John Kerry is a flip-flopping, U-turning, yes-and-no kind of guy. No serious person I've met who follows politics disagrees with this, so let's save the long list of flip-flops for another column.
Kerry's defenders describe this trait as an asset. He's "comfortable with nuance" and "at ease with complexity." Even others who are less enamored with Kerry's ability to come to a fork in the road and take it (apologies to Yogi Berra) think that Bush is a flip-flopper, too, and that there are more important issues than the tendency of all politicians to trim their sails to the political currents.
Some say Kerry's ambiguities are signs of courage. He went to war to fight for his country. And when Kerry came home, they say, he fought the war in support of what he thought was best for his country. Needless to say, many people disagree with this interpretation.
This will all be hashed out repeatedly between now and November. What I find more interesting is how familiar these complaints about Kerry seem to be.
Didn't we hear the same things about Bill Clinton, the original Democrat Who Wanted to Have it Both Ways?
When asked how he would have voted on the first Gulf War, Clinton said he agreed with minority against the war but would have voted with the majority. He smoked, but didn't inhale. He boasted about how he "compartmentalized" disparate and often conflicting actions and ideas. He even conjured a whole "New Democrat" philosophy in which anybody who said you had to choose between eating your cake and having it too was presenting America with a "false choice."
And of course there was Al Gore. Now Gore wasn't really accused of holding conflicting ideas simultaneously, so much as constantly "reinventing himself." He'd been a pro-lifer, a pro-choicer, a social liberal, a social conservative, a hawk, a dove, a wonk, a quasi-hippy, a populist, an elitist, a New Democrat and an Old Democrat. Even such middle-of-the-road types as CNN's Bill Schneider wrote a column for National Journal titled "OK, Al, Who Are You Today?"
Clinton, Gore and Kerry are all very different men, with different histories. But I'm beginning to wonder if there's something about the Democratic Party or liberalism in general that results in picking these sorts of men as their standard-bearers.
By nature, politicians waffle, hem, haw, equivocate and pander. Even the straight-talkers talk in circles. But when you compare Republican and Democratic candidates over the last 25 years, it's hard not to notice a major difference.