In a debate on Hardball last week, I was asked about McCain's flip-flops vs. Obama's, which is like contrasting Bonnie & Clyde with an alleged jaywalker.
Of course, it should be no crime that a person or candidate changes her/his mind based on new information...until the Bush Team turned ignorance into resolution and John Kerry fell into the trap with his for-it-before-against-it on Iraq funding.
So if "flip-flopping" is a test, our Air America panel of Alter, Huffington and Reagan concludes that McCain certainly scores higher based on sheer frequency. For he's probably done a 180 degree turn - or changed significantly - on tax cuts, offshore drilling, Social Security privatization, negotiating with Hamas, Roe v. Wade, the Religious Right, presidential public financing, rights for Gitmo detainees, and torture.
Why? McCain is trying to do the impossible - satisfy both the Far Right of his party and the progressive majority in America in order to win 270 electoral votes. Across nearly all polls and no matter how phrased, voters after eight years of Bush-Cheney are more progressive on the environment, health care, tax cuts for the rich, choice, Iraq, social security. There's no way that McCain can straddle his wary and wacko base - which questions evolution and global warming - and also appeal to Independents and swing Democrats.
And Obama? He appears more to have finessed than flip-flopped, making tactical not fundamental decisions. True, he originally said that he wanted Telecoms not to get retroactive immunity in a FISA bill. But in the context of legislative negotiations and compromises, he came down eventually for making sure that a court makes a Fourth Amendment probable cause determination rather than helping litigants sue civilly. Also, before the Supreme Court's two decisions this week (and unlike me and most liberals), he believed in the death penalty for heinous crimes and in an individual's right to own a handgun while allowing the State to reasonably regulate guns.
Also, while he never absolutely said that he'd accept public financing in the general election, he implied as much. But that change was tactical and understandable. And McCain's in no position to complain, since he pledged to accept public financing in the primaries in order to get a vital bank loan...and then reneged.
Republicans are going to have to get used to the following -- if they hope that the Democratic nominee will do something politically self-immolating and risk the general election, they apparently want a different nominee. Sorry, not this time. Let's remember that in Obama's debut national speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention , he spoke about how there wasn't "a Liberal America and a Conservative America..." Also, Jonathan Alter, a biographer of FDR, reminds us how he once told wife who was upset at reversing course on The League of Nations, "First, I have to win."
Precisely because most Democrats are desperate to punish Bush's extremism and avoid a Bush third term, Senator Obama does have enormous latitude on many issues. Some purist Democrats wouldn't support Hubert Humphrey over Richard Nixon in 1968 because of LBJ & Vietnam -- and look what it got us.
But there are still two lines Obama still can't cross.
First, he and McCain both have earned reputations as mavericks who are not normal Beltway politicians. If Obama finesses issues like FDR and Clinton - those two having the distinction of being the only Democrats in 75 years to have won two presidential terms - there are worse things...like Republican running the White House and leading us backward into the future. But if the Democratic nominee this year plays it too cute on too many issues, he could lose the "authenticity" of hope that attracted so many to him. So should he or an advisor soon consider backtracking on x or y or z -- in order to appear slightly more commander-in-chief like or appeal to some sliver of the electorate -- Obama will need to take a more holistic approach and not, as an earlier HuffPost headline warned, threaten his "brand."
Second, there are of course core issues that would blow up his base - like fudging on withdrawal from Iraq being the main one, as Arianna argues below.
But if Obama implies, like FDR, that he may have to trim to win, that'll be fine in a world where there are many advocates but only one president...so long as he then governs like FDR. Boldly, progressively, by connecting to and engaging the American people in new approaches that shatter statis.
Although of course there's no equivalent of a run on the banks and a Depression, will Obama have a 100 Days or a First Year where he exploits the planets being in progressive alignment in order to realign our politics and our government? FDR ran as a moderate and then governed as a liberal. Bill Clinton once complained to his staff that he was a progressive president in a conservative era -- and there was truth to that.
If he wins, Obama will be a progressive president in a progressive era. Tactical realignment in the pursuit of an electoral and policy realignment is no sin. Opportunity knocks.
EXCERPTS FROM 7 DAYS IN AMERICA, JUNE 28, W/ JONATHAN ALTER, HUFFINGTON, REAGAN & GREEN
ALTER: Q: Barack Obama seemed to show his Chicago side more than his Yes-We-Can side this week when he finessed his positions on telecom immunity, public financing, and gun control and the death penalty for child rape after the Supreme Court decisions. Is this good politics or bad triangulation? "As FDR told a lot of people in 1932, including his own wife who got angry at him for flip-flopping on the League of Nations, 'First, I have to win.' Now do you want to sell out all your principles in order to win? No. But if you're in politics, you're going to have to compromise and bend and in some cases flip-flop a little bit if you want to get elected to President of the United States.... It's really a distinction between people who are familiar with politics as the art of the possible and purists who are going to be disappointed every time."
ALTER: Q: Isn't McCain far more guilty of flip-flopping than Obama -- on taxes, Roe v. Wade, drilling, Social Security privatization, the religious right, even Iraq, whether we're there 100 years or four years? Will the media continue to largely give McCain a free pass? "You didn't even mention what, to me, is his biggest flip-flop, and that's on torture. He earned part of his maverick stripes in recent years by coming out strongly against the Bush administration on torture. And then during the Republican primaries, a bill came up saying that the CIA could torture and he voted for it. So this was a really kind of appalling flip-flop on what McCain said was a core issue for him."
ALTER: Q: Your book -- The Defining Moment -- is about FDR's first 100 Days. Can Barack Obama be a 21st-century FDR in terms of realigning the electorate for future elections and on a progressive agenda? "That will be the big story of 2009 and 2010. And I think he's got a chance to do that, to be a transformational leader. But we don't know enough about him yet, and we don't know enough about what kind of mandate he'll have, how he'll operate in Washington with all the competing forces. It's really a story where an irresistible force might be meeting an immovable object." GREEN: "What's the immovable object?" ALTER: "Washington, D.C."
HUFFINGTON: Q: Who will get a higher percentage of his party's base in November, McCain or Obama? "No question that Obama will do better with his base....as we learn more and more about McCain, about his record on women's rights, and now his record on the environment and conservation and his flip-flop on offshore drilling."
REAGAN: Q: Do you agree that the reason McCain flip-flops so much may be that he has to satisfy both his winger base, which is anti-choice, anti-environment, pro-war, and pro-privatization, and also a general electorate which is on the other side of those issues? "You are correct, I mean, he is pretzeling himself all over the place. And these are issues that really matter, and his flip-flops are real flip-flops. They're not, you know, a politician saying 'well, now that I realize I can make three times as much as my opponent, maybe I'll back away from that public financing'. That at least is sort of understandable in the political realm: maybe not condonable, but understandable. But torture? Come on. That's not something you compromise on."
REAGAN: Q: Do you think the recent 5-4 Supreme Court decisions might remind a lot of these fence-sitting Hillary Clinton supporters that if they act out their grievances and stay home, the Supreme Court could very easily get a solid conservative majority for decades? "Yes, I think it reminds people what's at stake in this election....Habeas corpus was almost thrown out the window for some people. If Justice Kennedy had simply gone the other way, you would have seen this terrible ruling against habeas corpus."
HUFFINGTON: Q: In 2009, we might have for the first time since 1993 a Democratic President, House, and Senate. As I asked Jonathan, could Obama win a realigning election and take the country in a new direction? Or is he much more cautious and compromising? "There are certain compromises he can make and still have a realigning election, and certain compromises he cannot make. The biggest one is over Iraq. If he compromises on Iraq...then that would be catastrophic. But if he makes [only] the expected sorts of compromises of governing, he can still have a first 100 days that are actually realigning."