To hear his detractors tell it, John Kerry is an inveterate populist –a man who has displayed a readiness to completely overturn his stances for the sake of political convenience.
Republicans have been quick to capitalize on Kerry's equivocation over core issues like Iraq – his initial criticism of rival Democratic candidates who opposed the war, "...those who believe we are not safer with [Saddam Hussein's] capture don't have the judgment to be President - or the credibility to be elected President," soon changed to reflect the worsening situation in Iraq, to the extent that this week has seen Kerry try and turn the election into a referendum on Iraq, "If George W. Bush is re-elected, he will cling to the same failed policies in Iraq — and he will repeat, somewhere else, the same reckless mistakes."
His change of tack may have been well advised, but it gave the Republican contention that Kerry was politically opportunistic a dimension of credibility.
The GOP went to work with the contradictory sound bytes and by the Spring the characterization of Kerry as a flip-flopper became a permanent fixture of the Republican campaign, and wider public perception – enthusiastic attendees at last month's Republican National Convention even went so far as to interrupt President Bush's acceptance speech to perform the 'flip-flop dance,' a simple jig which involved a sea of delegates swaying back and forth whilst chanting the mantra "flip-flopper, flip-flopper."
But there's nothing unique about Kerry's about-faces – since his elections four years ago, the sitting President has drastically changed his stances on core policy issues of the environment, the economy and even national security.
The President's pre-September 11 critique of his predecessor's conduct in the Balkans, "We are not in the business of nation building" soon became forgotten after the attack on the trade center towers– as did his justification for his second foray into the process; where the President had assuredly told the Polish media in May of 2003 that "Those who say we haven't found the banned manufacturing devices and weapons [In Iraq], they're wrong, we found them", his position had been reversed by as early as February of this year when President Bush
told Meet the Press that, we haven't found the stockpiles yet… they could have been destroyed during the war".
But it's more than just the war. President Bush in 2002 reaffirmed his commitment to free trade in 2002, "I believe strongly that if we promote trade … it will help workers on both sides of this issue" before overturning it less than a year later by imposing heavy tariffs on steel imports, designed to help struggling mills in the battleground states of Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Bush's infamous concession on the Today show earlier this month, "I don't think you can win [the war on terror]" was contradicted just a day later when he told journalists that "Make no mistake about it, we are winning and we will win [the war on terror]".
The President's positions on gay marriage, limiting of carbon emissions and the 9/11 commission have also been similarly inconsistent.
There's nothing abnormal about a politician changing his policy promises in response to external factors, but in the case of John Kerry his policy shifts have attracted an inordinate amount of attention, and have had an unusual amount of impact in this year's Presidential race. A new poll, released last week by the Kohut Pew Center, showed that 53% of voters thought that "Kerry changed his mind too much".
Whilst Republican partisans would suggest that the reason the flip-flopping portrayal has held such sway in the Presidential race is because there's a real reason to doubt Kerry's decision making ability. But the question of the 'flip-flopping' Massachusetts Senator is indicative of a wider problem within American politics – an aversion to the issues.
The GOP's depiction of Kerry as a disingenuous flip-flopper is this year's answer to the campaign of 2000, which centered on the portrayal of Al Gore as dishonest, backed up with requisite sound bytes or the highly successful Republican campaign of 1988 which rendered Michael Dukakis as a ham-fisted administrator who was 'too liberal' for America– an angle powerful enough to turn Dukakis' post-convention lead of 16 points into one of the most ignominious Presidential defeats in the history of the Democratic party.
The amount of time being lent by the Republicans to the creation of an easily digestible characterization of Kerry will pay dividends this November, serving as their most potent substitute for traditional policy debate.