"I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it."
So said John Kerry, in Huntington, W.V., on Tuesday, March 16, 2004, two weeks after he had clinched the Democratic presidential nomination by carrying every state but Vermont in the Super Tuesday primaries.
Kerry was responding to an ad run by George W. Bush's campaign criticizing his 2003 vote against an $87 billion supplemental appropriation for the Iraq war. Two days later, the Bush campaign ran an edited version of the ad with the "actually did vote" footage added.
Kerry had a defensible position. He did actually vote for a Democratic version of the supplemental that included a provision raising tax rates on high earners. He voted against the Republican version without the tax increase, knowing it would pass. The troops would not go unfunded.
But those 14 words were repeated again and again by the Bush campaign in the next eight months. Kerry was labeled a flip-flopper, and delegates at the Republican National Convention brandished flip-flops for the TV cameras one night.
The "did actually vote" sentence hurt Kerry because it underlined a critical weakness.
Like most other Senate Democrats, including Kerry's vice presidential nominee John Edwards, Kerry had voted for the Iraq War resolution in October 2002. But when things started going badly in Iraq in 2003, and after consistent Iraq War opponent Howard Dean shot to the top in Democratic polls, Kerry like many other Democrats said the war was a mistake and should be ended.
Thus the statement met columnist Michael Kinsley's famous definition of a gaffe: when a politician tells the truth. Kerry supported the war, then opposed the war. Flip, flop.
Fast forward to Monday, March 26, 2012, in Seoul, South Korea. Barack Obama was talking to outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. He was evidently unaware that his comments were audible via an open microphone.
"On all these issues, but particularly missile defense, this, this can be solved, but it's important for him to give me space," Obama said. "Yeah, I understand, I understand your message about space. Space for you," the Russian replied.
"This is my last election," Obama said. "After my election, I have more flexibility."
"I understand," Medvedev said. "I will transmit this information to Vladimir." The reference is to Vladmir Putin, the real ruler of Russia during Medvedev's Potemkin presidency.
Note Obama's use of the first-person adjective. Most American politicians speak of "the" election. Obama calls it "my" election. This sort of personalization comes naturally to a leader whose first public reaction to the death of a Florida teenager was, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon."
But of course what's really damaging here is the implication that Obama has a hidden second-term agenda.
Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich were all quick to pounce. "President Obama signaled that he's going to cave to Russia on missile defense, but the American people have a right to know where else he plans to be flexible in a second term," Romney said.
Romney went too far in characterizing Russia as "our number one geopolitical foe." But Russia is at least a strategic competitor and, despite Obama's "reset," not a particularly friendly or helpful one.
Already in his first term Obama propitiated Russia by canceling missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, both NATO allies. "Were they trading Poland?" headlined the Polish tabloid Fakt yesterday.
And Obama certainly surprised the Catholic bishops with his Health and Human Services decree that Catholic hospitals' health insurance must include coverage of procedures they consider sinful. What further surprises are in store for them and others in a second term?
Obama felt obliged to defend his statement by saying it will take "the next nine, 10 months to work through some of the technical aspects" of missile defense. That's weaker than Kerry's response.
Some commentators are saying Obama's words will hurt less than Romney's press spokesman's "Etch-a-Sketch" analogy. But that hurts mainly in Republican primaries, and Romney seems well on his way to the nomination.
Obama's comment reminds general election voters, most of whom dislike his current major policies, that he might go even further "after my election."
The Republican National Committee has already cut a 60-second spot on Obama's words. You can expect to hear them as often this year as voters heard Kerry's damaging sentence in 2004.