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Starting Gate: Bust Out The Flip-Flops

Four years ago, there was perhaps no insult in politics worse than "flip-flopper."

Consider the case of Democratic nominee John Kerry, who infamously said that he "actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it," in reference to his position on Iraq war funding bills. The comment was a boon to Kerry's Republican rivals, who repeatedly invoked the words to paint the Democratic nominee as a calculating politician who lacked the moral certainty to be a strong leader. To hammer the point home, volunteers showed up at Kerry rallies dressed as giant pairs of flip-flops and pasted his face on the sandals themselves.

This time around, however, flip-flopping doesn't appear to carry quite the same stigma. Barack Obama's decision last week to decline public financing clearly marked a reversal of his previous stated position, despite his campaign's tortured justifications and his surrogates' arguments that Obama was acting "in the spirit of reform of the public financing system." His Republican rival John McCain, meanwhile, who had long been an opponent of offshore drilling, has now come out in favor of doing so. McCain has also made support for the Bush tax cuts – which he once opposed – central to his economic platform.

Despite these reversals, however, charges of flip-flopping do not hold the central position in the political discussion that they did back in the 2004 campaign. The current president, who takes pride in sticking by his positions even as they grow increasingly unpopular, could have something to do with that: Americans are pessimistic and disenchanted – less than 20 percent believe the country is moving in the right direction, according to a recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll – and may now be less resistant to a leader who isn't opposed to changing his position. Even Bush's conservative base seems to have softened on flip-flopping, rallying around the candidacy of Mitt Romney during the Republican primary despite the fact that the former Massachusetts governor had clearly shifted rightward on a host of hot-button issues.

With the first weekend of summer upon us, then, it appears the term "flip-flops" may, in the coming months, be invoked more in reference to footwear than politics.

Around The Track:

  • Could Bob Barr be the new Ralph Nader? Some political strategists think so. Republicans fear that Barr, a former Republican who pushed hard for Bill Clinton's impeachment and is now running as a Libertarian, could end up as a spoiler for McCain. Barr is unlikely to get even 5 percent of the vote, but his presence could nonetheless spell trouble for the presumptive GOP nominee, since his voters are more likely to come from Republican ranks.
  • Later today, McCain will propose a "$300 million prize for the development of a battery package that has the size, capacity, cost and power to leapfrog the commercially available plug-in hybrids or electric cars." In a speech in Fresno, California, McCain will call the proposal "a small price to pay for helping to break the back of our oil dependency." He will also propose a 5,000 dollar tax credit for each "zero-emissions car" sold.
  • Obama wants to close the "Enron Loophole," legislation that deregulated electronic energy-futures trading and, Democrats say, helped drive high gas prices. "The Enron Loophole was created by McCain campaign co-chair Phil Gramm at the behest of Enron," Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton said, arguing that it is "just one example of the special interest politics that put the interests of Big Oil and speculators ahead of the interests of working people." McCain's camp, meanwhile, shot back that Obama is simply following McCain's lead on opposing the loophole.
  • NBC announced yesterday that Tom Brokaw would moderate "Meet The Press" through Election Day in place of Tim Russert. "I've been appearing on 'Meet the Press' since the days of Watergate when it was moderated by Lawrence E. Spivak right through the distinguished tenure of my great friend, Tim Russert, so I feel right at home," Brokaw said in a release.
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