In any tightly contested Republican presidential primary, the rivalcampaigns will inevitably get to smearing each other as secrethomo-lovers, gun- haters, or abortion-coddlers. The convenientthing about this particular GOP primary is that they don't evenhave to lie. It's all true.
In the contest between Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani, and John McCain,flip- flopping is the coin of the realm. Romney was the chiefvictim at last week's Conservative Political Action Conference,with "Romney flip-flops" being handed out and Flip Romney thedolphin making an appearance. But the other two are just asvulnerable. Hardly a week goes by without a video surfacing of oneof them saying something embarrassingly at odds with their currentposition. (An oppo dump on Giuliani is rumored to be forthcoming.)Watching the next year's worth of flip-flop attacks is going to belike watching hemophiliacs go at one another with chainsaws.
As aesthetically delightful as this spectacle may be, though, it'sintellectually unsatisfying. It's perfectly sensible thatRepublicans (or anybody) would prefer a candidate who genuinelyagrees with them. What's not sensible is how flip-flopping hasbecome the metric by which we gauge their sincerity.
On the scoreboard of major flip-flops, Giuliani (partial-birthabortion and gun control) and Romney (abortion and gay rights) bothlead with two. McCain trails with one (the Bush tax cuts, which hevoted against but now vows to keep). I suppose if you count as aflip-flop McCain's embrace of onetime agent of intolerance JerryFalwell, that would tie him up on the leader board. (Though, inMcCain's defense, it's not literally a flip-flop, as he neverspecifically said he wouldn't hug Falwell.)
The Talmudic exercise of counting flip-flops, though, tells youlittle about a politician's ideological malleability. Anybody whospends enough time in elected politics will rack up a flip-flop ortwo. George W. Bush started out pro-choice and Dennis Kucinichpro-life. Both switched sides eventually, but nobody would accuseeither of being an ideological weathervane. This is problem numberone with the flip-flop obsession: Things that count as flip-flopsoften have no broader significance.
Problem number two is that changes that do have deep ideologicalsignificance often don't count as flip-flops. In 1992, Romney votedfor Paul Tsongas in the Democratic primary. Two years later,Giuliani publicly endorsed Mario Cuomo. Romney isn't running on ananti-Tsongas platform today, but he's clearly running as the sortof man who would never vote for Tsongas, or any Democrat. LikewiseGiuliani, whose conservative tribal appeal is based primarily onhow much he hates liberals.
In McCain's case, his one or two flip-flops don't even begin toconvey the enormity of his ideological metamorphosis. Over the lastfew years, Republicans and Democrats have both been downplaying hisrecent liberal history-- Republicans, because they consider him astrong potential nominee whom they don't want to torpedo in theprimaries; Democrats, because they consider him a strong potentialnominee whom they do want to torpedo in the general election. As aresult, nearly everybody has forgotten just how far left he moved afew years ago.
At the beginning of his first presidential campaign, McCain was aconservative in good standing, with the major exception being hissupport for campaign finance reform. But, as the campaignprogressed, McCain began to apply the lessons of campaign financereform to other issues. "I think the party to some degree has lostits way," he said in late 1999, "and I think this is because of theinfluence of big money."
After returning to the Senate, he embraced a broad progressiveagenda. McCain voted against the major Bush tax cuts and denouncedthem as giveaways to the rich. He co-sponsored a patients' bill ofrights, legislation to allow imported prescriptions, higherauto-emissions standards, stricter financial regulations, a measureforcing the United States to comply with the Kyoto treaty, and oneto close the gun show loophole. On each of these issues, he was tothe left of many Democrats.
In the summer of 2001, McCain met privately with Tom Daschle andother top Democrats to discuss the possibility of a party switch.In 2004, John Kerry tried to woo McCain as his vice presidentialnominee. The New York Times reported that Kerry and McCain hadseven conversations about the idea, which seems like six more thanwould have been needed if McCain had said, "No thanks, I'm aconservative Republican who firmly supports Bush."
Shortly thereafter, McCain decided to seek the 2008 GOP nomination.Soon he was seen hugging Bush, which began his return into theconservative fold. Where McCain used to tout his admiration fortrust-busting progressive Teddy Roosevelt, today he takes counselfrom supply-side guru Arthur Laffer. That a total philosophicalinversion like this doesn't count as a "flip-flop" justdemonstrates how little flip-flopping tells you about a candidate.
The deeper mistake is the belief that flip-flopping is a purereflection of authenticity. The fallacy was perfectly expressedlast year by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, who wrote,"Some people (Bill Clinton comes to mind) have a knack for makingeasy compromises on the road to election, but McCain isn't one ofthem."
The truth is, politicians at the serious-presidential-contenderlevel are all willing to compromise to achieve larger goals.Flip-flopping really reveals less about a candidate's characterthan about his circumstances. Romney and Giuliani both hail fromvery liberal places. Going from mayor of New York or governor ofMassachusetts to GOP presidential nominee without some flip-flopping would be impossible.
McCain, on the other hand, comes from conservative Arizona. Why,then, has he flip-flopped so much? Because he can. Everybody"knows" McCain is authentic. McCain knows everybody knows that. ("Iwould argue that I have not changed any of my positions, and if Idid really change my positions on issues, that I would lose what isprobably one of the greatest attractions that people have for me,and that is as a person who stands up for what he believes in.")
Conversely, everybody "knows" Hillary Clinton is phony. Therefore,Clinton can't budge an inch on her Iraq vote, and McCain has alicense for a total ideological makeover. Does that mean Clintonhas more character than McCain? No, just less room to maneuver.