John McCain’s aides complain that Mitt Romney is running a negative campaign. Those same aides have been attacking Romney themselves, but for the most part they can outsource the negativism to their friends in the press — starting with the Union Leader, a prominent conservative newspaper in New Hampshire that has endorsed him. (We have endorsed Romney.)
The Union Leader’s advocacy of John McCain has become so fierce and lopsided that it has practically transformed itself into a pro-McCain 527 organization. It has not formalized the arrangement, which is lucky for it: If it had, McCain would, on his campaign-finance principles, have to try to shut it down.
There is a lot to like about Senator McCain, and we do not fault the Union Leader for endorsing him. We do fault its double standards. The newspaper counts it as a damnable “flip-flop” every time Romney has changed his position or even his emphasis. McCain can switch his views on the very same issues without a disparaging word from the Union Leader.
Take taxes. Romney, as governor of Massachusetts, stayed neutral in the battle over President Bush’s 2003 tax cuts. We wish he had spoken up in their favor. Senator McCain, alas, was not silent: He voted against the tax cuts, as he had voted against the 2001 tax cuts. He flip-flopped on estate taxes, defending them after having voted to get rid of them. As he geared up to run for president this time around, however, McCain became a born-again supply-sider. Now he wants to keep the tax cuts he originally opposed.
The Union Leader has blasted Romney for changing his mind on immigration. It accused him of lying, too, for saying that McCain wanted to let illegal immigrants earn Social Security benefits while working here illegally. But Romney was right. McCain has voted to let illegal immigrants who meet certain conditions become citizens and then receive benefits for their prior illegal work. Few Senate Republicans joined him.
We won’t throw around the word “lie” quite as recklessly as the Union Leader, but its candidate first argued for an “amnesty” and then spent months claiming that his immigration bill did not amount to one. And if flip-flopping on immigration is a crime, McCain can be charged with it, too. He himself says that he has changed his position on the issue. One of the principal points at issue in the debate over his bill was whether we should try “enforcement first.” Since the bill’s collapse, McCain has said that he now understands that we should. If that is not a flip-flop, it is only because his claims of a change of heart are insincere. (The liberal newspapers that have endorsed him seem to think so.)
Some of Romney’s critics allow that all politicians change their positions over time, but say that Romney stands out for changing his very political identity. Supposedly he ran as a moderate technocrat in Massachusetts, but is running as a culture warrior in the Republican primaries. We think both halves of this characterization are overstated, but in any case it is not a critique that John McCain’s supporters can credibly make. McCain was a reliably conservative legislator for 15 years. Then he moved left for three years, so much so that liberals began urging him to change parties. Then he zigged back to the right.
For us, the most important question about a flip-flop is whether the movement is in the right direction. We are glad that Romney has changed his mind about abortion and McCain has changed his about taxes, although we prefer Romney’s open admission that he was wrong in the past to McCain’s evasiveness. We hope McCain comes around some more on immigration, and campaign-finance reform, and a lot of other issues — and we will not attack him as a flip-flopper if he does. Voters who hold flip-flops against politicians, however, should be warned: McCain is every bit as much of one as Romney is, and all the bile of New Hampshire’s editorialists cannot change the fact.