Richard Reeves

Flip Flopping or Growing?

WASHINGTON -- In the past few weeks we have learned that Vice President Gore has changed his position, or his mind, on abortion. And we have learned that Sen. John McCain seems to be changing his mind on lots of issues. This is not generally considered a good thing in politics.

In many areas of human endeavor, changing one's mind is considered acceptable behavior. Sometimes it is even called growth. But in political pursuits it is usually called lying, flip-flopping and other names that indicate a lack of principles, even a lack of character. That is why so much money is spent each campaign year doing negative research -- scouring old voting records, newspapers, libraries and other databases to find out whether what a candidate is saying today is perfectly consistent with what he said in his high school valedictory.

The most impressive piece of negative research so far in this campaign was performed not by overpaid political consultants but by an online magazine, Salon. The discovery: McCain's ancestors owned as many as 52 slaves. Or, at least the records of Carroll County, Mississippi, list one W.A. McCain as a slaveowner in the year 1860. Negative it may be, but who knows, maybe among some South Carolinians, wavers of the flags of the Confederacy, that may help the man from the Straight Talk Express.

Even with Gore's embarrassment at being shown he was still uncertain what he thought about a woman's right to choice 12 years ago, McCain is, in fact, the biggest flip-flopper of campaign 2000. Checking Congressional Quarterly's records of Senate votes and ratings, it could be said that McCain has changed his mind on almost one-third of the issues before the Senate in the past few years. His American Conservative Union rating dropped from 95 percent to 68 percent in just two years, from 1996 to 1998. His U.S. Chamber of Commerce rating dropped from 100 percent to 76 percent over the same period.

Actually, though, almost all the votes those conservative barometers disliked had to do with the issue that has become the candidate's trademark, campaign finance reform -- a big "no-no" for conservatives and business interests. Overall, CQ notes, the man has been a pretty conventional conservative, opposing abortion rights and gun control legislation, while advocating increased defense spending and less regulation of the private sector.

But does that right-on right-wing record mean much right now? Not really. Hard-rock conservatives are not doing this by the numbers; they just don't trust the man. Moderates and some liberals don't care right now because McCain is the candidate waving highest the banner of change.

This is not unprecedented. When Richard Nixon was president, he would sometimes retreat to a hideaway office outside the White House and write lists for himself, lists that read like New Year's resolutions. He tended to repeat himself, and one of the regular items was: "What is important is not what people think of a president's policies, but what they think of his leadership."

That is, of course, where McCain is right now. Many people do not much care about his policies and positions. They like his style; they think it's leadership. Later we'll talk about where it is he wants to lead us.

Nixon did get a chance to prove out his little theory, becoming one of the great flip-floppers of all time. Or perhaps he grew into statesmanship. "Nixon to China" has become a cliche for leaders who do the unexpected -- like Bill Clinton becoming Mr. Balanced Budget -- and who are always ready to betray the people who elected them for a higher cause, say, world peace, or getting re-elected. At the same time that Nixon, the most rabid of anti-communists, was secretly seeking accommodation with "Red China," he was also busily going through the motions of expanding the American welfare state and creating things such as the Environmental Protection Agency.

He did not really believe in what he was doing domestically, but it was a time of liberal consensus, and going with the flow was the only way he could get the room and political capital to try to rearrange the map of the world -- the job or calling he really cared about. McCain, you have to assume, has really come to believe in finance reform, but to get the chance to actually try to accomplish that he will have to abandon a lot of old principles and supporters to give himself political room. Maybe he'll figure a way to do that. He won't be the first.

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