Do you remember when conservatives used to speak warmly, and sometimes rapturously, about Barack Obama? That was back when they were certain that the Clinton voodoo magic would make Hillary the nominee, and Obama her sympathetic roadkill. Since then, the right has made the horrifying discoveries that Obama is, successively, a left-wing ideologue, a coddler of anti- Americanism, a wine-sipping elitist, and, now, a shameless flip-flopper. The man will say anything, discard any position, in order to win the election.
If such a tragic tarnishing of the reputation could happen to a fresh-faced reformer like Obama, it could happen to anybody. And, in fact, it has--at least to anybody who has happened to attain the Democratic presidential nomination at any point over the last five election cycles. John Kerry, as everybody remembers, came to be defined almost exclusively as a flip-flopper. (A 2004 Wall Street Journal news article described him as "a politician with a troublesome reputation for trying to have it both ways.")
Al Gore was relentlessly attacked by Republicans for his alleged waffling. ("Mr. Gore has a bit of a reputation for flip-flopping and corner-cutting," reported The New York Times in 2000.) Bill Clinton was attacked by George H.W. Bush for "turn[ing] the White House into a Waffle House" and the subject of a famous Time cover story titled, "Why Voters Don't Trust Bill Clinton."
It was true: Voters didn't trust Clinton--or Gore, or Kerry. In all of those elections, polls showed the Democratic nominee scoring higher on most of the issues, but the Republican nominee scoring higher on honesty and other personal qualities. Either this is because the Democratic Party keeps nominating weasels for president, time and time again, or else there's something systemic that makes Republicans (and the press) portray them as such. I'm going with explanation number two.
Here's my systemic explanation. In the late 1980s, the popular revolt against government that had bubbled up in the mid-'60s began to peter out, sapping the power of straightforward anti-government appeals. And, starting in 1992, Democrats ruthlessly purged nearly all their political liabilities by embracing anti-crime measures, welfare reform, and middle-class tax cuts, and, more recently, by abandoning gun control. What's left is a political terrain generally favorable to Democrats, which has, in turn, forced Republicans to emphasize the personal virtue of their nominees.
And so, every four years, we have a Democratic candidate campaigning on health care, the minimum wage, education, Medicare, or Social Security, and a Republican candidate campaigning on themes like Trust, Courage, and so forth. President Bush in 2004 was explicit about his elevation of character over issues: "Even when we don't agree," he would say, "at least you know what I believe and where I stand."
The details of the Republican character narrative vary a bit from campaign to campaign. (In 1992, 1996, and 2008, Republicans waxed rhapsodic about the moral virtues inherent in military service; in 2000 and 2004, they played them down.) The alleged flip-floppiness of the Democratic nominee, though, is a hardy perennial. Flip-flopping is a simple accusation that campaign reporters can sink their teeth into. Moreover, there's always grist for the accusation, because getting to the position of running for president without changing your stance on a few issues is essentially impossible.
And, so, whatever two or three issues the Democratic nominee has changed his emphasis on are inevitably blown up into a devastating character indictment. The Charles Krauthammers and Sean Hannitys of the world can be counted on to whip themselves into a moralistic frenzy against the feckless Democrat. And news reporters will stroke their chins and ponder, because the question is being asked: Just who is Obama (Kerry/Gore/Clinton), anyway? Yes, he may have a detailed platform on domestic and foreign policy, but do we really know anything about this man?
If one needs any final proof of the ridiculousness of this quadrennial exercise, it is the fact that John McCain has embraced the flip-flopper attack. John McCain! I've said this before, I'll say it again: This is a man who, in his quest to make himself an acceptable GOP nominee, reversed his political philosophy (crusading anti-business progressive in the Teddy Roosevelt mode); his political orientation (frequently siding with, and nearly joining, Senate Democrats); and almost every particular undergirding it (taxes, the Lieberman-Warner climate change bill, his own immigration bill, etc.). But if you actually think that flip-flopping is a sign of flawed character, and not just a handy partisan cudgel, then, sure, Obama might be slightly cynical, but McCain must be a dangerous sociopath.
Now, allegedly Obama can be held to a higher standard because he has loftily set himself above ordinary politicians. (McCain has, too, but never mind.) The operating theory here is that Obama represents a New Politics of the purest and most innocent sort, and to expose him as a mere politician is to destroy the very rationale of his candidacy. Obama's "flip-flopping," writes Krauthammer, proves he's "just a politician." His "dash to the center," mourns National Review editor Rich Lowry, "falsifies the very essence of his candidacy."
It is no doubt true that some liberal Obamaphiles interpreted his disdain for "politics as usual" as a pledge to abstain from all political maneuvering and lead a campaign of monkish purity. Those people have had their eyes opened and should not vote for Obama or, for that matter, anybody.
However, there's a more likely, and less suicidal, interpretation of the "different kind of politics" Obama has practiced. First, he uses a more elevated, professorial, and less demagogic brand of rhetoric than most politicians. Second, Obama believes in the necessity of mobilizing his supporters as a counterweight against the power of organized special interests. This belief flows from his background as a community organizer, and requires active and continued participation from his supporters.
But, yes, he's just a politician--which is to say, he's willing to make some compromises to win. And, if Obama doesn't win, the Democrats will find a new nominee in four years--a shameless flip-flopper, no doubt.
Jonathan Chait is a senior editor of The New Republic.