The politics of flip-flops

Jacob Sullum
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Posted: Sep 10, 2004 12:00 AM

 When John F. Kerry declared that George W. Bush's middle initial "stands for 'wrong,'" the most commonly heard rejoinder was that the senator's middle initial must stand for "flip-flopper." This familiar anti-Kerry epithet certainly seems apt, especially on the subject of the war in Iraq.

 The other day, Kerry called the U.S. invasion of Iraq "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time." I happen to agree with that assessment, but Kerry apparently does not; he almost immediately reverted to his earlier position, that the war was justified but was not carried out properly.

 Kerry has gone through this bait and switch so many times that I've lost count. His admirers, I suppose, see his ability to hold inconsistent positions as a sign of his subtlety, in contrast to Bush's simplistic, black-and-white view of the world. But it's clear that Kerry is playing to anti-war Democrats while trying not to alienate pro-war voters.

 The Bush campaign has emphasized the insincerity, opportunism and lack of principle suggested by this sort of maneuvering. Yet the president also is guilty of trying to have it both ways. Consider the federal "assault weapon" ban, which will expire Sept. 13 because Bush did not push for its renewal, although he claimed to support it.

 Unlike the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which took out full-page newspaper ads excoriating Bush for his inaction, I'm happy to see this law fade away. It was a fraud from the beginning, based on a strategy of deliberately misleading the public about the weapons covered by the ban.

 Contrary to the Brady Campaign's ads, so-called assault weapons, which are distinguished mainly by their scary looks, do not fire any faster than other semi-automatics, and they are not especially suited for killing cops or committing mass murder. Not surprisingly, the latest evaluation from the National Institute of Justice, as described last month by The Washington Times, concludes that the decade-old ban has had no discernible impact on gun violence.

 The honest response to the "assault weapon" ban would have been to oppose it as an empty, feel-good measure that accomplished nothing except to prepare the way for more ambitious restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms. Instead, Bush played to the majority that supported the ban by promising to sign a renewal bill but placated the highly motivated (and better-informed) minority that opposed the ban by making sure the bill never reached his desk.

 Bush's handling of the "assault weapon" issue was no more honorable than Kerry's flip-flops on Iraq, but at least it was more artful. The same cannot be said of the president's shifting stances regarding restrictions on political speech.

 Back in March 2000, when he was asked about independent ads attacking Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., his rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Bush was a steadfast defender of the First Amendment. "That's what freedom of speech is all about," he said on "Face the Nation." "People have the right to run ads."

 A couple years later, presented with McCain's attempt to make it harder for people to criticize politicians, Bush swallowed his constitutional compunctions and signed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which Republicans thought would give them an advantage because it increased the importance of the restricted "hard money" donations they excelled at collecting.

 Now the president is complaining that the law did not go far enough, leaving some leeway for independent groups to run ads attacking him. He wants the Federal Election Commission to shut them up.

 To be fair, the president is demanding an end to all so-called 527 groups, not just the ones critical of him. Kerry, by contrast, has focused his objections on Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, alleging that the group is illegally coordinating its activities with the Bush campaign.

 Yet anti-Bush groups such as MoveOn.org and the Media Fund seem to be no less closely allied with the Kerry campaign, sharing not just goals and donors but personnel. Such connections are not in themselves illegal, so unless Kerry can demonstrate direct coordination, he will just have to put up with the attacks on his Vietnam record.

 Under Bush's approach, however, 527s simply would disappear -- a welcome development for Republicans, who have not been nearly as successful as the Democrats at collecting money this way. So let's give the president his due: He is a more consistent opponent of free speech.