'Flip-flopping' defines Democrats

Jonah Goldberg

5/21/2004 12:00:00 AM - Jonah Goldberg

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.

The pressure within the Republican Party has been to promote politicians willing to take strong conservative positions, even if they turn some people off. The pressure in the Democratic Party has been to promote candidates who can be all things to all people.

Ronald Reagan, love him or hate him, was a man of strong conviction who stuck to his guns as much as politics allowed. And the current President Bush won the support of Republicans largely because he was the anti-Clinton. He talked poorly, but his meaning was clear. With Clinton - who could talk circles around the meaning of "is" - it was the other way around.

Historically, the Democratic Party rarely wins with a majority of the vote, notes the Web site RasmussenReports.com. "Thirteen of the last 14 Republican Presidential victories before 2000 were won with a majority of the popular vote" - the current president was the exception.

Meanwhile, if you take out FDR (a master at cobbling together coalitions through saying opposite things to different constituencies), only one Democrat, Lyndon Johnson, has won with a significant majority of the popular vote since 1860 (Carter got a spare 50.1 percent in 1976).

One reason is that the Democratic Party was the outsider party after the Civil War, picking up electoral scraps where it could. Another closely linked reason is that liberalism these days is by nature coalitional. Why should a blue-collar Catholic Teamster in Ohio be in the same party as a software-designing gay-rights activist in San Francisco? Because Democrats value agreement less than cooperation and loyalty.

Republicans have their coalitions, too. But the party tends to be ideational. Conservatives say, "If you agree with us on, say, seven issues out of 10, you should vote with us."

Liberals say we'll fight for your cause - abortion, affirmative action, whatever - if you fight for ours. The Democrats' problem becomes even more acute because - thanks to its successes and failures - it has no unifying ideas or goals other than holding political power. What unites Democrats today other than defenstrating Bush?

Seen this way, is it so surprising the flip-floppers rise to the top of the Democratic Party? If you need to please working-class traditionalists, single-issue feminists, angry parents and angrier teacher's unions, you have to speak out of both sides of your mouth. So, in this sense, isn't Kerry the perfect spokesman for his party?