The president and his handlers seem to have settled on a single theme: John Kerry is a "flip-flopper." America, they tell us, needs the consistent and strong leadership provided by George W. Bush. Trouble is, the flip-flopper charges against Kerry are disingenuous and do nothing to illuminate these candidates.
Sen. Kerry has served in the U.S. Senate for 20 years. He has cast thousands of votes. Last year alone, the Congress looked at more than 7,000 bills. Approximately 1,000 votes were taken. Anyone who has cast this many votes and has been involved in so many legislative battles and compromises can be made to appear to be indecisive.
Now, about the flip-flop that has drawn the most press time: the $87 billion Supplemental Defense Funding Bill. This bill, which Kerry voted against, required almost 30 different votes. A key amendment called for the establishment of an independent commission to investigate 9/11. This amendment, strongly supported by Democrats, was defeated because President Bush wanted it defeated. Later, under fire from Democrats, the public, the "Jersey Girls" and the media, Bush gave in and changed his mind. So who was the real flip-flopper? Kerry, because he voted for the war resolution but against the complex and, in his mind, flawed supplemental appropriation? Or Bush because First he opposed the 9/11 Commission but then gave in to pressure?
The president has sought to deflect attention from his own flip-flopping through diversion. He has attacked, if indirectly, Kerry's war record (which, as one conservative columnist put it, takes real "cojones," coming from a man who ducked out on his physical, not to mention the war itself). Here we see, no doubt, the deft hand of Karl Rove. Faced with running his draft evader against a war hero, Rove must have decided to plagiarize Kerry's Vietnam tactics: when ambushed, instead of retreating, turn your boat directly toward the attacker. Rove had to be thinking that if this attack on Kerry works, the voters may not get around to noticing all of Bush's changes of direction. Consider just a partial listing of the president's more noteworthy flip-flops:
* First he was for tariffs, then he was against them.
* First he opposed establishing the Department of Homeland Security, then he was for it.
* First he opposed additional funding to fight terrorism, then he was for it.
* First he urged the Congress to cut government spending, then he added the Medicare drug entitlement (and then, after the vote was taken, he radically increased the estimated cost of the program).
* First he announced his intention to "smoke out" Osama bin Laden at all costs, then along came Iraq, and bin Laden became an afterthought, as did democratization in Afghanistan, along with funding for cops, port security and a range of other related anti-terrorism needs.
* First he opposed the 9/11 Commission, then he was for it.
* First he opposed the intelligence czar recommended by the 9/11 Commission, now he is for it. (Bush was sneaky on this one, announcing his support, except for one tiny difference: The office he proposed to establish bore absolutely no similarity to the one that the 9/11 Commission called for.)
About the only issue that the president hasn't flip-flopped on is his tax break for his wealthy friends. No, indeed, on that matter he is solid as a rock, even though four years of staggering deficits suggests the need to, at the very least, reconsider the promised, but largely unrealized benefits we were supposed to get from these upper-end cuts. (He did inherit a surplus, after all.)
Frankly, an argument can be made that the country would benefit from even more flip-flopping. Just consider the president's highly questionable domestic initiatives that beg for reconsideration: "No Child Left Behind," new prescription drug entitlements and those preposterous tax breaks. And on the War Against Terrorism, aka the War on Iraq, Bush and his neo-cons might consider some serious flip-flopping, beginning with a reconsideration of all that naive Wilsonian rhetoric about making the region safe for democracy. Could it be that for cultural and historical reasons, Iraq has no more chance of becoming a democracy than did Germany following World War I? Could it be that what we are facing in Iraq is not the residue of Saddam's power but raw nationalism, even tribalism? I'm not the only one asking these questions; even leaders in Bush's own party are now openly begging him to flip-flop on Iraq.
The 9/11 Commission also urged Bush to flip-flop when it concluded that, in the long run, diplomacy must be much more heavily relied upon than the military action Bush prefers. And along the way, maybe the president might want to consider trying for once to gain cooperation of our allies - of course, doing so would constitute a major flip-flop.
Flip-flopping used to be called "pragmatism." Franklin Delano Roosevelt turned pragmatism into a governing art form. With an eye toward a penumbra of values, he would try something -- if it didn't work, he would try something else. Like most successful presidents, he would qualify as a big flip-flopper. And Kerry has been a flip-flopper, too -- as has Bush. But by turning pragmatism into a political issue and by denying his own flip-flops, Bush is trying to make a virtue out of pure bull-headedness.