McCain and Obama Walk the Flip-Flopping Tightrope

Both candidates are trying to position themselves as pragmatic leaders in an ever changing world.

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Suddenly, flexibility is all the rage in the presidential race. John McCain and Barack Obama are refining, recalibrating, and shifting their positions left and right, trying to show they are pragmatic leaders in an ever changing world.

Not a bad objective, but the downside is that they open themselves to charges of flip-flopping. And that's the tightrope they'll be walking for the rest of the campaign. "One person's constancy is another person's rigidity," says Ross Baker, a Rutgers political scientist. "One person's flexibility is another person's vacillation."

But flexibility seems to be winning the day. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 78 percent of Americans believe it's better for a candidate to adjust his or her positions to changing circumstances, while only 18 percent feel it is better not to change positions. Brookings Institution political scientist Bill Galston, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton, says this is partly a reaction to President Bush's habit of setting a course and not deviating from it. "On too many issues, people feel this administration is too dug in," Galston says.

Every election year, Americans look for "antidotes" for what ails an existing administration, Galston adds. In 1960, voters were attracted to John F. Kennedy's promise of vigor and activism after what was perceived as the stagnant era of Dwight Eisenhower. Jimmy Carter's pledge never to lie was a welcome contrast to Richard Nixon's prevarications. Now, the promises of McCain and Obama to listen to their critics are seen as antidotes to Bush's perceived intransigence.

Obama has shifted on several issues. He voted for warrantless-wiretapping legislation because he said the bill was altered to his satisfaction. He rejected public financing for his general-election campaign, arguing that he couldn't give up his private fundraising base while the opposition piled up money. Most importantly, he said he would "refine" his position on the pace of withdrawal from Iraq, depending on the advice of field commanders. Republican partisans and some journalists said Obama had committed a fundamental flip-flop, but this was an overreaction. As Obama made clear later, he wasn't backing off his pledge to withdraw troops within 16 months of his inauguration, only being careful about how it would be done.

McCain has had his own bouts of inconsistency. He now supports the big tax cuts enacted during Bush's first term that he once opposed, saying the shaky economy justified his reappraisal. He now supports offshore oil drilling, which he had opposed for years. He favors protecting the border as his first priority, backing off his earlier support for a path to citizenship for illegal workers. "We're in the stage now where both candidates are tacking toward the center," says Baker, as they try to create the widest possible coalitions.

In a strange twist, the McCain campaign is trying to tie Obama to the unpopular Bush. "I think the American people have had enough of inflexibility and stubbornness on national security policy," Randy Scheunemann,McCain's national security adviser, said during a recent conference call with reporters. What's more, he said, "we cannot afford to replace one administration that refused for too long to acknowledge failure in Iraq with a candidate who refuses to acknowledge success in Iraq." In other words, it's best to adjust to new circumstances.

Second thoughts. Most surprising of all is that even Bush, in the waning days of his presidency, is having some second thoughts. He backed off a threat to veto a key housing bill. He recently sent an envoy to talks with Iran, which he had said he wouldn't do until Tehran halted its nuclear program. And he agreed to work with the Iraqi government to set a "time horizon" for withdrawing U.S. troops, which sounds similar to the "timetable" he pledged never to accept.

In the end, the worst thing a candidate can do is to try to have it both ways, as 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry appeared to do when he admitted voting for an $87 billion appropriation for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan before he voted against it. He was pilloried for being weak and duplicitous.

Corrected 08/08/08: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the tax issue. It should have said that McCain now supports the big tax cuts enacted during Bush's first term.