Pretzel Logic

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 27, 2008 9:31 AM

Barack Obama is under hostile fire for changing his position on the D.C. gun ban.

Oh, I'm sorry. He didn't change his position, apparently. He reworded a clumsy statement.

That, at least, is what his campaign is saying. The same campaign that tried to spin his flip-flop in rejecting public financing as embracing the spirit of reform, if not the actual position he had once promised to embrace.

Is this becoming a pattern? Wouldn't it be better for Obama to say he had thought more about such-and-such an issue and simply changed his mind? Is that verboten in American politics? Is it better to engage in linguistic pretzel-twisting in an effort to prove that you didn't change your mind?

Regardless of what you think of the merits of yesterday's Supreme Court ruling overturning the capital's handgun law, it seems to me we're entitled to a clear position by the presumed Democratic nominee. And I'm a bit confused about how the confusion came about.

Here's how the Illinois senator handled the issue with the Chicago Tribune just last November:

"The campaign of Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama said that he ' . . . believes that we can recognize and respect the rights of law-abiding gun owners and the right of local communities to enact common sense laws to combat violence and save lives. Obama believes the D.C. handgun law is constitutional.' "

Kind of a flat statement.

And here's what ABC reported yesterday: " 'That statement was obviously an inartful attempt to explain the Senator's consistent position,' Obama spokesman Bill Burton tells ABC News."

Inartful indeed.

But even though the earlier Obama quote and the "inartful" comment have been bouncing around the Net for 24 hours, I'm not seeing any reference to them in the morning papers. Most do what the New York Times did: "Mr. Obama, who like Mr. McCain has been on record as supporting the individual-rights view, said the ruling would 'provide much-needed guidance to local jurisdictions across the country.' "

Supporting the individual-rights view? Not in November.

Even the Tribune--the very paper that the Obama camp told he supported the gun ban--makes no reference to the November interview. Instead: "Democrat Barack Obama offered a guarded response Thursday to the Supreme Court ruling striking down the District of Columbia's prohibition on handguns and sidestepped providing a view on the 32-year-old local gun ban. Republican rival John McCain's campaign accused him of an 'incredible flip-flop' on gun control."

So McCain accuses Obama of a flip-flop, and the Trib can't check the clips to tell readers whether there's some basis in fact for the charge?

USA Today takes the same tack:

"In a conference call put together by McCain's campaign, Republican Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas said . . . that Obama has been changing his position on the gun issue and said the Democratic senator has done some 'incredible flip-flopping' on key issue."

And? And? That's all we get? He said/he said journalism?

Even if you wanted to maintain that it wasn't really a flip-flop, what about giving the readers the facts?

The Washington Post did include this half-sentence deep in a story: "Obama, who has advocated strict gun-control laws and who spoke favorably about the District's handgun ban before yesterday's ruling . . ."

New York Post columnist Charles Hurt suggests the appearance of a reversal by the "most liberal member of the Senate," but doesn't provide the evidence on this point:

"Obama may as well have strapped on his John Wayne chaps and holster yesterday to announce his support of the Supreme Court's decision that the Second Amendment guaranteeing gun rights actually means what it says . . .

"As Obama moves rightward and gets tougher, Republicans are desperately trying to portray him as some sort of arrogant flip-flopper. But these audacious moves by him are not signs of weakness; they're signs of a man who will win at any cost.

"Isn't that what they used to say about the Clintons?"

The conservative blogosphere, however, brings out the heavy guns. Hot Air's Ed Morrissey points out that Obama is, after all, a lawyer:

"Barack Obama has been spinning like a top, and watching his positions on, well, just about everything is like watching table-tennis matches on TiVo triple fast forward. FISA, public financing, and NAFTA have all been reversed in the last couple of weeks, and Obama's not through yet . . .

"Suddenly, with the general election looming, Obama discovers that his campaign's statement was inartful. This seems rather puzzling, because before he ran for public office, Barack Obama was supposed to be a Constitutional law expert. One might expect the 'inartful' excuse on wetlands reclamation or some other esoteric matter of public policy, but the Constitution is what he supposedly studied at Columbia and Harvard."

Red State: "May I suggest that Senator Obama start putting a 'Freshest if used by' date on all his speeches? It'd be a help, really."

Flopping Aces says the timing is a bit coincidental:

"Every flippin day we get more evidence that Obama is the worst flip-flopper to have come along in sometime . . .

"Puhlease. 'Inartful?' Either you believe the ban was constitutional or not. Simple question. His spokesperson said he did believe it was constitutional and he never corrected this statement until the day of the decision."

Not seeing much on the liberal blogs. HuffPost had a big banner headline but nothing about Obama's shift. Here's a post from Newshoggers:

"In today's political climate, flip-flops and smarmy attempts to spin now-abandoned positions of principle as 'inartful' are more harmful than just going against the national grain might be. I understand that Obama wants to move toward the center now that the primary is over and the general must be fought, but inartfully doing so won't help. He needs to rediscover his spine."

The court rulings makes this Time essay by Jay Newton-Small particularly timely:

"To some observers, Obama's transformation from upstart candidate to presumptive nominee has made him begin to look dangerously like the typical Washington politicians he so often rails against. Worried about his patriotism? He now wears a flag pin daily. Worried about his church? He left it. Think he's inexperienced? Don't fret; he's got lots of renowned advisers. Too liberal? Well, just look at his recent policy statements on defending Israel and protecting warrantless wiretapping.

"And for a man who last week flip-flopped on his pledge to stay within the public financing system, Obama's planned meeting with Hillary Clinton's fat-cat donors seems to be his way of saying, 'I may not like your game, but I'll take your money.'

"Certainly this kind of seasonal shifting of messages isn't new for a presidential campaign, in which candidates typically move to the fringes to appeal to their party's all-important base in primaries and the center to appeal to crucial moderate and independent swing voters in the general election . . .

"In some ways Obama has boxed himself in: in trying to counter criticisms about his experience, he's brought in a team full of gray-haired advisers who, by dint of their long-established positions and Washington relationships, represent the furthest thing from change.

"The shift hasn't just been cosmetic. The liberal blogosphere lit up angrily when Obama signed on to a controversial Senate compromise to authorize President George W. Bush's warrantless wiretapping programs last week."

One former White House official has been doing his best to paint Obama as a country-club snob. Karl Rove continues the assault in the WSJ, starting with O's now-scrapped, presidential-looking seal:

"Such arrogance -- even self-centeredness -- have featured often in the Obama campaign . . . Mr. Obama has now also played the race card, twice suggesting in recent weeks that Republicans will draw attention to the fact that he's black. Who is unaware of that? Americans overwhelmingly find it a hopeful, optimistic sign that the country could elect an African-American president. But they rightly want to know what kind of leader he might be. They may well reject as cynical any maneuver to discourage close examination of him by suggesting any criticism is racially motivated.

"The candidate's self-centeredness has been on display before. Having effectively sewed up the Democratic nomination, he could have agreed to seat the Florida and Michigan delegations (states Hillary Clinton had carried). While reducing his lead by 50 to 55 delegates, it would not have altered the outcome. But Mr. Obama supported cutting these battleground-state delegations in half. At a time when magnanimity was called for, the candidate decided he'd strut . . .

"Mr. McCain will be helped if he uses Mr. Obama's actions to paint his opponent as someone driven by an all-powerful instinct to look out only for himself."

But "Bush's Brain" coauthor James Moore finds the very idea of Karl as pundit distasteful:

"The media, which he often had the president refer to as 'the filter,' is embracing his intellectual dishonesty with both money and fervor. Never mind that Rove hasn't spent an adult day of his life without spitting out the words 'reporter' or 'media' as though they were so much risen bile. He is now one of the people he had long positioned as an enemy. He writes for Newsweek and The Wall Street Journal, opines on FOX News, and in his spare moments gives speeches at $60,000 a pop while also working on his memoir, which fetched a $1.2 million advance . . .

"I've labored to ignore this man and distance myself from politics but it aggravates any reasonable person to still see Rove getting a venue for his venom. His latest twist on reality is his attempt to paint Senator Obama as one of the sneering country club Republicans that Rove worked so hard to empower. The archetype Rove honored and argued was best fit to lead is now the one that he denounces by trying to attach it to Obama. Irrespective of the fact that his characterization of Obama is as erroneous and ill-considered as almost everything else Rove has created, how does he get away with people taking his pronouncements seriously?"

A possible bipartisan bombshell? Bob Novak says Colin Powell is likely to endorse Obama.

They have long memories at Newsweek. Howard Fineman does a bit of gloating:

"Two new polls--our latest NEWSWEEK poll and an even newer one from The Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg News--run counter to the conventional wisdom. They show Obama with wide leads, of 15 points and 12 points respectively.

"The response to our poll was predictably nasty. Trent Lott, who left the Senate to become a Washington lobbyist, struck first. 'I doubt the accuracy of that poll,' he declared. 'It is in Newsweek, after all.' A day later, Karl Rove, George W. Bush's 'architect' and now a Washington political consultant, chose one of the late George Carlin's seven dirty words to describe the quality of our poll in a private meeting with Republicans on the Hill (and he's an occasional contributor to Newsweek!).

"Some of our competitors dismissed our survey, too, although they used a more polite, technical term: We were an 'outlier.' But then the LAT/Bloomberg numbers appeared, and the universe of 'outliers' expanded. Maybe I missed it, but I haven't heard from Lott and Rove on this."

Mark Halperin is always thinking about lists--he must dream in lists--and his advice for McCain included these pointers on handling the media:

"11. Spend a day (or two) in New York meeting with the columnists, publishers, anchors, executive producers, and news division presidents you have known and have cultivated for more than two decades -- and remind them why they have always liked and respected you. (a.k.a: rejuvenate the base)

"12. And/but recognize that your relationship with the press is different now, and it can't ever be again like it was in the old days."

Yes, people are still going on about Hillary as veep, as the media will undoubtedly do today when HRC and BO have their unity meeting in Unity, N.H. It's like we're programmed and just can't help ourselves. Meanwhile, a new talking point is emerging, as we see in this piece by Democratic strategist Bob Beckel:

"The chatterers insist she will be a drag on the ticket and bring the Republican base to the polls in huge numbers. If it is not obvious to the chatterers yet, they should pay closer attention [to] the vicious anti Obama tirades by right wing bloggers and conservative talk radio show hosts. The Right will come to the polls all right . . . to vote against Barrack Obama in droves with or without Hillary Clinton . . .

"No one will be a more effective attack dog against McCain and the Right than Hillary. She can take the heat and defend you (something you are increasingly forced to do yourself). Every attack on McCain by Clinton will get wide coverage. No one has had more experience than Hillary on taking the Right to the wood shed and beating them to a pulp."

The New Republic's Jonathan Cohn is thinking along the same lines:

"It's unquestionably helpful to have a running mate who is also a deft attacker. Think back to the last few presidential campaigns--and the moments for which the running mates are most memorable. Many of them involve the debates. We remember John Edwards and Joe Lieberman failing to deliver punches against Dick Cheney; going back a little further, we remember Lloyd Bensten absolutely devastating Dan Quayle with his famous line about Jack Kennedy . . .

"Hillary Clinton, of course, excelled at the debates."

Stepping in to moderate "Meet the Press" doesn't come without great sacrifice. Gail Shister talked to Tom Brokaw:

"Brokaw canceled a fishing trip to Russia set for September and will 're-orient' his fall hunting schedule (pheasants, partridge and grouse.)"

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