Obama’s flip-flops, how risky?

Ramesh Ponnuru argues that Barack Obama’s flip-flops reflect the fact that Obama fears the charge of “leftism” much more than he fears the charge of inconsistency, a view that Ponnuru considers shrewd. Although that’s probably correct, I think Ponnuru underestimates the risks associated with Obama’s flip-flopping.

First, abandoning leftist positions is no guarantee that Obama will escape the perception of being left-wing. Voters may well conclude that Obama is both a leftist and a phony. Indeed, I think that’s the best reading of the current evidence.

Second, Ponnuru may be too quick to conclude that McCain’s own shifts will provide cover for Obama. For one thing, broad portions of the public already believe they know John McCain to be someone who, at least as politicians go, calls them as he sees them, sometimes at the risk of harm to his political fortunes. Obama, who is still introducing himself to the public, has no pre-existing reputation for political courage or integrity. Moreover, he came to prominence claiming to be a new kind of politician. Early evidence that he is anything but could be quite damaging.

To be sure, McCain’s reputation is subject to being tarnished and perhaps already has been to a slight degree. But other things being equal, McCain’s reputation gives him an advantage over the tabula rasa that is Obama. As they say, you only get one chance to make a first impression.

Moreover, other things are not equal when it comes to the flip-flops of McCain and Obama. As to McCain, Ponnuru points, as his primary examples, to McCain’s views on the Bush tax cuts and offshore drilling. In one case, McCain does not want to eliminate tax cuts he opposed years ago. In the other case, McCain favors increased drilling in response to the doubling of oil prices, while still opposing drilling in the area of greatest controversy — ANWR. I doubt that this level of inconsistency will undo McCain’s reputation as, relatively speaking, a straight-shooter — a reputation which has been dramatically reinforced by his steadfastness on Iraq.

McCain does not hold every position he did five years, or so, ago. However, he doesn’t sound very different today than he did when campaigning for the Republican nomination last fall. The parallel statement cannot be defended with respect to Obama.

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