No sooner than Hillary conceded to Obama then the US presidential campaign got underway in earnest and with it came the usual rampant speculation.
Who might get top jobs in the next administration, dark whispers alluding to salacious details in each candidate’s alleged past; and, most entertainingly of all, the art of calling the “flip flop” on your opponent.
The “flip flop” is what people in Britain might call a change of heart or U-turn on a previously held position. In the current race, this translates recently into Barack Obama’s decision to forgo public financing in his campaign (in recognition of the immense amount of money he has managed to raise from small individual donors), or John McCain’s turn-around from being a Senator vigorously against off-shore drilling and tax cuts – to deciding that both are in fact probably good solutions to current issues (conveniently both are issues that appeal to a Republican base that remains tepid towards him).
There have been even more egregious shifts from both campaigns as we have gone along: John McCain went from calling the Christian right “agents of intolerance” to recognising that if he wants to win, he is also going to have to bring this crucial conservative constituency on-side.
A problem when one considers that in January 2007, James Dobson, head of the Focus on the Family - a leading Christian group - stated that “I would not vote for John McCain under any circumstances, I pray that we won't get stuck with him” (while he has since reached out to McCain, he has yet to give him the endorsement).
Barack Obama on the other hand was embarrassed when his heartfelt protectionist campaign rhetoric clashed with what his key economic adviser was running around telling concerned Canadians that “much of the rhetoric that may be perceived to be protectionist is more reflective of political manoeuvring than policy.”
Politics as normal one might cynically say. Well, yes, but last time the “flip flop” got thrown around properly in an American campaign was with John Kerry, when his “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it” (referring to a vote to allow a supplemental bill to get funding for troops in the field in Iraq and Afghanistan), became the “gift that kept giving” as Karl Rove put it.
Endless pro-Bush ads played on constant repeat highlighting what by Kerry’s own admission was “one of those inarticulate moments,” and Republican rallies became slipper waving affairs with speakers leading the crowds in “flip flop” themed chants. And when people went to the polls, the charge stuck, with Kerry losing and polls showing that 65 per cent saw him as a “flip flopper,” while Bush led the faithful with merely 36 per cent doubting him.
This may not have been the only reason for John Kerry’s defeat, but it was one of the defining features of the campaign – and neither the Macattack nor Obaminator want to be tarred with this losing brush (though they are perfectly happy for surrogates to throw it around liberally against the other).
This concern may actually be misplaced, as it is not totally clear that the public either care or trust one more than the other. A recent CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll reported that “61 per cent of voters polled said McCain has changed his mind for political reasons” and “59 per cent of those polled said Obama also shifts positions with the political winds”. The American public apparently holds both men with equal disdain when it comes to believing their promises.
The reality is that the fixation on the “flip flop” is really little more than a catchy phrase that essentially captures what politician’s have been doing for years. This is not to justify the sometimes openly mendacious things that they say, but merely another sort of reflection of the endless media coverage politicians are subjected to.
Any wavering away from message, contradiction with a previous statement, or an “inarticulate moment” will be likely captured on video, broadcast around the world, and over-analysed ad nauseam. This is true not only of “flip flops” but also open bigotry (witness Republican Senator George Allen’s “macaca” comment that managed to lose him one of the US’s most Republican states) and other errata (like former President Bill Clinton on the stump for his wife).
“Events, dear boy, events,” was how Harold Macmillan described things that steer governments off course – and this is equally applicable to any political campaign and any policy stand. Given we live in a world where time moves on, and things happen, why are we surprised when a politician’s stand might slightly alter or correct itself when some new information comes to light or something happens? On the basis of the weight given to the “flip flop” it would appear we need either politicians with an oracular degree of prescience – or we need ones who are so bull-headed that even in the face of overwhelming facts, they stick to their guns and let history be their judges.
That or we need to find a way of getting the world to stop turning until the election ride is over.