Flip Flopping May Save Kerry

Howard Fineman makes an obvious point in a somewhat unusual way:

George Bush’s real political enemy now isn’t so much John Kerry as it is the flow of the news. Not long ago, Kerry’s decision to attack the president as commander in chief (remember all those Swift Boat vets in Boston?) was dismissed by analysts (including me) as naive at best, folly at worst. Well, it may turn out to have been the move that wins this race.

Presidential campaigns take on a life and shape of their own in the last stretch and this one now has. It’s the president desperately trying to tear down Kerry as the news tears down the president. Good things are happening in the war on terrorism—the voting in Afghanistan, for example—but they are all but unnoticed in the rising flood of stories from and about Iraq.

Of course, there’s a lot of good news coming from Iraq, but that’s largely unnoticed, too.

This campaign so far has been almost exclusively, increasingly, about the war in Iraq. On one level, Kerry’s “position” is a contradictory bundle of confusion. He says the war was a mistake, but he’s the guy calling for a gung-ho strategy in Fallujah to root out terrorist nests. As the president has pointed out, Kerry is claiming he can win the support of allies even as he dismisses the contributions of existing ones and calls the entire war a diversion—and even as France and Germany already have said that they aren’t going to rally to our side if Kerry wins. But if the situation in Iraq continues to deteriorate, Kerry’s “vision”—or lack of it—matters less.

This is both the advantage and the curse of the challenger. If things are going well, there is little a challenger can do, because the incumbent is in control of events. For example, while presidents have little to do with the economy, if there’s a boom on the incumbent will usually win. Conversely, if most Americans feel the Iraq War is a fiasco (which, according to the latest Gallup poll, a plurality does) Bush’s argument essentially becomes, “But it’ll be even worse with this flip-flopping yahoo in charge.” That’s quite possibly true but almost impossible to sell.

Matt Yglesias argues that Fineman is being unfair in his characterization of Kerry’s positions:

In the universe I know it, there is a thing known as “time.” At different points in time, objects in the world are arranged in different configurations. . . . Using force against the terrorist elements in Falluja is a good idea now because terrorist elements are in there. In February of 2003, using force against the terrorist elements in Falluja was a bad idea because the people weren’t there. See, in 1996 I thought we should re-elect the president. Now I think we shouldn’t re-elect the president. Was that a flip-flop? Or did a different person take office?

The problem with this, of course, is that Kerry has never articulated a rationale for his changing policy views. It would be fine for him to say that, in light of new information or circumstances, he now favors a different policy than he favored a few months ago. Instead, he’s tried to pretend that he’s “had one position, one consistent position.” He, of course, has not. More crucially, his position has changed, not with new circumstances on the ground or revised intelligence estimates but with the ebb and flow of the public opinion polls. If done artfully, that might be a successful campaign strategy but it’s no way to run a war.

FILED UNDER: 2004 Election, Afghanistan War, Iraq War, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bithead says:

    … Or, a country.

  2. Chad Evans says:

    The problem with Yglesias’ notion of attacking Fallujah now because the terrorists are there is also flawed. Terrorists were inside of Iraq before the U.S. invasin as evident in the existence of Salmon Pak and the resulting “Terrorist Yellow Pages” that was found and enabled the sting to capture a terrorist in New York less than two months ago.

  3. The Plebe says:

    I think you’re missing the point Matt is making Chad. There is a difference between terrorists “being” someplace and “acting” someplace. I’m guessing there are terrorists somewhere in Europe right now, but does that mean we should attack France? Attacking Fallujah when we had no credible intelligence on where they were would have been a waste of resources. When they start showing up in large numbers and blowing things up, it makes a tad more sense. It’s like the WMD argument. If we really had good reason to believe that Saddam had a nuke or two up his ass, we would have been justified to invade even if we didn’t subsequently find them. And if we’d lied and made up evidence that they existed and then invaded and found them it wouldn’t have made the decision any more defensible.