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Despite Bush Flip-Flops, Kerry Gets Label

In 2000, Bush said he would include carbon dioxide on a list of air pollutants requiring federal oversight, a stand he abandoned within weeks of taking office. A month after the Sept. 11 attacks, Bush's spokesman said the president believed a homeland security department that Democrats proposed was "just not necessary." A year after that, Bush had switched course and was lashing some Democrats for not moving quickly enough to approve the agency.

While Bush professes himself a strong free-trader, most other free-trade proponents said he bent on principle in March 2002 when he ordered tariffs on imported steel -- a move that resonated politically in electorally important industrial states such as Pennsylvania. Facing an escalating global trade dispute, he lifted the tariffs at the end of last year.

John F. Kerry is shown windsurfing in a new Bush ad that says the Democrat's positions shift "whichever way the wind blows." (AP)

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In some cases, Democrats say, Bush's position stays the same even as his reasons flip. The most famous examples involve taxes and Iraq. He supported tax cuts in 2000 because he said they were affordable in a time of large government surpluses, and once in power he supported them amid rising deficits because he said the economy needed stimulation. The president's principal rationale for the Iraq invasion was to end Baghdad's suspected mass-weapons program and links to international terrorism. In the absence of compelling evidence of these, the main post-invasion rationale has been to rescue Iraq from a tyrant and support democracy in the greater Middle East.

Iraq, however, has been the source of the most damaging charges of equivocation and wind-shifting against Kerry. The Massachusetts senator voted for the Iraq war in October 2002, but a year later voted against Bush's request for $87 billion for military and reconstruction spending in Iraq and Afghanistan. The latter vote came when former Vermont governor Howard Dean's antiwar candidacy was ascendant. The vote may have been wise politics at the time, but came with a high price -- lending an aura of plausibility to the subsequent charges by Bush that Kerry is motivated by opportunism.

Kerry's statements have compounded the damage. In September 2003, he said at a Democratic debate, "We should not send more American troops" to Iraq. "That would be the worst thing." In April, he said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that "if it requires more troops . . . that's what you have to do." In August, he told ABC's "This Week" that if elected, "I will have significant, enormous reduction in the level of troops." This week, he said that, as president, he would not have launched an invasion if he had known that there was not clear evidence of weapons of mass destruction or ties to al Qaeda, though last month he said, knowing these things, he still would have voted to give Bush congressional authority to wage the Iraq war.

Polls make clear the extent to which Bush's flip-flop charge has stuck. A poll released last week by Kohut's Pew Center showed that 53 percent of voters believe Kerry "changes his mind too much." This was down a few percentage points from a poll the week earlier, apparently showing that the effects of the Republican National Convention -- in which delegates swayed in unison chanting "flip-flop, flip-flop" about Kerry -- are wearing off. Even so, the latest data show that 62 percent said the attribute "takes a stand" applies more to Bush than to Kerry, while 29 percent said the opposite. Bush won by 57 percent to 34 percent on which candidate more deserves the phrase "strong leader."

Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) blames the news media for such perceptions. "Journalists decide a type, and then write to type," he said. "Gore as the 'exaggerator.' John Kerry has not done anything that George Bush has not done in spades, but you guys all decide he's 'resolute.' "

Stevens, who has been studying Kerry since advising then-Massachusetts Gov. William H. Weld (R) in an unsuccessful attempt to defeat the senator in 1996, said Kerry's very manner exacerbates the flip-flop impression: "He says these things with great condescension, [suggesting]: 'If only you were as smart as I and understand this that these issues are too complicated to have a consistent position.' . . . People have a good internal detector of the difference between nuance and confusion and opportunism."

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