John Kerry is a flip-flopper. I know this because the RNC tells me so. Just take a look at their new "Interactive Game," Kerry versus Kerry, or listen to the president's speech last Wednesday alleging that "Senator Kerry's been in Washington long enough to take both sides on just about every issue."
The groundwork for this critique has certainly been well-laid. On Feb. 13, Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby argued that Kerry is the "candidate for nearly every point of view." On Feb. 20, Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer picked up the banner, writing that Kerry's greatest flaw is his "breathtaking penchant for reversing course for political convenience." Such is the all-pervasive power of this conventional wisdom that The Washington Post's Marjorie Williams, a "charter member" of the Anybody But Bush society, used her column last Sunday to deplore Kerry's "career-long opportunism, the knowledge that Bay State political junkies trade their favorite flip-flops like baseball cards."
One wouldn't want to argue that Kerry has never engaged in an opportunistic change of views over several decades in public life -- what politician hasn't? -- but upon examination there is surprisingly little to this critique. Discussing this issue on Sunday's Meet The Press, Tim Russert referred derisively to Kerry's "shall we say, rather 'nuanced' positions on a number of issues." The Senator's only real sin of nuance, however, is to do what every other Senator -- and every member of every legislative body throughout the world -- does on a regular basis: vote for some complicated pieces of legislation without approving of every single provision each bill contains.
Kicking off his campaign in a Feb. 23 address to the Republican Governor's Association, the president laid out the basic critique:
The other party's nomination battle is still playing out. The candidates are an interesting group, with diverse opinions: For tax cuts, and against them. For NAFTA, and against NAFTA. For the Patriot Act, and against the Patriot Act. In favor of liberating Iraq, and opposed to it. And that's just one senator from Massachusetts.
The dubious cogency of this critique is well captured by the line, "For tax cuts, and against them." Yes, it's true, John Kerry believes that it is right to cut certain taxes under certain circumstances and wrong to cut other taxes under other circumstances. Hard to disagree with that. And is Bush really for cutting all taxes, all the time, no matter what? How does he propose to finance the government? When you run your oil company into the ground, your father's Saudi friends can bail you out, but as an approach to the federal budget this method is somewhat flawed.
Is Kerry both for the Patriot Act and against it? Well, he voted for it, and now he criticizes it, so he must be inconsistent. Howard Dean's campaign pioneered this argument; it didn't make sense then and it doesn't make sense now. First off, read the law. You can download it here from a special Department of Justice website dedicated to singing the bill's praises. Kerry voted for the bill because he believed that the law, in all its 132 pages of glory, would do more good than harm. That's what Senators do. Does that mean he thinks each and every word written on each and every page is a good idea? Of course not, and as president he'll have the opportunity to alter the law. Kerry's website offers five proposed improvements to the Patriot Act. I happen to think he's right about only four of them. So would it be inconsistent of me to prefer Kerry to Bush on the question of the Patriot Act? Of course not -- there are two options, and Kerry is the better of the two. He's not perfect, but I'll support him. Just as Kerry supported an imperfect law he regarded as better than nothing.
On NAFTA, a flip-flop is even harder to find. Kerry supported the treaty; nowhere in his trade issues page is there any suggestion that he intends to abrogate it. Rather, "John Kerry will also order an immediate 120-day review of all existing trade agreements to ensure that our trade partners are living up to their labor and environment obligations." One wonders what part of this Bush disagrees with -- does he think our trade partners should evade their obligations, or is he simply opposed to finding out whether or not they are doing so?
The situation in Iraq is a somewhat more complicated matter. Kerry's position here has been genuinely nuanced, neither dogmatically hawkish nor reflexively dovish, but rather changing to reflect an evolving factual situation. In the fall of 2002, when Bush asked Congress for a resolution authorizing him to threaten the use of force if necessary to ensure Iraqi compliance with U.N. dictates, three situations held: inspectors had not visited Iraq for years, the consensus of the global intelligence community was that Iraq possessed prohibited weapons of mass destruction, and it remained an open question whether the United States could attract substantial international support for military actions. Kerry supported a resolution.
Months later, when the war actually began, much had changed. Inspectors were in the country, casting doubt not only on the administration's more extravagant claims but on much of the intelligence community's earlier work. Saddam was not cooperating fully with the inspectors, but they maintained that they were engaged in productive and useful work. A series of botched diplomatic moves had left the United States internationally isolated, not only lacking a U.N. resolution because of the opposition of veto-wielding France, but lacking even majority support on the Security Council. Global public opinion had turned dramatically against the American position, with majority support for war limited to the United States, Israel, and (on some days, at least) the United Kingdom. A compromise resolution was on the table that would have tightened the screws on Saddam somewhat and given the inspections process more time. It was clear that Saddam did not pose an imminent threat to the national security of the United States or any other country. Nevertheless, Bush chose to go to war, though his administration had failed to even assemble a reasonable plan for the postwar occupation or conduct an honest assessment of the costs. Kerry opposed this course of action, and rightly so.
Many liberals questioned the propriety of having delegated so much authority to Bush the previous fall, especially in light of the president's general record of dishonesty and ineptitude. This is a legitimate issue to raise (and it was raised, many times, in the Democratic primary), but it's hardly a criticism available to conservatives, and has nothing to do with flip-flops or inconsistency. Criticism of Kerry's record on the war, moreover, cuts against the notion that he is an opportunistic panderer. His vote for the authorizing resolution was deeply unpopular within the Democratic Party and nearly cost him the nomination, forcing him to spend months trailing behind the more forthrightly dovish campaigns of Dean and Gen. Wesley Clark.
Indeed, on the general subject of opportunism, Kerry's record compares quite favorably to the incumbent's. As governor of Texas, Bush opposed a strong patients' bill of rights that nevertheless passed over his veto. On the 2000 campaign trail, he tried to take credit for the law and implied he would support comparable legislation on the national level. Once in office, he sought (successfully) to block the bill's passage in the House, all the while indicating that if it did pass he would sign it rather than pay the political price for vetoing a popular bill. Similarly, Bush opposed the McCain-Feingold bill in the 2000 GOP primary, tried to kill it in Congress, and then signed it when it passed.
He has twice proposed immigration reform measures aimed at bolstering his support among Latino voters and twice backed away from them when they proved unpopular. He campaigned as a supporter of partial privatization of social security and then denied he'd ever supported any such thing when that proved to be unpopular. He proposed a temporary tax cut conditioned on the idea that the government could afford it without spending the Social Security surplus; then, when the surplus vanished, he supported a further tax cut. Now he wants his first cut made permanent. There's a consistency of a sort here, but it's not a very admirable one.
Given a choice between Kerry's nuance and Bush's policy of, well, lying about what he wants to do, I think I'll stick with Kerry.
Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect writing fellow. His column on politics and the media appears every Tuesday.