The Flip-Flop Brothers

Both McCain and Obama wobbled. Who will pay the price?

Barack Obama’s campaign ad. Click image to launch video.

This was the week for public backtracking. John McCain announced his support for offshore drilling, which he opposed as recently as January. Barack Obama reversed his pledge to accept federal financing for his presidential campaign by rejecting public funds. My first inclination was that both men wouldn’t suffer much from their reversals. With gas moving toward $5 at the pump, voters seeking relief aren’t likely to penalize McCain for his flip-flop. (True, drilling may offer too little help too long from now, but never mind, at least he’s trying.) Obama’s flop, at first blush, would appear to matter to only the handful of voters who care enough about public financing to get exercised about Obama’s decision to forgo the system. After all, his campaign is fueled by hundreds of thousands of regular people giving small donations. That’s a good thing and doesn’t seem like a threat to Democracy.

But the two changes of heart this week illustrate that there’s a difference between changing your policy position and breaking a promise. McCain’s altered stance on drilling (and the windfall profits tax) opens him up to charges that he’s pandering and has no core principles. The damage his drilling plan might do to the environment recedes as a secondary critique. When Obama first reacted to McCain’s proposal, he never mentioned the environment, but framed it as a weakness of leadership: “It’s another example of short-term political posturing from Washington, not the long-term leadership we need to solve our dependence on oil.”

But if these flip-flops reflect character attributes, then it’s Obama who emerges more vulnerable. Breaking a promise is a problem of a higher order than changing a policy position. Our mothers told us not to break promises; they were silent on the question of drilling.

Obama’s change of heart was more closely tied to his self-interest than McCain’s. If he entered the public financing system, he would have denied himself hundreds of millions of dollars. Money is the mother’s milk of politics. More of it allows Obama to better get out his message, organize, and send himself across the country. (He can even cook up a jazzy presidential seal for himself. Next: cuff links.) The self-interest that may motivate McCain’s drilling proposal, by contrast, is more indirect. For McCain to benefit from his flop, voters have to believe in his drilling idea and then vote for him at least partly because of it.

Obama’s is also exposed because he initially pledged to work against his self-interest on this very point. His promise to take taxpayer funds was always conditional—he’d do it if McCain did, too—but he and his aides said he would “aggressively pursue” negotiations with McCain to work something out. He even said he’d sit down with McCain to find a way. When it came down to it, though, the negotiations that took place don’t qualify as aggressive. Obama’s lawyer met with McCain’s lawyer for a single 40-minute session. That was it. The Obama camp says they quit because it was clear McCain wasn’t interested in a deal. But the evidence for this seems to rely in large part on interpreting McCain’s position rather than probing and testing it through serious negotiations. Giving up after one meeting seems a little weak, particularly for a candidate who, in the foreign-policy context, says that he will never fear to negotiate.

The final problem for Obama is that he didn’t spin his decision very well. He claimed that he had to refuse public funding because McCain was being supported by unregulated 527 groups while his campaign wasn’t. That’s not so. Right now, Democratic-leaning groups funded by unregulated donations are helping Obama more than Republican groups are helping McCain. Obama also claimed that McCain and the Republican National Committee were fueled by contributions from Washington lobbyists and special interest PACs. Factcheck.org labeled his claim a “large exaggeration and a lame excuse” for opting out of public funding.

If Barack Obama outdid McCain on this week’s flip-flop competition, in another time, McCain has matched him. In 2000, during the South Carolina primary, McCain supported flying the Confederate flag over the state capitol because he though it would help him win. He offered implausible spin to defend himself instead of the “straight talk” he’d promised. After he lost, he returned to South Carolina to admit he’d compromised his principles and broken his promise to tell voters the truth. If McCain weren’t Barack Obama’s opponent, he might be the perfect one to counsel the Democratic nominee on how to deal with his current dilemma.