By Michael Dobbs
The Washington Post
It was one of the most devastating TV ads of the 2004 presidential campaign. To the tune of the "Blue Danube" waltz, the Democratic nominee was shown tacking his windsurfing board left, then right, then left again while an announcer commented sarcastically, "John Kerry, whichever way the wind blows."
Heading into a potentially decisive day of primaries Tuesday, the two leading GOP candidates are reviving the waltz and windsurfing images to gain some vital last-minute traction. Sen. John McCain, Ariz., and former Massachusetts gov. Mitt Romney have issued online ads, modeled on the George W. Bush spot from 2004, seeking to pin the label of "biggest flip-flopper" on each other and exploit a perceived weakness.
Political analysts say that Romney and McCain are vulnerable to the flip-flop charge for different reasons. The label has become part of Romney's political identity, with the candidate changing positions on such core issues as abortion, gun control and immigration. The senator from Arizona, meanwhile, has presented himself as a "straight talker," so the perception that he is in the same league as Romney when it comes to flip-flopping could be highly damaging.
Choosing a winner in the flip-flop wars is not easy. The record shows that Romney and McCain have both changed their positions on taxes, immigration and other issues that are important to GOP voters. Romney's changes of heart have garnered more attention, raising questions about his core convictions, but McCain has changed his stances more often than he is usually prepared to admit.
"You have to distinguish between the quantity and the quality of the flip-flops," said Jennifer Duffy, a longtime analyst for the Cook Political Report. She said that Romney's flip-flops have been on "big issues for Republican voters," such as abortion. She said that McCain was trying to "reach out to establishment Republicans" by stressing topics such as border security but had not "fundamentally changed his views" on immigration reform and other matters.
Nachama Soloveichik, communications director for the Club for Growth, a free-market think tank and lobby group, said that Romney comes across as "more sincere" than McCain when it comes to maintaining President Bush's tax cuts. She said the senator had sounded "like Ted Kennedy" in 2001, when he opposed the tax cuts because they helped the wealthy at the expense of the middle class.
"He is trying to have it both ways," Soloveichik said. "It's hard to take him seriously when he says he is going to fight to make the Bush cuts permanent. He was front and center opposing them."
The issue of flip-flopping came up repeatedly during the campaign for the Florida primary and the run-up to Super Tuesday voting. Speaking in Jacksonville, Fla., McCain sarcastically praised Romney: "He's consistently taken both sides of any major issue. He has consistently flip-flopped on every issue."
Not to be outdone, Romney shot back that McCain was "against the Bush tax cuts" but "now he's for making them permanent." And "he was for McCain-Kennedy" immigration reform, Romney continued. "Now he's for a new program on immigration. He's changed his view on issue after issue. He was against ethanol, then for it, then against it again."
In McCain's version of the windsurfing ad, the Johann Strauss waltz serves as background music and a photograph of Romney's head is superimposed on a cartoon of a windsurfer. "Where does Mitt Romney stand?" the announcer asks, after alleging that the former Massachusetts governor changed his stance on Bush's tax cuts. "Whichever way the wind blows."
Titled "Waltz," the Romney ad dispenses with the windsurfing image but shows McCain justifying his position change on the Bush tax cuts with the "Blue Danube" providing the soundtrack. A caption then flashes across the screen: "John McCain. Always for Tax Cuts ... Except when he's against them."
Romney supporters argue that McCain's flip-flops have largely been under the public radar because they conflict with the "straight shooter" narrative accepted and promoted by the media. McCain has altered his position on such issues as taxes, immigration, the religious right, Roe v. Wade and ethanol. McCain has moved toward mainstream Republican positions on all these issues, including an embrace of the Ronald Reagan philosophy that tax cuts always lead to higher government revenue.
The senator has sought to disguise his flip-flop on the Bush tax cuts by arguing that the main reason he opposed them was that they were not accompanied by cuts in government spending. This was not the explanation he gave at the time, however. In a May 2001 speech on the Senate floor, he said he could not "in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us, at the expense of middle-class Americans who most need tax relief."
Romney's flip-flops have been well documented over the past few months, including those on abortion, which have closely tracked the beliefs of voters he was targeting in various political campaigns. While he has acknowledged moving to antiabortion views from "an effectively pro-choice position," Romney has glossed over various steps he took as governor of Massachusetts, including ordering all state hospitals to make the "morning-after" pill available to women who had been raped, over the objections of abortion opponents.
Romney's flip-flops have so angered some of his former supporters that they have established Web sites to chronicle them. Groups that he once courted but that are now critical of him include the Log Cabin Republicans, which is a gay rights group, and the abortion rights organization Planned Parenthood, which is offering "flip-flopper from Massachusetts" merchandise on its Web site.
The flip-flopper tag may pose a bigger problem for Romney than McCain, if only because the senator starts off with "the image of being a straight shooter," said longtime political analyst Stuart Rothenberg.
"Some charges stick and others don't," he said. "McCain hasn't been entirely successful in rebutting Romney's charges. But given the way the race has developed, Romney is not the most credible messenger to accuse McCain of flip-flopping."