Democrats Equally Adept at Shifting Positions

Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton engage the crowd at the Democratic presidential debate in Austin on Thursday. Both candidates have reversed or altered some positions under the increasing pressure to win over voters.
Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton engage the crowd at the Democratic presidential debate in Austin on Thursday. Both candidates have reversed or altered some positions under the increasing pressure to win over voters. (By Rick Bowmer -- Associated Press)
By Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 25, 2008

Last week's Democratic debate in Austin had been underway for less than half an hour when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign zipped an e-mail to reporters headlined "Obama flip-flop on Cuba." The message noted that Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) had backtracked on earlier calls for normalizing relations with Havana, now making such a step contingent on progress toward democracy.

The Obama camp struck back minutes later with a message pointing out that Clinton (N.Y.) had changed her position on immigration. She was now calling for legislation giving undocumented workers a path to citizenship to be introduced within 100 days of her inauguration -- after earlier refusing to make such a commitment.

Charges of flip-flopping have become routine as the Democratic nominating contest heads to a crucial series of primaries and caucuses on March 4 in Texas, Ohio, Vermont and Rhode Island. While Obama and Clinton have largely succeeded in escaping the flip-flopper label that was pinned on Republican candidate and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, they have provided each other with plenty of ammunition for accusations of inconsistency and pandering to the voters.

A review of the two candidates' records shows that both senators have shifted positions on numerous issues as the competition for votes has become more intense. In some cases, the shifts have been subtle, a change of emphasis rather than an obvious reversal. But on other issues, both candidates are saying things that are quite different from their previous positions.

After earlier opposing a timeline for withdrawal from Iraq, both the leading Democratic candidates have been forced to become ever more specific on the campaign trail, in response to voters who want the United States to pull back from Iraq as soon as possible. Clinton's reversal on the question of the timetable has been particularly dramatic. She now says that she would get "nearly all" U.S. troops out of the country by the end of 2009; Obama says he would get all "combat troops" out of Iraq within 16 months of taking office.

In June 2006, Clinton was booed and hissed by a conference of liberal Democratic activists for refusing to agree to a date to get out of Iraq on the grounds that it would send the wrong signal to the United States' enemies.

Such shifts are pretty standard in presidential election politics, according to Marion Just, a professor of political science at Wellesley College who has been following the campaign closely.

Candidates start off by being as ambiguous as possible about their policies in order to keep their options open, Just said. As they come face to face with voters, they are "forced to become more specific," even if it means contradicting previous statements. "In the current electronic era, it is difficult to make even a slight change because the Internet is forever," Just said. "Your previous statements pop up on YouTube."

As senators, both Obama and Clinton also have long records of thousands of votes that provide plenty of fodder for opposition research. As Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) discovered to his chagrin in the 2004 presidential campaign, and as Obama is discovering with his voting record in the Illinois Senate, it is often difficult for legislators to explain the nuances of tactical voting and finely tuned trade-offs.

Because Clinton has been in the U.S. Senate longer than Obama -- seven years, as opposed to his three-- she has many more votes to explain away. During their campaign appearances, both senators have been sharply critical of the landmark education bill known as No Child Left Behind. Clinton voted for the bill in 2001, along with a majority of other Democrats; Obama was not in the U.S. Senate at the time.

"Clinton ratcheted up her opposition to No Child Left Behind as the race became tighter and she needed votes," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy and a former Democratic staffer. "She is reacting to what she has been hearing on the campaign trail, particularly from teachers."

For Robert Feldman, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, flip-flopping on the campaign trail is a very human trait.

"Politicians are like the rest of us," he said. "In everyday life, we say things to make ourselves look better, get people to like us, get a job. We all lie, to a greater or lesser extent. It's the same with politicians."

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