The Primaries Produced the McCain and Obama Flip-Flops

We need to fix the primaries to alleviate the pressure to veer from the extreme to the center.

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I commend to you a very thoughtful critique of the Obama flip-flop question in today's New York Times by op-ed columnist Paul Krugman. He considers the type of policies an Obama administration might support, coming to the (unstated but implied) conclusion that it's kind of hard to divine, because the candidate has changed substantive positions so many times:

Mr. Obama looks even more centrist now than he did before wrapping up the nomination. Most notably, he has outraged many progressives by supporting a wiretapping bill that, among other things, grants immunity to telecom companies for any illegal acts they may have undertaken at the Bush administration's behest.

As is well known, Sen. John McCain is widely accused of flip-flopping on major issues, such as offshore oil drilling, immigration, and how to wind down the Iraq war.

The rush of flip-flop charges during this political season makes one wonder whether something endemic to our primary system produces candidates who must reverse course in order to (A) secure the party nomination and then, (B) be competitive in the general election.

Political observers understand candidates cater to their bases during the primary season, which means going to the extreme right for Republicans and the extreme left for Democrats. Once they win the nomination, candidates must then veer back toward the center to woo general election voters who tend to be more mainstream than primary voters. This leads to a rash of changes in position that has now crescendoed to the point where every candidate has to reverse course on almost every major issue in the campaign.

The Democratic Party adjusted its selection process in the early 1980s—that in response to complaints by then candidate Jesse Jackson, who decried the winner-take-all approach as racially discriminatory.

But this year's messy combination of unruly caucuses and primaries produced a nasty nomination process that went on too long and took a big chunk out of party unity. I'm wondering if there are other ways to adjust both the Republican and Democratic primaries to put less pressure on candidates to move from the extremes toward the middle. Any thoughts?