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Richard Cohen

Who's the Flip-Flopper?

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, August 5, 2004; Page A19

Franklin Delano Roosevelt campaigned for the White House as a budget balancer. After his election, he started to spend money the government did not have, throwing one alphabet agency after another (CCC, WPA, etc.) into the black abyss of the Great Depression. FDR called this "the New Deal." In today's politics, it would be called flip-flopping.

John F. Kerry now finds himself accused of aggravated flip-flopping in the first degree. The charge comes from various Republican Party front groups, individual GOP fellow travelers and, of course, the president himself. Campaigning hither and yon, George W. Bush has had great fun mocking Kerry for, among other things, his vote for the war and a subsequent vote not to fund it. Not mentioned is that in between the two votes came ample evidence of incompetence on the part of Bush. And so Kerry, as behooves a thinking man, chose to voice a protest. The vote did not lend itself to sound-bite analysis, but it made a certain amount of sense: The war in Iraq was a mess; Bush had not earned a blank check.

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In supposed contrast to Kerry, Bush presents himself as the immutable politician, a man of fixed, firm beliefs who sticks to them not because they are popular but because they are right -- despite all evidence or reason. This is certainly the case when it comes to his core beliefs. His devotion to minimal taxes on the rich, for instance, is touching, but it has put the government in such debt that it will take our children's children to pay it off. By then, Bush imagines, his visage will be on Mount Rushmore.

But on other matters, Bush has flipped and flopped with the best of them. As a presidential candidate, he declared himself implacably opposed to nation-building. Now we are engaged in building Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq, the cost has been not merely a ton of money, as it was in Haiti and other places Bush said he wouldn't go, but nearly a thousand American lives lost and countless more ruined. Mind you, with weapons of mass destruction all but declared a mirage in the desert, the new -- and sole -- justification for the war is not anything approaching self-defense but getting rid of Saddam Hussein and his regime. This is nation-replacement and nation-building, a total rehab project.

Bush also declared himself a determined unilateralist, kissing off treaties and understandings and even spurning NATO's help in Afghanistan. Now, though, the unilateralist of old is sending Colin Powell around the world, seeking alms and arms for Iraq. Flip-flop.

Bush would not negotiate with North Korea. He did. Flip-flop.

Bush told the United Nations to butt out of Iraq. Now he wants it in. Flip-flop.

The president opposed creating the Department of Homeland Security. Soon after, his strong opposition apparently slipped his mind and he flip-flopped his way to an embrace. Bush later opposed the creation of the Sept. 11 commission, but now he cannot thank it enough. He did not want his chief aides -- Condoleezza Rice, for instance -- to testify publicly before it but relented in the face of popular opposition. Flip-flop. He himself would not testify for all sorts of hallowed constitutional reasons and then, of course, did. Flip-flop. He insisted, though, on taking Dick Cheney with him, the functional equivalent of bringing the textbook to the exam -- not exactly a flip-flop, I grant you, but such a blatant admission of ineptitude that I am moved to include it nonetheless. Look, it's my column.

Finally, of course, we get Bush's recent call for the creation of the post of national intelligence director, a position he once opposed. This prompted James P. Rubin, a Kerry adviser, to ask, "Why did President Bush flip-flop?" It is indeed a vexing question. The answer, of course, is that Bush flip-flops all the time. If he had been in public life as long as Kerry has, his flip-flops would be as legion as the fish in the sea.

But it is the areas in which Bush's convictions have not changed that are the most troubling, and this includes a religiosity that comforts him in his intellectual inertness and granite-like beliefs that are impervious to logic, such as his tax policy and his relentless march to war in Iraq. Flip-flopping, like beauty, is in the mind of the beholder. It can be an indicator of an alert mind, one that adjusts to new realities, or it can be evidence of ambition decoupled from principle. With Kerry it's a mix of both. With Bush, who changes his positions but never his mind, it is always the latter.


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