The flip-flopper who is running for president

March 19, 2004|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - The other day, Donald Trump criticized Warren E. Buffett for ostentation, the French accused the Belgians of being snooty and Kid Rock lamented the decline of good manners. Sound impossible? You're right. But they're no more unlikely than the truth, which is President Bush attacking John Kerry for changing his positions.

"Senator Kerry clearly has strong beliefs," Mr. Bush quipped recently. "They just don't last very long." He says his Democratic challenger has flip-flopped on the Iraq war, tax cuts, the Patriot Act and NAFTA.

Changing positions is something Mr. Bush knows a lot about. He does it all the time, even as he pretends to be steady and sure. But what he lacks in consistency, he makes up in certitude. He's a man who believes what he says, even if what he says is exactly the opposite of what he said yesterday.

But conservatives have been happy to echo the official line. Wall Street Journal columnist Daniel Henninger lambastes Mr. Kerry as "inconsistent and opportunistic," traits he attributes to decades of service in the U.S. Senate. "In this world," reveals Mr. Henninger, "the instinctive hedging ascribed to Kerry, an ear for the upper registers of nuance and an aversion to constancy, is natural and normal."

Reading Mr. Henninger, you might forget the Senate produced such presidents as Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson - who were not exactly mealy-mouthed milquetoasts. It also overlooks plenty of senators known for straight talk and strong convictions, from Barry Goldwater to Edward M. Kennedy.

If Mr. Kerry sometimes reverses course, it's not because he's wasted 20 years representing the people of his state in the U.S. Senate when he could have been doing something useful, like running a baseball team. It's because, like most politicians, he sometimes finds that a shift in positions is politically useful - not an admirable motive, but hardly an unusual one.

Mr. Kerry certainly can't match the heroic consistency Mr. Bush has shown on tax cuts - which the president proposes when the economy is growing and when it's shrinking, when the budget has a surplus or a deficit, when the nation is at peace or fighting a war. A guy who uses a hammer on a nail and a screwdriver on a screw, in Mr. Bush's book, is guilty of flip-flopping. A man of principle uses a hammer for every task.

I really shouldn't fault the president for his unchanging position on tax cuts, since it's one of his few positions that haven't changed. During the 2000 campaign, he said, "I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called nation-building." Those troops are now reconstructing Iraq. After denouncing President Bill Clinton's military intervention in Haiti, Mr. Bush sent the Marines there himself.

Mr. Bush said his predecessor "overdeployed" American forces, but he has stretched them even thinner. After pledging to bring our troops home from Bosnia, he kept them there.

In the campaign, he promised to boost the defense budget. After taking office, he said he'd keep it at the level proposed by Mr. Clinton. Then he decided to raise it after all.

Bush partisans portray him as a forward-looking leader in the war on terror. That took another turnaround. In 2001, outgoing National Security Adviser Samuel R. Berger informed his successor, Condoleezza Rice, "You're going to spend more time during your four years on terrorism generally and al-Qaida specifically than any other issue." But the administration left Osama bin Laden alone until he killed nearly 3,000 Americans.

After 9/11, Mr. Bush rejected demands for a new Department of Homeland Security, but eventually changed his mind. Then, when he didn't get his way immediately, he said the Democratic-controlled Senate was "not interested in the security of the American people" - because it declined to approve something he had opposed just months before.

The president was against a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage; now he's for it. He rejected the idea of negotiating with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program, but lately he's been doing just that.

On Iraq, he promised to ask for a second vote by the U.N. Security Council before invading, only to renege when it became clear he would lose. In his 2003 State of the Union address, he said Saddam Hussein had vast stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. In his 2004 State of the Union address, he said Saddam Hussein "had weapons of mass destruction-related program activities."

Mr. Bush thinks it would be a mistake to entrust the presidency to a candidate with a history of flip-flopping on important issues. He should hope Americans don't agree.

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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