The only consistent thing about politicians

January 30, 2004|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - Like many Americans, I have plenty of complaints about George W. Bush. He's unleashed gigantic budget deficits, let federal spending rage out of control, offered spurious reasons for a needless war and installed an attorney general who regards civil liberties as a pain in the neck.

So I ask myself which candidate running this year is most likely to reverse these policies. Judging from recent history, the answer seems to be: George W. Bush.

That may sound nutty, but there is method to my madness. As we have learned from the Democratic presidential race, the only consistent thing about politicians is their inconsistency.

During the Iowa campaign, workers for former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean delivered flip-flop sandals to Sen. John Kerry's headquarters to poke fun at what they called his habit of "flip-flopping on issues throughout his career and campaign." They had ample evidence. Mr. Kerry voted for the Iraq war resolution but has since decided the war was an unforgivable mistake. He used to criticize affirmative action but doesn't anymore.

But the flip-flops the Dean people gave Mr. Kerry would also fit their own candidate's feet. The former opponent of the death penalty has found his way to supporting it. Dr. Dean once suggested raising the Social Security retirement age, an idea he now finds utterly preposterous.

It would be unfair to single out either of these candidates, though. Anyone who runs for president tends to run away from his record. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman didn't wait that long. Upon being named Al Gore's running mate in 2000, he suddenly stopped criticizing racial preferences. After voting for the Patriot Act in 2001, he finds fault with it today.

John Edwards has been in the Senate just five years, but that's long enough to execute an about-face or two. He supported the Patriot Act and the war resolution, but you'd never know it from listening to him. Retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who has gotten over his deep admiration for President Bush, has taken every possible position on the Iraq war.

Early in his congressional career, Rep. Richard A. Gephardt endorsed a ban on abortion, but by the time he got the presidential bug, he was enthusiastically supporting abortion rights. His explanation: "I listened to members of my family, I listened to women, I listened to lots of people and came to a different view." The National Right to Life Committee, however, said he "wrestled with his conscience and pinned it cleanly." Maybe he taught the trick to Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who has likewise conquered his qualms about abortion.

Anyone is entitled to change his mind in the light of new evidence. The problem with politicians is that they never seem to change their minds in ways that would hinder their ambitions. Mr. Gephardt listened to people who just happened to say he should do something that would help him in the campaign.

In 2002, a vote for the war resolution looked like the politically safe choice, but today, support for the war is a liability among Democratic voters. Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards have faithfully shifted to mirror the public mood, which leaves you wondering what they really believe.

But what they believe may not matter, and what they say may not matter. Mr. Bush is proof of that. In the 2000 campaign, he opposed using the military for nation-building, vowed to improve relations with our NATO allies and preached that America should be "a humble nation." Once elected, he embarked on nation-building in Iraq, antagonized our chief NATO allies and earned a worldwide reputation for arrogance.

It's a great puzzle why people who reach the White House end up reversing themselves not just on minor issues but on their most central promises.

Candidate Bill Clinton vigorously opposed normal trade relations with China, putting him in stark contrast with President Bill Clinton. George H. W. Bush vowed he would never raise taxes, only to renege. Ronald Reagan denounced the deficit, and then proceeded to enlarge it. Experience suggests that if the candidate you like is elected, he'll abandon every policy that attracted you, and that if the candidate you dislike is elected, he'll pleasantly surprise you.

But knowing that doesn't make the choice any easier. So between now and November, I intend to make an exhaustive study of each candidate's record, credentials, speeches and position papers. Then, with a wealth of knowledge and a skeptical attitude, I'll march into the voting booth. And flip a coin.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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