Fitting the President for Flip-Flops

Modest folks that we are here at Campaign Desk, we aren’t expecting any laurels for the recent outbreak of fact-check pieces and — our favorite — the “he said/she said/he’s lying/she’s taking things out of context” story. Nor do we take credit for the spate of articles at last comparing the candidates’ positions on a host of issues. Still, with just two weeks to go in the campaign, what could be more overdue — or more welcome?

Now comes the third leg of the campaign coverage stool: Some legwork that debunks the major premise of a campaign spiel — in this case, the premise that John Kerry, not President Bush, is the King of Flip-Floppery. Today, the Los Angeles Times’ Ronald Brownstein and Kathleen Hennessey deliver a lengthy analysis of George Bush’s ever-shifting justifications for the war in Iraq and other controversial policies.

“In effect,” write Brownstein and Hennessey, “Bush has never wavered on the verdict about Iraq, but he has reordered the counts in his indictment.” The “prominence placed on each element [of his case for war] has clearly shifted” as facts and politics collide, they conclude. Bush wavers not in his stated goals, they write, but in his ever-changing rationales for those goals.

Example: The initial justification for invading Iraq was the conviction that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and that his government had close ties to al Qaeda. When neither proved to be true, the focus became an attempt to establish a democratic beachhead in the Arab world. “To critics,” Brownstein and Hennessey write, “the focus on democracy is an after-the-fact explanation for the war that Bush is promoting only because his original justification collapsed. “It was only because we didn’t find any [weapons of mass destruction] that you had to find a new rationalization for the war,” said Ivo Daalder, a former national security aide under President Clinton.

Stephen Skowronek, a political scientist at Yale University, tells us Bush has often kept his goals constant even when circumstances force him to change the rationale for them. His justification for his tax cuts, for example, was initially that they were needed to prevent Washington from spending the federal budget surplus; when they then contributed to a massive deficit, he defended them as key to jump-starting the economy. This style of leadership “has all the attractions of being consistent, true, orthodox, strong,” said Skowronek. “But it has all the downsides of appearing inflexible, unable to adjust, not nimble.”

If there is a fault in the otherwise useful Brownstein-Hennessey analysis it is that it is too soft, its tone almost apologetic for pointing out sharp discrepancies in the candidacy of a president running on a platform of unwavering resolve.

That’s unfortunate. This late in the game is no time for campaign reporters to mince words — especially not when formulating a premise amply supported by their own intrepid reporting.

Susan Q. Stranahan

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Susan Q. Stranahan wrote for CJR.