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Posted at 6:00 AM ET, 02/25/2008

Top Ten Democratic Flip Flops

By Michael Dobbs

Austin, Texas, Feb. 21, 2008.

The Democratic debate from Austin, Texas, had been underway for less than half an hour when the Clinton campaign zapped an e-mail to reporters headlined: "Obama flip-flop on Cuba." The message noted that Obama had backtracked on earlier calls for normalizing relations with Havana, making such a step contingent on progress toward democracy.

The Obama camp struck back minutes later with a message pointing out that Hillary Clinton had changed her position on immigration reform. She was now calling for legislation giving undocumented workers a path to citizenship to be introduced within 100 days of her inauguration--after earlier refusing to make such a commitment.

Charges of flip-flopping have become routine as the Democratic primary contest heads into the home strait with elections in Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. While Obama and Clinton have largely succeeded in escaping the flip-flopper label that was pinned on Republican candidate Mitt Romney, they have provided each other with plenty of ammunition for accusations of inconsistency and pandering to the voters.

See my earlier look at the top ten Republican flip-flops here.

Top Obama Flip Flops

1. Special Interests
Back in January, the Obama campaign described union contributions to the Clinton and Edwards campaign as "special interest" money. He changed his tune as he went after union endorsements himself. He now refers respectfully to unions as the representatives of "working people" and says he is "thrilled" by their support.

2. Public Financing
Obama replied "yes" in September 2007 when asked if he would agree to public financing of the presidential election if his GOP opponent did the same. His spokesman now says that he never gave such a pledge, and Obama himself has attached several conditions, including regulating spending by outside groups.

3. The Cuba embargo
In January 2004, Obama said flatly that it was time "to end the embargo with Cuba," because it had "utterly failed in the effort to overthrow Castro." Speaking to a Cuban-American audience in Miami in August 2007, he said he would not "take off the embargo" as president because it was "an important inducement for change."

4. Illegal immigration
In a March 2004 questionnaire, Obama was asked if the government should "crack down on businesses that hire illegal immigrants." He replied "Oppose." In a televised debate on January 31, he said that "we do have to crack down on those employers that are taking advantage of the situation."

5. Decriminalization of Marijuana
While running for the U.S. Senate in January 2004, Obama told Illinois college students that he supported eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana use. In the October 30, 2007 presidential debate, he joined other Democratic candidates in opposing the decriminalization of marijuana.

Top Clinton Flip Flops

In a January 2004 news conference, Clinton said that she thought NAFTA "on balance has been good for New York and good for America." She now says that she has "long been a critic of the shortcomings of NAFTA" and advocates a "time out" from similar trade agreements.

2. No Child Left Behind
Clinton voted in favor of the 2002 education bill that focused on raising student achievement levels, hailing the measure as "a major step forward." She now attacks the law at campaign rallies and meetings with teachers, desribing it as a "test, test, test" approach.

3. Ending the war in Iraq
In June 2006, Clinton restated her long-standing opposition to establishing timetables for withdrawing U.S. forces in Iraq. In a Jan. 15, 2008 Democratic debate in Las Vegas, she proposed to "start withdrawing" troops within 60 days of her inauguration, to bring out "one or two brigades a month" and have "nearly all of the troops out" by the end of 2009.

4. Drivers' licenses for illegals
Clinton expressed support for a plan by New York governor Eliot Spitzer to offer limited drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants in a campaign statement on October 31, 2007, after going back and forth on the matter in a televised debate. In a televised debate from Nevada on November 15, she replied with a simple "No" when asked if she approved the drivers' license idea in the absence of comprehensive immigration reform.

5. Florida and Michigan delegates
In September 2007, the Clinton campaign formally pledged not to participate in primary or caucus elections staged before Feb. 5, 2008, in defiance of Democratic National Committee rules. She now says that delegates from Florida and Michigan should be seated at the Democratic Convention, despite their flouting of rules that all the major Democratic candidates endorsed..

Reviewing the Record

A review of the two candidates' records show that both senators have shifted positions on numerous issues as the competition for votes becomes more intense. In some cases, the shifts have been subtle, a change of emphasis rather than an obvious reversal. But on other issues, both candidates are saying things that are quite different from their previous positions.

After earlier opposing a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq, both Democratic candidates have been forced to become more specific on the campaign trail, in response to Democratic voters who want the U.S. to pull back from Iraq as soon as possible. Clinton's reversal on the question of the timetable has been particularly dramatic. She now says she will get "nearly all" U.S. troops out of the country by the end of 2009; Obama says he will get all "combat troops" out of Iraq within 16 months of taking office.

In June 2006, Clinton was booed and hissed by a conference of liberal Democratic activists for refusing to agree to a date to get out of Iraq on the grounds that it would send the wrong signal to America's enemies.

Such shifts are pretty standard in presidential election politics, according to Marion Just, a professor of political science at Wellesley College who has been following the campaign closely. Candidates start off by being as ambiguous as possible about their policies, to keep their options open. As they come face to face to face with the voters, they are "forced to become more specific," even if it means contradicting previous statements.

"In the current electronic era, it is difficult to make even a slight change because the Internet is for ever," said Just. "Your previous statements pop up on YouTube."

As senators, both Obama and Clinton have long records of thousands of votes that provide plenty of fodder for opposition research. As John Kerry discovered to his cost in the 2004 presidential campaign, and Obama is discovering with his voting record in the Illinois State Senate, it is often difficult for legislators to explain the nuances of tactical voting and finely-tuned trade-offs.

Since Clinton has been in the U.S. Senate for longer than Obama (almost eight years, as opposed to just over three years) she has many more votes to explain away. During their campaign appearances, both senators have criticized the landmark education bill known as No Child Left Behind. Clinton voted for the bill in 2002 along with a majority of other Democrats; Obama was not in the U.S. Senate at the time.

"Clinton ratcheted up her opposition to No Child Left Behind as the race became tighter and she needed votes," said Jack Jennings, director for the Center for Education Policy and a former Democratic staffer. "She is reacting to what she has been hearing on the campaign trail, particularly from teachers."

For Robert Feldman, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, flip-flopping on the campaign trail is a very human trait. "Politicians are like the rest of us," he said. "In everyday life, we say things to make ourselves look better, get people to like us, get a job. We all lie, to a greater or lesser extent. It's the same with politicians."

By Michael Dobbs  | February 25, 2008; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  Candidate Watch  
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Next: Feuding over NAFTA

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