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.
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