fox News anchor Brit Hume later that day. "The distinguished senator ordered a cheesesteak with Swiss cheese. Told that Swiss cheese was unavailable, the senator settled for Cheez Whiz, which, like the cheesesteak, is a uniquely American concoction."
The story quickly spread. "For Kerry, a Boston Brahmin, [the cheesesteak incident] is something of a sore spot," reported The Washington Post the following day. "As he seeks to lose his reputation for $75 Salon Christophe haircuts, Turnbull & Asser shirts and long fingernails to play classical guitar, he has been seen riding a motorcycle and doing other regular-guy things." That same day, msnbc pundit Mike Barnicle, CNN pundit Tucker Carlson, The Boston Globe gossip column, and CNN political reporter John King all retold the tale of Kerry and the cheesesteak. Since then, it has been repeated in the media more than 100 times. Earlier this year, Bush declared in Philadelphia (using the local lingo), "I like my cheesesteak Whiz with," spurring the media to once again revisit Kerry's cheesesteak gaffe.
This is not to say Kerry is some sort of natural plebeian. Of course he's not. The point is that unflattering characterizations of Kerry and other Democrats tend to find far wider circulation than equally unflattering characterizations of Bush. Compare the cheesesteak episode with a close Bush equivalent. In November 2000, Newsweek reported:
Aboard Bush's plane, [John] McCain's chief strategist, John Weaver, had--without thinking--pulled a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich off the snack cart and eaten it. Bush came aboard the plane and asked the flight attendant for his PB&J. She had to tell him it was gone. "It's gone?" Bush said, disbelieving and suddenly angry. "Who ate my peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich?" After a minute Weaver impishly raised his hand. "I did," he said. "Fine," said Bush. "Don't eat any more of his food," McCain cracked, sotto voce. A few people chuckled, and Bush returned to his seat to pout.
By the prevailing standards of the media, this episode is every bit as newsworthy as the cheesesteak episode. It reflects aspects of what Bush's critics regard as his character flaws--peevishness, immaturity, a sense of entitlement. But this particular sandwich encounter was never picked up by other news organizations.
One reason stories about Bush's elitism don't receive the same attention as stories about Kerry's elitism is that the model for the latter is far better entrenched. This simply reflects one of the most tiresome habits of the political media. Once a narrative template has been established, nearly any fact can be wedged into it. We "know," for instance, that Kerry is a flip-flopper. So, when one of his staffers leaked in May that Kerry might forego formally accepting the Democratic nomination until September--so as to counteract a legal loophole that would otherwise let Bush outspend him--that fact, too, was wedged into the template. "John Kerry's idea of rigging his nomination for financial gain looks too clever by half--especially for a politician with a troublesome reputation for trying to have it both ways," wrote Wall Street Journal reporter John Harwood.
This is one of those reportorial pronouncements comically lacking in self-awareness. In Harwood's defense, the statement is literally true. Kerry does, after all, have a troublesome reputation for trying to have it both ways. That he has that reputation, though, tells us far less about Kerry than it does about the sorry way we go about choosing presidents.
Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic.