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“Transformer”
A perennial political charge resurfaces on the Democratic campaign trail.


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Jim Geraghty

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

“The only completely consistent people are dead.” — Aldous Huxley

Inconsistency may be a common trait among the simple-minded or the living, but it’s also one of the most reliable targets on the campaign trail.

One of the lingering effects of last week’s Democratic debate was a sudden ratcheting up of charges of “flip-flopping,” mostly among Gov Howard Dean of Vermont, Sens. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, and John Kerry of Massachusetts.

Lieberman told the Associated Press he would have criticized Kerry as being ambivalent about the war in Iraq during the 90-minute debate. “Now is not the time for rookies, nor cowboys, nor wafflers,” Lieberman said. His spokeswoman, Kristin Carvelle, charged that “Senator Kerry has a bad habit of changing his position to what he thinks a particular audience wants to hear, and that’s not fair.”

Lieberman also accused Dean of flip-flopping on some of his positions. Appearing on CBS’s Face the Nation, the Connecticut senator charged that Dean “has got to let the American people know exactly where he stands.”

Kerry’s campaign staffers seethed at the charge of inconsistency from Lieberman, who they contend is an unparalleled quick-change artist, morphing from a iconoclastic centrist to a party-line liberal when Al Gore selected him as his running mate. They pointed to a long list of Lieberman’s sudden policy shifts in 2000:

A Washington Times editorial from Oct. 5, 2000: “Perhaps Mr. Lieberman’s most disgraceful flip-flop was his obsequious appearance at a Hollywood fund-raiser in September. Last year, Mr. Lieberman declared, ‘If they continue to market death and degradation to our children and pay no heed to the carnage, then one way or another, the government will act.’ At the Hollywood fund-raiser, within days of a Federal Trade Commission report that confirmed Hollywood had indeed been marketing its death and degradation to children, Mr. Lieberman told the perpetrators, who had just contributed $4.2 million to the Democratic Party, ‘Al and I have tremendous regard for this industry,’ adding, ‘I promise you this: We will never, never put the government in the position of telling you by law, through law, what to make. We will noodge you, but we will never become censors.’”

As the late Michael Kelly pointed out in his Washington Post column of Aug. 23, 2000: “On privatizing Social Security by allowing workers to invest some portion of their taxes in the stock market, Lieberman had this to say in a 1998 interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune: ‘I would support that. . . . We now have decades-long history of an average 10 percent return on stocks. . . . So, yes, I would support it. . . . It doesn’t make sense anymore not to do that with this enormous investment pool that we’re supposed to have for Social Security. . . . I think in the end that individual control of part of the retirement/Social Security funds has got to happen.’ In an interview on Aug. 8, 2000 with Larry King, Lieberman maintained that it was ‘not true’ that he had ever favored privatization of Social Security; he had merely been ‘intrigued’ by the idea.”

Kelly, again: “On affirmative action, Lieberman has a clear record of opposition to group preferences. Lieberman supported Ward Connerly’s Proposition 209 to abolish state-funded racial group preference programs in California. ‘I can’t see how I could be opposed to it,’ he said. ‘It basically is a statement of American values . . . and says we shouldn’t discriminate in favor of somebody based on the group they represent.’ On the first day of the convention, in his first planned appearance, Lieberman told the Democratic National Committee’s black caucus that ‘there’s been misunderstanding’ of his opposition to affirmative action. He said: ‘I have supported affirmative action, I do support affirmative action and I will support affirmative action.’”

The Washington Times also charged that Liebermans’ support for school vouchers “went out the window as he joined Gore in the schoolhouse door, blocking the exit of millions of disadvantaged students forced to endure the big cities’ failed school systems.”

In the Aug. 13, 2000 Hartford Courant, former Conn. state Rep. Jonathan Pelto lashed into his state’s senator with a wicked wit: “I always felt if Mattel could have copyrighted him, he could have been one of the best-selling Transformers… If you look in the dictionary under ‘morphing,’ there is a picture of Joe Lieberman.”

Lieberman’s shifts and adjustments to Gore’s agenda brought surprisingly tough criticism from the Washington Post’s editorial board. “[T]he Joe Lieberman introduced to the American people in Tennessee is not the Democratic vice presidential candidate now on the campaign trail. Sen. Lieberman’s earliest champions have had to swallow deeply as they watched him waffle on . . . issues on which he had shown a refreshing willingness to stand up for what he believes.” Michael Kelly nicknamed him “The Human Pretzel.”

The problem with Kerry’s attack on Lieberman’s 2000 contortions is that the Connecticut senator will have an easy defense — that as the vice-presidential nominee, he had a duty to avoid contradicting Gore’s positions. Kerry’s vote in support of the use of force in Iraq, and his subsequent criticism of the war, may appear to be a much fresher contradiction in the minds of Democratic voters.

The candidate who may appear most vulnerable to the flip-flopping attack is Dean. Joe Klein, Time magazine columnist and author of Primary Colors, appeared to be falling out of love with the Vermont “maverick” already this week. Ripping the governor’s performance in last week’s debate, Klein found Dean’s awkward performance and his slipperiness on bringing troops home from Iraq and trade protectionism to be, “a rare moment of indecision in what has been a steamroller campaign.”

“Dean turns out to be a flagrantly political anti-politician,” Klein concluded (a view I wrote more about in the Aug. 11 issue of National Review).:

“As his campaign gains altitude, he seems to change a position a week. In the debate, he changed two — first on American troops in Iraq, then on American labor standards on trade. Before that, he trimmed his honorable position on raising the age of eligibility for Social Security and his support for lifting the embargo on Cuba. Dean still proudly struts his pro-gun stance in the anti-gun Democratic Party, but as often as not he points out the political efficacy of that position in the red states. The question is: How many of Dean’s positions are negotiable? As victory becomes a possibility, how much integrity will he compromise to win? Another question: How long before Dean’s tough talk — the apparent candor that propelled his charge — begins to seem arrogant, uninformed, unpresidential?”

Jim Geraghty, a reporter for States News Service, is a frequent contributor to NRO.



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