McCain & Co. seemed to stumble on this line of attack almost by accident. They'd experimented with a variety of memes in recent months, none of which had any real salience. The right settled on "flip-flopper," in large part because it's the closest available, already-written Republican narrative, and in part because McCain staffers haven't been able to think of anything else.
The irony, of course, is that the McCain campaign couldn't have picked a more hypocritical line of attack. For John McCain to accuse anyone of excessively changing policy positions is a bit like George W. Bush attacking someone's grammar. Or Dick Cheney whining about a political figure being overly secretive.
After working on this project for a few months, I'm pleased to report that we now have a whopping 61 policy reversals from the Republican nominee. If McCain wants to argue that flip-flops are an example of a political leader who can't be trusted to keep his word or honor his commitments, McCain might as well drop out of the race now.
Remember, just two weeks ago, John McCain said, "This election is about trust and trusting people's word." Just a few days prior, the McCain campaign admonished Obama for trying to "have it both ways" on issues.
The list is a little too long to publish here, but take a look and reach your own conclusion about which candidate us trying to have it both ways. (I've numbered the list and organized it by category for easier reference.)
I should note, of course, that there's a growing sense that flip-flops don't much matter. And truth be told, I'm very much inclined to agree that there's nothing offensive about a political figure changing his or her mind once in a while. Policy makers come to one conclusion, they gain more information, and then they reach a different conclusion. That is, to be sure, a good thing -- it reflects a politician with an open mind and a healthy intellectual curiosity. Better to have a leader who changes his or her mind based on new information than one who stubbornly sticks to outmoded policy positions, regardless of facts or circumstances.
So why do McCain's flip-flops matter? Because all available evidence suggests his reversals aren't sincere, they're cynically calculated for political gain. This isn't indicative of an open mind; it's actually indicative of a character flaw. And given the premise of McCain's presidential campaign, it's an area in desperate need of media scrutiny.
Go ahead and look the list over, keeping an eye on the ideological trend. Some of the reversals are because McCain is embarrassed by what he used to believe -- he argued, for example, that the war in Iraq would be easy, which looks ridiculous now, and which leads him to argue that he knew all along that the war was "probably going to be long and hard and tough."
Most of the reversals, though, show McCain dropping his centrist/moderate credentials in order to be more in line with today's Republican mainstream. Tax cuts, foreign policy, immigration, abortion, the religious right, the environment, detainee policy, campaign finance reform. In every instance, McCain was a "maverick," willing to break with his party. Now, he isn't. The perception people have of McCain is outdated, reflective of a man who no longer has any use for his previous persona.
What's wrong with a politician who changes his or her views? Nothing in particular, but when a politician changes his views so much that he has an entirely different worldview, is it unreasonable to wonder whether it's entirely sincere? Especially when there's no other apparent explanation for five dozen significant reversals?
Are there are worse qualities in a presidential candidate than changing one's mind about a policy matter? Sure. McCain has been in Congress for more than a quarter-century; he's bound to shift now and then on various controversies.
But therein lies the point -- McCain was consistent on most of these issues, right up until he started running for president, at which point he conveniently abandoned literally dozens of positions he used to hold. The problem isn't just the incessant flip-flops -- though that's part of it -- it's more about the shameless pandering and hollow convictions behind the incessant flip-flops. That the media still perceives McCain as some kind of "straight talker" who refuses to sway with the political winds makes this all the more glaring.
Here's the list. Next time you hear Republicans label Obama a flip-flopper, point them in the direction of these 61 reversals.