Sen. Joseph Lieberman's 15-minute appearance on ABC's This Week yesterday morning essentially boiled down to this message: Americans should vote for John McCain because his position on Iraq has been consistent and correct, whereas Barack Obama has flip-flopped on Iraq and other issues, so much so that the American people cannot trust him.
As I watched, I got increasingly angrier as neither host George Stephanopoulos, nor guest Sen. Jack Reed, a Democratic U.S. senator from Rhode Island who was, allegedly, there to be Obama's advocate, made the obvious point that McCain has flip-flopped on virtually every issue, including Iraq, exponentially more severely than Obama's recent position changes.
Considering McCain's record, how ballsy does the McCain camp have to be to accuse Obama of flip-flopping? Or, put another way, how apathetic does McCain think the voters are that the campaign can get away with accusing Obama of the very thing that has been McCain's biggest weakness?
The interview revealed two major points that Obama will have to consistently address if he is to win in November.
The first is that Obama opened himself up to these attacks, unnecessarily, I think. His cross-party appeal has been based on his argument that he is not a typical politician. That is, he has a set of principles, which all involve solving problems and putting aside any kind of divisions (party, race, region, etc. ... remember, Obama is the man who said: "there's not a liberal America and a conservative America; there's the United States of America"). No matter what land mines he and his advisers think await him on specific issues, I would urge Obama to consider that no greater threat exists for him than a blow to the idea that he is a man of principle. As he says on the campaign trail: "I can promise you this -- I will always say what I mean and mean what I say." Well, changing positions on issues in a way that feels politically calculated isn't consistent with this statement.
Moderates and Republicans that have embraced Obama have done so due to his authenticity. These voters were willing to put aside differences on individual issues to embrace a candidate who stood for something bigger, specifically integrity and bipartisanship. So it would seem to follow that no one policy issue can damage Obama as much as a blow to the integrity of his positions. Voters seem willing to vote for Obama, even if they have different views on some issues, so long as they think he is different than most politicians. Anything that Obama does to make him seem just like every other person running for office strikes at the very heart of his appeal.
And that is why I am so troubled by Obama's tack to the center in the last week on FISA, handguns and Iraq. On FISA, Obama went from standing with Senators Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wisc.) in opposing retroactive immunity, to last week saying he would support the "compromise" bill that essentially gives President Bush everything he wants, including civil immunity for the telecommunications companies that engaged in the administration's illegal wiretapping program. (Keith Olbermann offered an insightful Special Comment on Obama's choices in the FISA issue, which you can watch here.) Obama then hedged on the Supreme Court's ruling overturning the ban on handguns in Washington, D.C. And most dangerously, Obama's statement that he would "refine" his position on troop withdrawals from Iraq resulted in headlines that Obama had adjusted his position on the issue. Obama claimed that the statement did not mark a change in his views, but why did he put himself in that position in the first place?
Republicans immediately jumped on all of these alleged shifts in Obama's positions to call him a flip-flopper and play into American fears that voters don't really know who Obama is and for what he stands. I am gutted that Obama is giving this opening to the GOP. I understand that he is afraid of being branded as soft on terrorism -- a fear that seems to be genetically encoded in the DNA of Democrats -- but nothing is as big a threat to Obama's candidacy as losing his image as the candidate of integrity. His policy shifts risk so much more than the alleged gains they may bring with independent voters.
Don't get me wrong: I have no problem with Obama organically making adjustments to his positions based on changes in underlying facts. There is a strong argument to be made that one of the primary character flaws that brought down the Bush presidency was his stubborn refusal to change his programs, even after it became clear that his original assumptions were incorrect. I would support Obama saying to the American people regarding an issue, "These factors have changed, so I believe that we now should be doing this."
But that's not the argument Obama is making to the electorate on FISA, guns or Iraq. Rather, what Obama seems to be doing is making the classic "move to the center" that presidential candidates often make after securing the nomination. But Obama's successful campaign has been built on the idea that he is not a typical Washington politician, and his is not a typical presidential campaign. His policy shifts are being portrayed by Republicans (and possibly are being received by voters) as pandering for votes. And that is exactly what Obama should not be doing. It's like he is helping the Republicans undermine his candidacy.
Which brings us to the second point, which is that Obama has to make clear to voters that McCain has managed to flip-flip on nearly every major policy position. If McCain's argument is that Obama cannot be trusted because he has shifted his positions over time, then by McCain's own logic, he himself should be trusted far less, since he has been a far, far larger offender on this count than Obama could ever be accused of being.
Obama can't control the media, who, for the most part, are giving McCain a free pass on the issue. But Obama can certainly send word to his surrogates who appear on news shows to strenuously make this point. It was indefensible for Reed to sit there silently on This Week while Lieberman hammered Obama over and over again for being a flip-flopper. Reed should have immediately listed the clear and lengthy record McCain has of changing positions on issues solely for political expediency. (If Reed is auditioning for the vice-presidential slot on the ticket, to me, he blew it yesterday.)
If the Republicans want to make the race for the White House a question of who has been more true to his positions over time, that is a battle the Democrats can win, given the records of Obama and McCain. But it's up to Obama and his campaign to make sure that McCain's record is out there, since, as the GOP has proven, the party doesn't need the facts on its side to convince the electorate of something. This is, after all, the party that swayed the American people to believe that John Kerry, who went to Vietnam and was wounded, was somehow less patriotic than Bush, who used the influence of his wealthy parents to get out of having to fight in the war. If Obama isn't careful, the GOP will paint him as a flip-flopper, facts be damned.
To set the record straight, and to provide ammunition for seemingly blind journalists and Obama surrogates, here is a partial list of McCain's major flip-flops:
McCain voted against the Bush tax cuts, saying they disproportionately benefited the wealthiest Americans, and advocated for delaying the tax cuts to pay for the Iraq war and reconstruction. But then, as the 2008 election drew nearer, he voted to extend the Bush tax cuts and made making them permanent a central tenet in his economic plan. (Tim Russert on Meet the Press pointed out the change in position to McCain in 2007. You can view the exchange here.)
As for the estate tax, McCain, in a June 8, 2006 speech in the Senate, said, "most great civilized countries have an income tax and an inheritance tax," and "in my judgment both should be part of our system of federal taxation." But by June 2008, he was calling the estate tax "one of the most unfair tax laws on the books."
In the period leading up to the war in 2002, McCain was a vocal supporter of the invasion, agreeing with the administration's claims that victory would be fast and easy, and that the U.S. would be greeted by the Iraqis as liberators. By 2007, he was publicly complaining that "America was led to believe this would be some kind of day at a beach," and that he knew it would be a "long and tough" war all along. McCain essentially switched positions 180 degrees, first siding with the "this will be easy" propaganda of the administration before the war, and then bashing that same strategy when he wanted to defend "the surge" he supported (and, presumably, distance himself from remarks that ended up being proven tragically wrong).
Guantanamo Bay and Torture
McCain spoke out (as a former prisoner of war) against torture and the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, but while running for president in this cycle, he voted against the torture-ban bill in the senate and criticized the Supreme Court's decision last month allowing hearings for prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
Campaign Finance Reform
McCain has gotten great mileage from citing his sponsorship of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill as an example of his "maverick" nature and his willingness to anger his own party to do what he thinks is right. Certainly, in 2000, that argument might have been backed by the facts. But in 2006, McCain abandoned the bill that was named after him and did not support Feingold's campaign finance efforts, apparently with his quest for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination in mind.
After opposing Sen. Jim Webb's (D-Va.) bill to provide benefits to veterans -- one that had 54 sponsors in the Senate -- (including telling Obama that he did not have to defend his position to him because Obama did not serve in the military), McCain then embraced the passage of the GI Bill as part of the war funding legislation (and was thanked by Bush as being one of the senators responsible for its passage).
Jerry Falwell and the Religious Right
When running for president in 2000, McCain decried "agents of intolerance like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell." By the time his run for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination came around, he told Tim Russert on Meet the Press that he did not believe Falwell was an agent of intolerance and gave the commencement address at Falwell's Liberty University.
In 1999, McCain told the San Francisco Chronicle that while he was pro-life, he did not support the repeal of Roe v. Wade, because doing so would require women to undergo "illegal and dangerous operations." But in 2006, McCain told George Stephanopoulos that he supported the repeal of Roe v. Wade, as well as a constitutional amendment banning abortion (with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother being endangered).
Offshore Oil Drilling
When McCain ran for president in 2000, he opposed offshore oil drilling. Now, he is in favor of it, saying it is up to the states that control the shorelines to decide.
Privatizing Social Security
McCain supported Bush's efforts to privatize a portion of Social Security accounts in 2004, saying, "Without privatization, I don't see how you can possibly, over time, make sure that young Americans are able to receive Social Security benefits." Bush's efforts never gained popular traction and failed, even with a Republican-controlled congress. McCain, apparently, learned his lesson. On June 12, 2008, McCain told a New Hampshire town hall meeting audience that "I'm not for, quote, privatizing Social Security. I never have been. I never will be." (Watch for yourself here.)
The Federal Budget
McCain can't seem to make up his mind over whether or not he will balance the budget in his first term as president. On February 15, McCain told a campaign audience he would balance the budget by the end of his first term. By April 15, he had changed that prediction to balancing the budget within eight years. (He blamed the souring economy for his change in plan, but that, to me, only makes matters worse, since it's not like high gas prices and the fallout from the subprime mortgage crisis weren't already problems in February.)
In 2006, McCain reached across the aisle to work with Sen. Edward Kennedy on an immigration reform bill that included a path to citizenship for immigrants. By the time the 2008 race heated up and McCain had to participate in the Republican debates, surrounded by strong anti-immigrant candidates, he shifted his position, even saying at one point that he would not vote for the same bill he worked on if it came up for a vote at that point.
McCain vocally decried the dirty attacks he endured from Bush during the 2000 primary season, and yet, by 2006, when McCain was assembling his team for his run for the 2008 nomination, he reached out to many of the same Bush supporters (that he had called "coyotes") who had supported attacks on him in 2000. Similarly, the McCain campaign used Bud Day, one of the notorious Swift Boat Veterans for Truth who attacked John Kerry in 2004, to rebut remarks made by retired general Wesley Clark. In 2004, McCain used the words "dishonest and dishonorable" to describe the Swift Boat attack advertisement, urging Bush to condemn it. He added, "It was the same kind of deal that was pulled on me."
So Much More
From his position on the Everglades, to Katrina (also here), to a host of environmental issues, to oil policy (Olbermann's Special Report on the Enron exception and McCain's connections to big oil does a good job of making this point), to lobbyists in his campaign, there are myriad issues on which McCain has changed his position.
See For Yourself
Here are some additional videos and sites that outline McCain's flip-flops:
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