The new line of attack from Republicans on Barack Obama is that he has flip-flopped on Iraq and a host of other issues. Charles Krauthammer's column from Friday is a good example of this, as is the McCain conference call today:
On a conference call with reporters a few moments ago, a senior McCain surrogate, Steve Forbes, recited a litany of things that Obama has supposedly flip-flopped on, and said that Obama had "changed his mind" on troop withdrawals from Iraq.
I think I have seen this line of attack before. In honor of the new, retro 2004 campaign, I will break out my American Idiot album, watch some old Arrested Development DVD's, and go to the matinee showing of Fahrenheit 911. I guess this retro craze is so severe that we really are running out of past.
Four years later, I have grave doubts that a "flip-flop" charge is actually effective in a political campaign, especially in an Obama vs. McCain campaign. Consider the following:
- If Obama is Kerry, then McCain is Bush. Bush argued that John Kerry was a flip-flopper, and everyone remembers that charge quite well. As such, for the McCain campaign to argue that Obama is a flip-flopper should actually cause voters to compare McCain to Bush just as much as they might compare Obama to Kerry. Right now, being tied to Bush is a lot worse than being tied to Kerry.
- Doesn't contradict Obama's image. Obama, unlike Kerry, has been running on his willingness to engage in bi-partisan compromise for over a year. So, it isn't clear how the "flip-flop" charge even goes against Obama's longstanding campaign promises. He has told everyone repeatedly that he will compromise, so it is unclear how attacking him for doing so will hurt him. (That isn't to imply that I think things like FISA are actually compromises, but it is how they are being portrayed in the media).
- Do people even dislike flip-floppers? A January 2007 poll from Pew showed that 75% of voters like candidates who "are willing to compromise." That was slightly higher than the 67% of voters who like politicians who stick to their principles.
- Has anyone flip-flopped more than McCain?: There are few politicians in the last twenty years who have flip-flopped more than McCain. E. J. Dionne covers some in his column today--taxes, offshore drilling--and a classic video by Brave New Films covers several more.
Overall, it is very hard to imagine this new line of attack against Obama will hurt him at all. In fact, looking at the national poll trend lines at Pollster.com, the only line of attack that has ever clearly damaged Obama was the Reverend Wright flap back in March. Outside of a precipitous, but temporary, drop in Obama's numbers during March, Obama's polling trends have been straight upward. So-called "Bittergate" in mid-April might have also caused a second, small, very brief drop.
Republicans are going to have to come up with something better than this kitsch, retro flip-flop line of attack if they want to beat Obama. Not to concern troll or anything, but if the only clearly demonstrable way that Obama has been damaged in this campaign was Reverend Wright, that is probably the type of attack they should be exploiting. It would be highly unsavory, race-baiting sorts of attacks, but just because it is unsavory and laced with bigotry hasn't stopped conservatives in past elections.