Obama, McCain Test: Flexibility vs. 'Flip-Flopping'


2008 may prove better than most political years for surviving charges of flip-flopping. And Barack Obama and John McCain have both set out to test their luck.

What makes this environment more forgiving is the presidential style of the incumbent. On Iraq, tax cuts and the role of government, George W. Bush has represented a model of steadfastness. His sub-30% job approval ratings have established the market for something new.

Mr. McCain began early exploring the limits of that market, embracing the Bush tax cuts he had opposed in the Senate, while seeking support from anti-tax conservatives in Republican primaries. Last week, even more boldly, Mr. Obama scrapped his recently-reiterated commitment to negotiate an agreement with Mr. McCain to remain within the public financing system for the fall campaign.

Each nominee-apparent will use these shifts in position to impeach the strength and trustworthiness of his rival – and hope voters care more about the shift than the position.

The price politicians pay for flip-flops varies widely with their individual circumstances and the larger context.

Long hailed as a conservative champion, Ronald Reagan could shrug off his backing for a tax increase in 1982 to curb the budget deficits his 1981 tax cut had exacerbated. Long suspect on the Republican right, George H.W. Bush faced a crippling 1992 primary challenge after abandoning his "no new taxes" campaign pledge in the White House. Operatives in both parties agree that John Kerry's apparent equivocation on the Iraq war damaged his 2004 campaign.

The summer transition from primary to general election campaign is ripe for shifts of tone and emphasis, if not outright flip-flops. Since vanquishing Mrs. Clinton with help from populist rhetoric on trade and taxes, Mr. Obama has declared himself a free trader while signaling the possibility of cutting corporate taxes and delaying some tax hikes on the wealthy.

The common thread, as with Mr. Obama's decision to eschew the spending limits imposed by the public financing system, is the portrayal of the Illinois senator as a pragmatic -- rather than ideologically rigid -- politician.

Mr. McCain aimed to communicate the same point with last week's decision to abandon his support for a federal moratorium on off-shore oil drilling. While Mr. Obama dismissed the switch as "the same Washington politics," the Arizona senator cast it as bold action in response to gasoline prices topping $4-per-gallon.

Messrs. Obama and McCain have four more months for repositioning as they woo swing voters. Attempting to shed his party's 2008 baggage, Mr. McCain may find additional flip-flops harder to resist.

In this month's NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, majorities of voters gave both candidates high marks for "being honest and straightforward." But Mr. Obama enjoyed a double digit edge in the proportion rating him highly for "sharing your positions on the issues." In the presidential race overall, Mr. Obama led 47 percent to 41 percent.

Questions? Comments? Write to politicalcapital@cnbc.com.