Who is the Champion Flip-flopper?
It was one of the most devastating TV ads of the 2004 presidential campaign. To the tune of the "Blue Danube" waltz, the Democratic candidate was shown tacking his windsurf board left, then right, then left again while an announcer commented sarcastically, "John Kerry, whichever way the wind blows."
As the primary season comes to a climax in the 2008 campaign, the two leading GOP candidates are invoking the waltz and windsurfing images to gain some vital last minute traction. John McCain and Mitt Romney have both issued web ads, modeled on the George W. Bush 2004 ad, seeking to pin the "biggest flip-flopper" on their rival and exploit a perceived weakness.
Political analysts say that both Romney and McCain are vulnerable to the "flip-flop" charge for different reasons. "Flip-flopper" has become part of Romney's political identity, with the candidate changing positions on such core issues as abortion, gun control, and immigration. The Arizona senator, meanwhile, has presented himself as a "straight talker," so the perception that he is in the same league as Romney when it comes to flip-flopping could be highly damaging.
The McCain ad uses the Strauss waltz for background music and superimposes a photograph of Romney's head on a cartoon of a windsurfer. "Where does Mitt Romney stand?" asks the announcer, after claiming that the former Massachusetts governor changed his position on supporting the George Bush tax cuts. "Whichever way the wind blows."
Entitled "Waltz," the Romney ad dispenses with the windsurfer image but shows McCain justifying his change of position on the Bush tax cuts to the background of the "Blue Danube" music. A caption then flashes across the screen, "John McCain. Always for Tax Cuts...Except when he's against them."
Choosing a winner in the flip-flop wars is not easy. An examination of the record shows that both Romney and McCain have changed their position on key issues important to GOP voters, such as taxes and immigration. Romney's changes of heart have arguably been the more spectacular, raising questions about the candidate's core convictions, but McCain has changed his position more than he is usually prepared to admit.
"You have to distinguish between the quantity and the quality of the flip-flops," argued Jennifer Duffy, a veteran analyst for the Cook Political Report. She says that Romney's flip-flops have been on "big issues for Republican voters," such as abortion. She said that McCain was trying to "reach out to establishment Republicans" by stressing issues like sealing the border, but had not "fundamentally changed his views" on immigration reform and other matters.
Nachama Soloveichik, communications director for the Club for Growth, a free market think tank and lobby group, said that Romney came across as "more sincere" than McCain on the issue of the Bush tax cuts, of paramount concern to many conservatives. She said that the Arizona senator had sounded "like Ted Kennedy" in 2001, when he opposed the tax cuts on the grounds that they helped the wealthy at the expense of the middle class.
"He is trying to have it both ways," said Soloveichik. "It's hard to take him seriously when he says he is going to fight to make the Bush cuts permanent. He was front and center opposing them."
The issue of flip-flopping came up repeatedly during the Florida primary and the run-up to Super Tuesday. Speaking in Jacksonville, McCain sarcastically praised Romney for his consistency. "He's consistently taken both sides of any major issue. He has consistently flip-flopped on every issue."
Not to be outdone, Romney shot back that McCain was "against the Bush tax cuts. Now he's for making them permanent. He was for McCain-Kennedy [immigration reform based on giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.] Now he's for a new program on immigration. He's changed his view on issue after issue. He was against ethanol, then for it, then against it again."
Romney supporters argue that McCain's flip-flops have largely gone under the public radar because they conflict with the "straight shooter" narrative accepted and promoted by the media. A list of McCain changes of position compiled by the Washington Post includes issues such as taxes, immigration, the religious Right, Roe vs. Wade, and ethanol. McCain has moved toward mainstream Republican positions on all these issues, embracing the Reaganite philosophy that tax cuts always lead to higher revenues.
The senator has sought to disguise his flip-flop on the Bush tax cuts by arguing that the main reason he opposed them at the time was that they were not accompanied by cuts on government spending. This was not the explanation he gave at the time, however. In his May 2001 Senate Floor speech opposing the tax cuts, he said he could not "in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us, at the expense of middle class Americans who most need tax relief."
Romney's flip-flops have been well-documented over the last few months, notably his changes of heart on abortion, which have closely tracked the voters he was targeting in various political campaigns. While he has acknowledged moving to "pro-life" views from "an effectively pro-choice position," Romney has glossed over various steps he took as governor of Massachusetts, including ordering all state hospitals to make the "morning after" pill available to rape victims over the objections of anti-abortion activists.
Romney's flip-flops have so angered some of his former supporters that they have established websites to chronicle his changes of heart. Groups that he once courted that are now sharply critical of him include the Log Cabin Republicans, a Republican Gay Rights Group, and the abortion rights organization Planned Parenthood, which is offering "flip-flopper from Massachusetts" merchandise on its website.
In the end, says veteran political analyst Stu Rothenberg, the flip-flopper tag may pose a bigger problem for Romney than McCain, if only because the Arizona senator starts off with "the image of being a straight shooter."
"Some charges stick and other's don't," said Rothenberg. "McCain hasn't been entirely successful in rebutting Romney's charges. Having said that, given the way the race has developed, Romney is not the most credible messenger to accuse McCain of flip-flopping."
Top Romney Flip Flops
In October 2002, campaigning for governorship of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney said he would "preserve and protect" a woman's right to choose. He now describes himself as opposing abortion.
2. Gay Rights
In a 1994 letter to the Log Cabin Republicans, who advocate gay rights, Romney said he was in favor of "gays and lesbians being able to serve openly and honestly" in the military. He now says it would be a mistake to interfere with the "don't ask, don't tell policy."
3. Gun Control
Campaigning for the Senate in 1994, Romney said he favored strong gun laws and did not "line up with the NRA." He signed up for "lifetime membership" of the NRA in August 2006 while pondering a presidential run, praising the group for "doing good things" and "supporting the right to bear arms."
4. Campaign Finance
In 1994, Romney advocated a spending limit on congressional elections and abolition of political action committees. In 2002, he supported public financing of campaigns from a 10 percent tax on private fund-raising. In 2008, he attacked the McCain-Feingold law limiting campaign contributions as an attack on free speech.
In a November 2005 interview with the Boston Globe, he described immigration reform proposal advanced by McCain as "reasonable." He now denounces it as an "amnesty plan." In December 2006, he signed agreement authorizing state troopers to round up illegal immigrants.
Top McCain Flip Flops
McCain was one of two Republican senators to vote against the Bush tax cuts of 2001, saying that he coult not support a tax cut that went to rich Americans rather than middle class Americans. He now favors making the tax cuts permanent.
2. Religious Right
During the 2002 election campaign, McCain attacked Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson as "agents of intolerance." He withdrew that remark in a 2006 interview with Meet the Press, saying that the Christian Right had a "major role to play in the Republican party."
Last year, McCain sponsored a bill that would combine a temporary worker program and path to citizenship for many illegal immigrants with increased border security. But he now puts the emphasis on securing the borders first.
4. Roe vs Wade
In August 1999, McCain told the San Francisco Chronicle that he would "not support repeal of Roe vs Wade" because it would force women to undergo illegal operations. He has subsequently said that he was speaking about the need to change the "culture of America", and supports the repeal of Roe vs Wade.
In 2003, McCain said that ethanol "does nothing to reduce fuel consumption, nothing to increase our energy independence, nothing to improve air quality." Campaigning in Iowa in August 2006, he described ethanol as a "vital alternative energy source, not only because of our dependency on foreign oil but its greenhouse reduction effects." Yesterday, in Massachusetts, he reverted to his anti-ethanol position.
| February 5, 2008; 6:00 AM ET
Categories: Candidate Record, Candidate Watch, Economy, Immigration, Social Issues
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