The Long History of the GOP Using the Flip-Flopper Charge

Given the recent GOP charges against Kerry about flip-flopping (and Kerry’s great speech at Georgetown yesterday) some folks will be tempted to reassert this is another Kerry flip-flop. Of course, for the GOP to accuse Dems of being a flip-flopper (or inconsistent) is not new at all. IN fact, you can bet the same thing will happen in 2006 and 2008. Recent and not-so-recent-history tells us so. Just look at these examples:

A GOP candidate for president accuses his Democratic opponent of being a chameleon. Bush attacking Kerry? Nope, Herbert Hoover and Wendell Wilkie attacking FDR.

How about this from a presidential debate:
“(democrat’s) answer tonight does not coincide with the answer that he gave in an interview a week or so ago. In that interview he would raise the taxes on those in the medium or middle-income brackets or higher.” Bush attacking Kerry? Nope, Ford attacking Carter in the first debate of 1976. See here for more.

How about this one: Republicans accuse Dems of not caring about national security even though the GOP neglects it. Sure this could be Bush, but it’s also Joe McCarthy attacking Truman during the Korean War (even though McCarthy did not support the Truman Doctrine which increased American military commitments).

My personal favorite is this one: “Senator _____ has indicated on several occasions in this program tonight that I have been misstating his record and his figures…. Now as far as his figures are concerned here tonight, he again is engaging in this, what I would call, mirror game of “‘here-it-is-and-here-it-isn’t.'”

Ah, this must be a Bush smear. Sorry charlie, its Nixon attacking Kennedy in the third debate in 1960. Check here for more.

Being attacked for supposedly changing your mind? By Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon? Isn’t that kind of like being accused of being too superficial-by Paris Hilton or Goldie Hawn?

Oops almost forgot about “Slick Willie” and Al Gore. But as Jon Chait points out in his masterful column about GOP campaign tactics: “even a gifted communicator like Clinton, remember, was widely seen as a waffler.”

Chait also notes that “You have to wonder, when was the last time a party nominated a presidential candidate of such low character? Oh, yes: That would be four years ago. In 2000, Bush painted Al Gore as a flip-flopper whenever possible. Voters, he declared, “don’t want flip-floppers as president of the United States.” Rather than dispute Gore’s positions, he derided them as incoherent. When Gore criticized privatizing Social Security, Bush’s spokesman mocked it as Gore’s “third position in six months.” This characterization was amplified in the media. “Mr. Gore has a bit of a reputation for flip-flopping and corner-cutting on issues like abortion and trade,” reported a New York Times news story in August 2000.'”

Chait is also very good at showing how Kerry does not have a consistency problem, most notably on Iraq-but Bush does: “The most well-known instance of this subtle shading is Kerry’s position on Iraq. But, here as well, Kerry never altered his underlying stance. He favored a tightened inspections regime and recognized that only the threat of unilateral U.S. action embodied by congressional authorization for war would spur the United Nations to act. He subsequently opposed the way Bush used that authority. Bush now says that, by endorsing a use-of-force resolution, Kerry “voted for the war.” At the time, though, Bush sold the resolution in exactly the way Kerry saw it. “If you want to keep the peace,” Bush argued in 2002, “you’ve got to have the authorization to use force.” This is not the only place that Bush has flip-flopped.

“The liberal Center for American Progress has compiled a list of what it calls 30 Bush flip-flops. Of these, 13 are indisputable reversals. For instance, when running for Congress in 1978, Bush favored abortion rights, then later he flipped. He opposed the McCain-Feingold Act but later signed it. Bush insisted on holding a final vote on going to war at the U.N. Security Council in early 2003–“No matter what the whip count is, we’re calling for the vote”–but dropped plans to do so. Bush opposed the creation of a Department of Homeland Security before embracing the idea. He did the same on creating an outside commission to investigate WMD intelligence failures. In turn, he opposed creating the 9/11 Commission, opposed allowing it a time extension to finish its work, opposed allowing Condoleezza Rice to testify, and insisted on limiting his testimony to one hour before eventually abandoning each impediment.

“You could debate which man has flip-flopped more. But one thing is clear: If a stranger unfamiliar with the campaign examined the two men’s records, he would never conclude that Kerry is a serial flip-flopper and Bush is the embodiment of consistency.”

Let’s also not forgot your friend and mine, the media: “In their elevation of character over policy, Republicans have found a powerful, though unwitting, ally in the mainstream news media. One of the curiosities of political journalism is that reporters tend to be assiduously even-handed about matters of policy (which can revolve around disputes over objective fact) but ruthlessly judgmental on questions of character (which are inherently subjective). In fact, most reporters don’t know or care much about policy. They see politics primarily through the lens of the candidates’ personal traits.” Republicans are much better at calling attention to their opponent’s percieved character flaws because “Republicans, at this point, are far more advanced than Democrats in circulating the kinds of damaging anecdotes that political reporters will repeat, and that can make the leap into the popular culture. First, they have a more sophisticated understanding of how narratives about candidates are established and how to play into them. Second, they have access to a partisan media network that Democrats are only in the formative stages of reproducing. ”

When it comes to reporting things that don’t jibe with the story however, they often go unreported. We all remember how Kerry was portrayed as a “Boston Brahmin” while Bush was a regular guy. At least Democrats can take solace in the fact that Kerry not only won white voters making under $35,000, but also won a majority (as low as 51% to a high of 67%) of the vote of people (regardless of race) making $0-$15,000, $15,000-$30,000, and those making $30,000-$50,000. Median household income was just over $43,000 in 2003. Households making under $50,000 are 60% of households-too bad they were only 45% of the voting electorate.

Still, wouldn’t it be nice if Bush’ elitism had been reported on? Take for example this incident Chait reports:
“Compare the cheesesteak episode with a close Bush equivalent. In November 2000, Newsweek reported:

Aboard Bush’s plane, [John] McCain’s chief strategist, John Weaver, had–without thinking–pulled a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich off the snack cart and eaten it. Bush came aboard the plane and asked the flight attendant for his PB&J. She had to tell him it was gone. “It’s gone?” Bush said, disbelieving and suddenly angry. “Who ate my peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich?” After a minute Weaver impishly raised his hand. “I did,” he said. “Fine,” said Bush. “Don’t eat any more of his food,” McCain cracked, sotto voce. A few people chuckled, and Bush returned to his seat to pout.

“By the prevailing standards of the media, this episode is every bit as newsworthy as the cheesesteak episode. It reflects aspects of what Bush’s critics regard as his character flaws–peevishness, immaturity, a sense of entitlement. But this particular sandwich encounter was never picked up by other news organizations. “

Bottom line: The media have been falling for these GOP lines for a long, long, long time. But if Kerry’s numbers among the under $50,000 crowd (and Bush’s current approval numbers below 40%) are any indication, it seems that the people are-despite all the media distortions- often smarter than the news media folks that follow politics for a living.

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About Nick

Teacher of Social Studies. Born in the 1970s. History major, music minor. Big Baseball fan. Economic progressive.
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6 Responses to The Long History of the GOP Using the Flip-Flopper Charge

  1. Nick

    Is there nothing you can’t put stats too!

  2. Ron Chusid says:


    It is easy to see why the Republicans would use this attack so much. When you have no real attacks based upon the issues, it is easy to twist an opponenet’s words to claim they have flip flopped.

    What is harder to understand is why not only average voters go along, but why so many Democrats continue to fall for this and turn on their last candidate.

  3. Ginny in CO says:

    I happened to have learned at a very young age (6 or 7) that reporters change the facts to suit themselves. Although it was quite unimportant (my favorite puff pastry filling was CUSTARD NOT ice cream – and I had told her that very clearly) I was suspicious from then on. Just about every experience since has taught me that reporters hear only part of the story and get yours confused with someone elses.

    Given that those who live in a part of towns where a lot of police action goes on, see the reports that make the newspaper and tv; it doesn’t surprise me to find a higher percentage of news cynics in that socioeconomic group.

    Then I hear very intelligent people talk about a news story and realize they have no idea of how distorted it could be,
    especially when the conclusions are not supported by the facts.

    I think Adlai Stevenson had the best response:

    “I’m willing to come to an agreement with the GOP. If they will stop telling lies about me, I’ll stop telling the truth about them”

  4. NativeTexan4Kerry says:

    In all fairness, we did it too… in 1952. Not that it wasn’t justified. Anyway I just think this site is really fun. You can see all the adds from all the years! The second from the bottom on the Democrat column is the flip flopping one:

  5. Dan says:

    If you guys wouldnt flip flop, we wouldnt use it.

  6. Dan

    I’ve seen a lot of flip flops of late from the other side of the political fence. I think everyone has.