Sep 1 2008

When a ‘Flip-Flop’ Is a Badge of Honor

Switching positions can be good—if McCain does it

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Image Editor

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Image Editor

When is a “flip-flop” evidence of moral character rather than a moral failing? To many in the corporate media, it seems, it’s when the perpetrator is John McCain.

While Barack Obama was roundly disparaged for his “flip-flop” on public financing—criticism that largely ignored Obama’s actual promise to pursue an agreement on public financing with his Republican opponent (Extra! Update, 8/08)—the media deeply downplayed McCain’s reversal on the same issue.

McCain’s transgression, unlike Obama’s, may have actually been illegal: McCain had pledged to accept public financing for the primary elections, and used that forthcoming public money as collateral for a $3 million loan to keep his struggling campaign afloat back in November (Washington Post, 2/16/08). But McCain’s gambit attracted minimal media interest (FAIR Media Advisory, 7/3/08; Extra! Update, 8/08).

As Media Matters pointed out (6/26/08), numerous outlets (e.g., New York Times, L.A. Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Fox NewsSpecial Report, CNN) ignored McCain’s going back on a signed agreement even as they quoted McCain himself attacking Obama for backing off a much more ambiguous pledge: “It’s a big deal. He has completely reversed himself and gone back not on his word to me, but the commitment that he made to the American people. That’s disturbing.”

More attention has been paid to McCain’s “flip-flops” on offshore oil drilling and Bush’s tax cuts. But while Obama’s campaign finance decision was pronounced “emblematic of his uncanny ability to renege on promises, brush off transgressions as if they were unimportant, and prevaricate with an ease that inspires marvel” (, 6/20/08), McCain’s “flip-flops” were frequently explained away, or even viewed as evidence of his upright character. The Miami Herald (7/2/08) argued:

John McCain and Barack Obama have been accused of flip-flops recently. However, there is a significant difference: McCain changed his position on drilling off our coasts in order to make a difference in our dependence on foreign oil and as an extra safeguard for our nation. Obama changed his stance and rejected public funding for his presidential campaign to benefit himself.

Contrasting Obama on public finance with McCain on offshore drilling, ABC’s Sam Donaldson declared (This Week, 6/22/08):

There’s a difference there with John McCain. He can say, circumstances have changed. I mean, if hanging fixes the mind, try $5-, $6-, $7-a-gallon gasoline to fix the mind. And he can say yes, but today we have to do something different. So he flip-flopped on energy but he can say that.

Never mind that offshore drilling would have at best a minimal effect on gas prices (Beat the Press, 6/19/08; Extra! Update, 8/08). And one could certainly argue that McCain’s reversal on off-shore drilling had his own interests at heart: he announced his new position the same day he headed to Texas for big fundraisers whose attendees included oilmen “giving big time money” (Think Progress, 6/16/08).

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen (6/24/08) claimed to see evidence of virtue in McCain’s lengthy record of policy reversals:

Here is the difference between McCain and Obama—and Obama had better pay attention. McCain is a known commodity. It’s not just that he’s been around a long time and staked out positions antithetical to those of his Republican base. It’s also—and more important—that we know his bottom line. As his North Vietnamese captors found out, there is only so far he will go, and then his pride or his sense of honor takes over. This—not just his candor and nonstop verbosity on the Straight Talk Express—is what commends him to so many journalists.

U.S. News & World Report’s Gloria Borger (7/7/08), though, seemed to excuse McCain’s shifts not based on a core consistency but on an essential inconsistency:

In a way, McCain may have less to lose because the public already sees him as unpredictable. So when he flips his positions to conform with GOP orthodoxy on tax cuts (he now supports) and immigration (build the fence first), it doesn’t seem so odd that he then tacks to the middle on global warming or panders to frustrated motorists on offshore drilling. It’s part of the “don’t pigeonhole me” trademark, which has its appeal to independent voters. McCain’s inconsistency fits the brand, so voters may forgive him.

Voters may or may not forgive him, but it’s clear that McCain’s cheering section in the corporate media already has.