Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Flip Flopping: When is a flip a flop?

John McCain, a self-proclaimed Republican maverick, has long been known as a deficit hawk. He has attacked pork barrel spending with glee, in part to emphasize the need to spend carefully and balance the budget.

It was in part a desire to balance the budget that led to his opposition to the Bush tax cuts, as they were not offset with sufficient program cuts.

Now, he's running for president, and he supports extending the tax cuts permanently.

Barack Obama won the primary, in part, on his opposition to the Iraq War. Now, he's willing to weigh his options after travelling to the war zone later this week.

Both have been tagged by the media, and each other, as flip floppers. Certainly, a characteristic that people admire in politicians and leaders is fortitude and a clear sense of purpose. Flip flopping is seen as opportunistic. For example, Hillary Clinton received a lot of flak for calling for a gas holiday--a stance which seemed out of place with her emphasis on green jobs and the environment. And can one forgot John Kerry's "I voted for it before I voted against it?" How come Hillary couldn't get a way with a flop, when others--such as Ronald Reagan (the avowed tax cutter who raised taxes)--can? And when should we judge a flip-flop truly a flop and problematic?

There are no hard and fast rules about flip flopping. Sometimes, the answer lies in the salience of the issue. Flip-flopping is easy when the issue isn't on the radar screen or considered to be very important to voters. Sometimes, politicans can flip flop because their credentials are so solid that they can't be suspect (Ronald Reagan's years of espousing tax cuts and smaller government). It is harder when the issue is important among voters, or if the issue cuts at the core of the politician's individual brand name.

McCain has not flopped on Iraq, but has on taxes and on the environment (see off-shore drilling). Interestingly, his firm stance on Iraq and the surge may have proven correct, but it is also an issue on which the public is firmly against him. In this instance, McCain might be hurt by his unwillingness to flip-flop, especially given Bush's general intransigence is no longer seen as a strength among the public.

Barack's flip-flop, on the other hand, may not hurt him at all. A willingness to reassess the situation on the ground when new facts present themselves is a mini-flip flop, and doesn't really undermine his anti-war credentials.

McCain's flip flops, particularly on taxes, strikes at the core of who he is. It might shore up his support among his political base, but strikes others (independents and Democrats) as the political opportunism that Hillary displayed in support of the gas tax holiday (which McCain also supports). Furthermore, his unwillingess to move on Iraq hurts his maverick brand, as he appears to simply want to continue the Bush administration's policy.

McCain's key strength is his military experience and his willingness to talk straight. Whenever he flip-flops, he undermines that brand. Obama's brand is change. As such, flip flopping is less of a problem--unless Obama's flops make his look less like change and more like the same. In keeping an open mind about Iraq, one might argue Obama's position is consistent with change as the administration and McCain has been less willing to do the same.

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