Obama gives GOP flip-flop ammo

ANALYSIS | Iraq, gun, financing positions revive attacks that helped defeat Kerry

By Jennifer Loven; Chicago Sun-Times; July 5, 2008

BUTTE, Mont. — Is Barack Obama close to being shadowed by giant flip-flops and, worse, having the image stick with people all the way to the voting booth?

Four years ago, Republicans branded as a ”flip-flop” even the slightest rhetorical or policy change by John Kerry and sent huge replicas of the casual sandals to bob around the Massachusetts Democrat’s events, feeding an image of him as a wishy-washy panderer.

Fair or not, Kerry never recovered and lost to President Bush.

It’s now the Republican weapon of choice against Obama.

The Illinois senator has excited many with the notion that he is a new, transcendent type of politician. But he is giving the GOP effort ammunition and endangering his ”Change We Can Believe In” motto with several shifts to the center, most recently on the Iraq war, his campaign’s defining issue.

General election campaigns invariably find candidates fine-tuning what they said during primaries.

When politicians compete against others in their party, they must appeal to the most partisan, who tend to make up the majority of enthusiastic voters at that stage. But general elections require a broader appeal, particularly to the vast center of the nation’s electorate.

So it’s not uncommon as spring fades and November approaches to see candidates de-emphasize or even cast off some of their most extreme positions in favor of policy more palatable to the middle. They mostly do it quietly, or try to.

And though there can be criticism about shifting positions, voters usually forgive and forget.

For one thing, a willingness to hone policy, add nuance or even change one’s mind — especially when new information comes to light — is not a bad quality in a leader. For another, those partisans who supported a candidate in the primaries are not likely to switch parties. Often the worst that can happen is they stay home on Election Day. Politicians are usually willing to risk that for the chance to court the center.

Hence Obama has been highlighting positions anathema to the left on several issues, though some have long been part of his policy.

On Iraq, Obama said Thursday that his upcoming trip there might lead him to refine his promise to quickly remove U.S. troops.

He now supports broader authority for the government’s eavesdropping program and legal immunity for telecommunications companies that participated in it, supporting the bill after some protections were added.

A handgun control proponent, he reacted to the Supreme Court overturning the District of Columbia’s gun ban by saying he favors both an individual’s right to own a gun as well as government’s right to regulate ownership.

Obama became the first major-party candidate to reject public financing for the general election after earlier promises to accept it.

He not only embraced but promised to expand Bush’s program to give more anti-poverty grants to religious groups, a split with Democratic orthodoxy.

He objected to the Supreme Court’s decision outlawing the death penalty for child rapists, drawing attention to his support for the death penalty if used only for the ”most egregious” crimes.

The GOP increasingly has sought to take advantage of any opportunity to permanently pin the flip-flopper label on Obama, with all its unappealing associations, and strip him of the shiny-new-penny one he has cultivated up to now.

”There appears to be no issue that Barack Obama is not willing to reverse himself on for the sake of political expedience,” said Alex Conant, a spokesman for the national Republican Party.

It might be working. Despite disarray in Republican John McCain’s camp, Bush’s dismal approval ratings and just 17 percent of the public saying the nation is moving in the right direction, recent polls show Obama unable to build a solid lead over his GOP rival.

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