When Flipping and Flopping Works

Washington Matters

When Flipping and Flopping Works

Sure, reversing positions on key issues can be unseemly and, if done often enough, it can make a candidate appear disingenuous and gutless. But I see Barack Obama's recent flip-flops in a different light than my colleague Mark Willen. The spate of pronouncements in recent days that appear to put him at odds with previous positions has almost certainly made Obama a stronger candidate.

First, he has taken off the table two issues that have repeatedly proven fatal to Democrats -- guns and capital punishment. By supporting a Supreme Court decision that embraces the right to bear arms and criticizing another that limits capital punishment to murder cases, Obama has made it far easier for him to keep the agenda focused on issues that are of huge concern to voters: the economy and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That means that more conservative Democrats and independents who might be skeptical of Obama are more likely to judge him on issues that tend to favor him. Besides, voters are so concerned about the direction of the country that they really are not much interested in cultural issues such as those, especially since there are no real moves afoot that would either drastically restrict gun rights or roll back the death penalty.

Second, it's early summer. Obama is getting the decks cleared for the general election. Unless he continues flipping and flopping and triangulating and hedging for months to come, his reversals will generally be forgotten. It seems doubtful that charges of flip-flopping will hurt him much, no matter how hard John McCain tries. They'll simply feel too old in the fall.

Third, McCain has done enough flipping and flopping of his own to help ameliorate the effect on Obama. Sure, some shifts in position are the mark of reason and flexibility, especially those on immigration and opening offshore sites to oil drilling. But McCain is going to be stuck forever with reversing his stand on the Bush tax cuts that he originally opposed as too costly and tilted too much toward the wealthy. With most of those tax cuts due to expire in the next few years, they will very much be at the center of debate and near the top of voters' minds. It will be awful hard for McCain to not be seen as going after the conservative vote with that change -- and perhaps even harder to explain why rich Americans should continue to benefit from tax cuts in an era of government deficits and tough economic times.

While McCain's position on offshore drilling appears extremely reasonable and responsible, I'm not at all sure it's good or effective politics. It could make winning the crucial states of Florida and California far more difficult and even cost him support in such coastal but generally Republican states as Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia. And Obama has expressed a willingness to consider such a move if it can be shown it would genuinely help improve U.S. oil supplies and can be done safely. That's a challenge McCain will have to take up if he is to see any traction on the issue.

Fourth, like it or not, whatever detrimental effect Obama's switch on accepting public campaign money might have on his image is bound to be offset dramatically by the impact his huge cash advantage it will give him over McCain. And McCain has made it a little difficult to take criticism of Obama on that front too seriously since he rejected, accepted and rejected public financing during the primaries -- all as a way of securing loans to rescue his nearly bankrupt campaign.

There is one particular flip-flop that I think could be potentially costly to Obama -- NAFTA. While he and Hillary Clinton fought bitterly over who would be tougher on trade, Obama now acknowledges that his rhetoric became a little "overheated" during the campaign and that he's unlikely to carry out his threats to try to alter the agreement. While that puts Obama back to where he has usually been politically, generally in favor of free trade, it does raise an interesting question: Since he will be in a far tougher campaign with McCain than he was with Clinton, just when will his rhetoric be overheated and when should it be taken at face value? His shift back in support of NAFTA could upset some anti-trade Democrats, but McCain is a free trader as well so it seems unlikely that there will be much backlash from them.