2008-07-18 / Columnists

The Rockaway Irregular

These Flips Don't Flop
Commentary by Stuart W. Mirsky

In 2004 local Republicans gleefully labeled former Democratic presidential aspirant and Massachusetts Senator John Kerry a "flip-flopper" for his numerous nuanced reversals. I watched with amusement at the Sugar Bowl in Breezy one evening as a group of Republican ladies pulled off their beach shoes and began rhythmically clapping them together to the refrain of "flipflop, flip-flop" while candidate Kerry drearily intoned his message across the flat screen over the bar. It was easy with Kerry, of course, given his tendency to sneer at his political opponents and the disdain that dripped from his voice as he droned monotonously on and on above our heads. His annoying self-righteousness was as palpable as his wannabe Kennedy hair style. But that was then and this is now.

In the recent primary season, the charge of flip-flopping dogged Republican contender and former Massachussetts governor Mitt Romney, too. The ex-Massachussetts governor had tried to transform himself into a born again social conservative in the race for the Republican presidential nod but his effort fell flat as Republican voters surprised pundits to choose the formerly fallen front runner, John Mc- Cain. Known for his maverick approach to politics and his willingness to take unpopular positions, McCain overcame his lackluster public speaking style, absence of personal charisma and an unfortunate tendency to put his foot in his mouth, to win the support of enough of the GOP rank and file to claim the nomination. But, he has yet to light any fires on the hustings while Democratic political rock star Barack Obama has already lit more than his share after bursting into the national political firmament and driving all the other Democratic contenders into the shadows.

Both McCain and Obama benefited from the sense of authenticity they brought to the political table: McCain, the straight shooter willing to take unpopular stands, and Obama, the real thing, a man who came up from the streets (or at least made his bones there) as a grassroots community organizer, a brilliant orator with the common touch. Yet both, in recent days, have surprised supporters by their willingness to do the old Kerry-Romney flip-flop.

Recently backtracking on his past opposition to offshore oil drilling, McCain is also a belated supporter of the Bush tax cuts he once vigorously opposed. But as a flip-flopper, Obama's easily got him beat. The presumptive Democratic nominee has already reversed himself on the constitutionality of banning handguns (he agreed with the recent Supreme Court decision that Washington D.C.'s blanket ban was unconstitutional though he had previously argued the opposite). He's refined an earlier debate promise to meet unconditionally with bellicose leaders of hostile states by adding that he never meant without "preparation." He voted in favor of the Senate Bill to legalize warrantless telecommunications surveillance overseas in terrorism cases though he had previously pledged to filibuster it. He's come out for "faith based" initiatives (shades of George Bush!) and now supports the death penalty for child abusers although he's on record as having previously opposed capital punishment period. So what's going on here?

As someone who once tested the political waters myself, I know that the urge to please voters is powerful. Of course, it was an easy urge to resist in my case since I didn't expect to win my contest for a State Assembly seat. But McCain and Obama clearly have more at stake. Both have a solid chance of winning an office that's a good deal bigger than the position I contested and both are ambitious men (who else can handle what's needed to run for president these days?). Pushing 71, McCain's waited a long time for his day and knows he'll never get another shot. He's already the oldest major party presidential candidate in our history. Obama, on the other hand, is younger but knows he's already come a remarkably long way in an incredibly short time, catapulting his candidacy over others who had been waiting in line much longer. If he doesn't win this one, can he hope to effect a similar leap a second time, or trust that other, newer faces won't leap over him? For both the stakes are high - and so, naturally, is the temptation to trim their rhetorical sails to the political wind.

We want our leaders to have open minds, of course, to be able and willing to change their thinking when the facts change. If we don't allow them that flexibility, only doctrinaire ideologues will hazard the campaign trail, to our detriment. Besides, no candidate for a major office can hope to be all things to all people so they have to aim to be some things to many. That means a willingness to adopt positions that deviate from a single doctrinaire approach. But there's a fine line between being flexible and having no guiding central principles. Both McCain and Obama have been accused of the latter as a result of their recent shifts.

Certainly, Romney had a hard time conveying sincerity concerning his own political awakening in the GOP primaries and many voters had a hard time crediting him with any reason for his latter day conversion beyond the merely cynical. But McCain offers what he hopes will be seen as a more principled narrative, explaining that the evidence of the Bush tax cuts over seven plus years prompted him to realize his earlier error in opposing them. Similarly, he notes that circumstances in the oil markets have clearly changed (hard to deny that), making it necessary to revisit the drilling limitations he had previously supported. In each case, McCain's explanation is plausible - even sensible.

On the other hand, Obama's explanation is remarkable for its noblesse oblige. In fact, he informs us, he hasn't changed any of his positions at all. It's all in the minds of his critics! While some of his supporters on the left have actually raised a hew and cry over his shift on things like telecommunications surveillance, most seem prepared to play along and cut him the slack he needs to grab the political center in advance of the fall campaign. In his latest move to seize that ground, he's recalibrated his primary campaign anti-war pitch to assure general election voters he would not pull troops out of Iraq precipitously if that put the gains made by the Bush surge strategy (which he opposed) at risk. His supporters have raised nary a peep in protest.

So, while Obama tells us he hasn't changed at all, even as he radically alters his positions before our astonished eyes, McCain has tried to explain and defend his own altered views. But Obama's responses, delivered in his now famous, almost hypnotic, artfully cadenced baritone, continue to assure us that we didn't really see what we thought we saw even as John McCain fidgets and blinks uncomfortably under the klieg lights. Smart as well as soothing (both to listen to and to watch), it's hard to disbelieve Barack Obama when he assures us we must have misunderstood him, that he's never changed any of his positions, not ever - even as he changes them, one after another in rapid-fire succession.

John McCain, on the other hand, remains an awkward man, made even less graceful by the injuries he sustained as a prisoner of war in a long ago conflict. In this year's competition of who can flip with less obvious flop in the presidential sweepstakes, it looks like its still "advantage Obama" - as it's been for most of the race so far. rockirreg@aol.com

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