Flip Along with John

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John "Who Cares Where I Stand, At Least I'm Not Bush" Kerry is going squishy when it comes to opposing the Patriot Act, which shouldn't be a surprise since he voted for the damn thing. From yesterday's L.A. Times:

After Bush used his weekend radio address recently to urge a continuation of the Patriot Act, Kerry issued a written statement listing ideas for "improving" and "fixing" the law by strengthening provisions on money laundering, cracking down on terrorists' assets, improving information-sharing policies and enhancing other sections that specifically target terrorists.

A Kerry spokesman insisted later that the candidate's message has not changed, arguing that it is the challenger, not the president, who brings the most muscular view of the Patriot Act to the race….

Some who agreed with Kerry's early tough stands against the law's potential intrusions on civil liberties now say they are not quite sure where the senator stands.

For those who came in late, here's a quick summary:

1. 9/11 happens, Congress panics at the thought of looking soft on terror, and John Kerry votes for the Patriot Act. He does not necessarily read it first.

2. Howard Dean happens, John Kerry panics at the thought of losing the Democratic base, and he suddenly discovers that the bill was filled with threats to our freedom. He starts to campaign against it.

3. Kerry clinches the nomination, the Patriot Act turns out to have some support among the general electorate, and Panicky John suddenly wants to make the law tougher.

Mickey Kaus mulls whether this is, technically speaking, a flip-flop:

What's striking about Kerry's December '03 speech is the weaselly way it anticipates this future shift to the right by heaping scorn on the Patriot Act while attempting to avoid an actual explicit attack on the law (as opposed to John Ashcroft's "abuse" of that statute). To the extent the speech succeeded at this, Kerry is dissembling and straddling, not flip-flopping. But I don't think the speech completely succeeded. For example, Kerry said, "If I'm elected President, we will put an end to 'sneak and peak' searches which permit law enforcement to conduct a secret search and seize evidence without notification." Is that still Kerry's position?

NEXT: Two Who Dared

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  1. Fyodor, what’s the difference between what you’re saying and what Kaus is saying?

  2. Most issues/laws have many components/aspects – some good and some bad. Normally people review them, evaluate the good vs the bad, and choose a position.

    Kerry is making an art of choosing both (or more than 2) positions of most of the issues, and trumpeting his “stance” based on the time, his audiance, and public opinion. It may not be “flip-flop” in every instance, but there are many such to earn him that reputation.

    Today, it is about “throwing the medals”. I won’t fault him for throwing the medals/ribbons, or for not throwing the same. But when he wants to present (to different people at different times) that he did/didn’t do it …

  3. Jesse, I don’t think Kerry was “heaping scorn on the Patriot Act” in his December ’03 speech. Kaus is saying that Kerry gave the impression that he was foursquare against the Act without coming out and saying that so he could later talk about his support for parts of it without contradiction. But I don’t get that impression at all from the linked speech, which includes stuff about how we need parts of the PA to fight terrorism. Now, he sure heaped plenty of scorn on the Bush Administration, but of course that’s not the same thing.

  4. Yawn.

    A person could make serious book on the predictable posts around here.

  5. That said, it’s certainly true that Kerry didn’t say anything about strengthening the PA in his Dec ’03 speech. Whether changing one’s “emphasis” (as Joe puts it) in that way is tantamount to flip-flopping, I’ll leave alone at the moment. My point is that no one should have interpreted Kerry’s Dec ’03 speech to mean he was entirely against the PA, and the parts of it that he now says he wants to strengthen are the parts he explicitly said he backed in the earlier speech.

  6. Jesse, I don’t think Kerry was “heaping scorn on the Patriot Act” in his December ’03 speech. Kaus is saying that Kerry gave the impression that he was foursquare against the Act without coming out and saying that so he could later talk about his support for parts of it without contradiction. But I don’t get that impression at all from the linked speech, which includes stuff about how we need parts of the PA to fight terrorism. Now, he sure heaped plenty of scorn on the Bush Administration, but of course that’s not the same thing.

    There’s not a big gap between that and Kaus’s “heaping scorn on the Patriot Act while attempting to avoid an actual explicit attack on the law (as opposed to John Ashcroft’s ‘abuse’ of that statute).”

  7. This looks to be another case of the media playing “Gotcha” by selectively distilling a persons broader remarks in order to create a more dramatic story.

    In his December speech Kerry says:

    “I voted for the Patriot Act right after September 11th ? convinced that ? with a sunset clause ? it was the right decision to make.? It clearly wasn?t a perfect bill ? and it had a number of flaws ? but this wasn?t the time to haggle.? It was the time to act”

    I think he is being largely consistent. The Patriot act is such a grab bag of laws that anybody who supports the entire thing is a drone. I am far more comfortable with a politician who will choose the optimum over the perfect when forced to make a real time decision.

    I think the lesson here is “the media sucks.”

  8. Well Jesse, if there’s not a big enough gap to be significant, then I no longer understand what his point was. Again, there was no “heaping scorn on the Patriot Act” in the linked speech that I could see, which I think is key. And there was no need “to avoid an actual explicit attack on the law” because Kerry made it clear that he supported parts of it.

  9. If you are an elephant, nuance = lies. Scratch that, UNPRECEDENTED lies. If you are a donkey, or more explicitly NotBush, nuance is at worst a flip-flop and generally something that makes you ‘not a drone’.

    I am voting for neither, and I’m certainly not going to delude myself about the superiority of one because I feel a need to make the other out to be the antichrist. I have a histroical aversion to Dems, I supported both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, but I friggin’ hate the anti first amendment, anti homosexual spew AND the crap o’ licious spending spree I get from Bush. I support them both with an angry middle digit.

  10. Well Jesse, if there’s not a big enough gap to be significant, then I no longer understand what his point was.

    Well, despite what Shannon read into the post, I don’t think it’s about “gotcha.” As far as I’m concerned — Kaus might disagree — what’s interesting about this story was summed up pretty well by Kevin: “The problem is not Kerry’s nuanced position, but his change in emphasis over time. And his change of emphasis corresponds pretty closely to the typical pattern of political expediency in an election year: run to the left in the primaries, and then back to the center in the general election.”

    As for whether he heaped scorn on the Patriot Act, he did call for “replacing the Patriot Act with a new law that protects our people and our liberties at the same time.” When his most dangerous opponent was Howard Dean, Kerry talked about protecting the liberties; now that he’s facing Bush, he’s saying more about protecting the people. It’s not a flip-flop, but it is a flippy sort of dance.

  11. Jason,
    Would you like to join my 2009 Club. In my America I have a president that is neither John Kerry nor George W. Bush.

    I would like to provide a corollary to your statement on lies based on your animal.

    If you are an donkey, changing your opinion is flip-flopping. If you are an elephant, changing your opinion is recognizing that everything is different after 9-11.

  12. “I’m concerned where Kerry will ultimately come down,” said Laura Murphy, director of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union.

    Well, the folks on the front lines of the fight against the anti-civil liberties aspects of Patriot sure are worried about Kerry being “squishy” on the issue.

    The important question for Kerry here: Does he support letting the Patriot Act’s provisions that are set to expire, do so? The sunsets on those provisions were made law because of the leadership of conservative Republicans like Bob Barr, Ron Paul,and Dick Armey. Will Kerry even take a definite stand?

    Jennifer:
    ‘I think the exact phrase was something like “Kerry won’t make things better, but at least he won’t make things worse.”‘

    It seems the evidence is, that there are a number of areas where Kerry will make things worse if he can:

    1) Government spending. As much as spending has dramatically increased under Bush; if Kerry’s side of votes on spending bills would have prevailed, spending would be even larger, much larger. see:NTU.org (a Republican Congress could restrain a Pres. Kerry here, as they did with Clinton)

    2)The threat of International governance. This might be the only area where things have worked out better under Bush than a Pres. Gore. The ICC, The UN’s Law of the Sea Treaty. and other UN threats to US liberty and Sovereignty. Kerry seems like a “really big fan” of the UN, as opposed to Bush, who is only a “big fan”. BTW, Doug Bandow of Cato has an interesting article on, The Law of the Sea Treaty: http://www.cato.org/dailys/03-12-04.html

    3) Regulation. There is evidence that a Pres. Kerry would tell regulatory agencies to “sick em!” more than even Bush has.

    Of course, none of these items means that I would ever vote for Bush. There are many principled Republicans to vote for…certainly more principled than the Dems and Bush. And, the Libertarian candidate for president will no doubt be someone I can vote for with pride and “send a message” at the same time.

  13. Jesse Walker,

    Perhaps I did misunderstand your post but as I read it it is premised on the media’s interpretation of the “emphasis” that Kerry putting on the Patriot act. Yet if the December speech anchors the Left most Kerry swing and this April 17th statement anchors his rightward swing, then I think the media is exaggerating.

    I am suggesting that the perceived swing in Kerry’s position might be due to the media reporting more extensively on different parts of Kerry’s positions at different times. In December they report more extensively on his criticism of the Act where as now they report more extensively on his support of parts of the act. This creates the illusion that Kerry is shifting position when in reality it is the media which has shifted it’s spot light.

  14. “The problem is not Kerry’s nuanced position, but his change in emphasis over time.” As opposed to…who? Other than the Bush campaign’s strategy to throw the flip-flopper charge at Kerry, and the corporate media’s willingness to repeat because it’s the type of theme they like, what makes you think that his primary and general election strategies are any more divergent than any other candidate?

  15. As opposed to…who?

    Joe, I hope you’re not someone who objects when the White House’s apologists defend Bush’s behavior on the grounds that “Clinton did it too.” Bush’s shifts are a well-worn topic here at Reason. They do not excuse Kerry’s.

  16. First, you still haven’t demonstrated a substantive flip flop. You’ve demonstrated that Kerry highlights those aspects of his consistent position that appeal to whatever audience he’s addressing. Bush’s position on gun control is “No more gun laws, enforce the laws on the books.” Which half do you think he talks about at NRA meetings, and which half at PTA meetings? Nothing wrong with that.

    When Bush does something that isn’t wrong and is univeral, and he takes hits for it, I don’t object to his flacks defending it by pointing out it’s an appropriate thing for a president to do, and demonstrating that fact by pointing to other presidents that have done so. Of course, the preceding statement is theoretical.

  17. For example, I don’t object on principle to Bushies pointing to Kosovo to demonstrate the Clinton also supported the use of military force to achieve humanitarian ends. I object on pragmatic grounds in the case of the Iraq war, but no, I don’t think using such a comparison is wrong in and of itself.

  18. I guess ideally politicians should sing the same tune at all times and places. But if the only point of this post was that Kerry’s following the typical path of presidential candidates, it’s hardly man-bites-dog kinda news. But (but but but) OTOH maybe it’s worth holding his feet to the fire…? In general, Democrats seem less enthused about stripping civil liberties, and from all of this I’d guess Kerry is on par for that. If he’s at all genuinely interested in actually protecting liberty, as he claimed in his December speech, I’d say hallelujah.

  19. “But (but but but) OTOH maybe it’s worth holding his feet to the fire…?”

    Maybe it’s worth holding ALL politicians’ feet to the fire on this. But to pretend this is a unique attribute of Kerry’s actually sets that goal back.

  20. “First, you still haven’t demonstrated a substantive flip flop.”

    Kerry is now calling for “controlling spending”, which represents a repudiation of his senate voting record. He is among the 2 or 3 biggest spenders in the senate. NTU.org

    I will definitely vote for the Libertarian candidate for president and, if and only if, the GOP controls both houses of the congress I think I will hope Kerry beats Bush. My reasons are the same as Kevin Carson’s at 11:58 AM, but the order is reversed. I also find Bush really frightening. But, partially in hopeful estimation that some of those fears might be overstated I would, even more so, like to see the Neocon influence in the GOP greatly diminished.

  21. “But to pretend this is a unique attribute of Kerry’s”

    I’m understanding Jesse to say that that wasn’t his point. And when I spoke of holding Kerry’s feet to the fire, I was thinking about his position on the PA itself rather than his degree of consistency on it, though I see now that I failed to make that clear. In other words, I can see why Walker would be alarmed by this newly announced nuance of Kerry’s position. That said, I would have preferred (and it’s not too late!) commentary on Kerry’s (new?) position itself rather than on how its timing reflects typical presidential candidate strategy shenanigans.

  22. JFK, version ’04, is like every other politician. He would sell his wife and kids to slave traders if he thought it would get him elected. Like Bush, he wants to suck and blow at the same time. Articles like this make me glad I’m Canadian. Not that our asshole politicians are any better . . .

  23. I forgot to add in my last post, that Reagan’s last election was the last time that I didn’t vote for the Libertarian candidate for president, although I am a registered Republican.

    If Bush gets defeated, perhaps the next GOP candidate for pres. will have a something more in the way of small government principles

  24. kwais, voting against Bush is a statement that you don’t like small government? How’zat work?

  25. kwais,

    The idea is that if Bush loses due to the desertion by the upset traditional, more libertarian oriented conservatives, it will serve to push the party in the small government direction in order to win at the polls.

    I do hope however that – and I will vote for – the GOP to retain control of congress.

  26. The only reason one could have a position other than complete approval or complete denial is electoral? Is is possible that Kerry finds some aspects of the bill good, and others bad?

    Wait a minute, numerous reason writers have criticized the barriers to interagency communication that (part of) the Patriot Act attempts to remedy. So is Jesse Walker squishy on civil liberties?

    Honestly, why are you so eager to punish a politician for having opinions that don’t fit on a bumper sticker?

  27. Textbook psychology- once someone has a reputation for doing something (like flip-flopping), all actions taken afterward are interpreted as confirmation of that reputation.

    Unfortunately, in this case it’s true- Kerry spins more than a windmill.

    It appears to be another “Hold your nose and vote” year all around.

  28. Kerry’s saying a bunch of crap I don’t agree with, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to figure out what he’ll really end up doing once he’s in office before the election. Right now the only thing going for him is that he’s not Bush, and he won’t keep John Ashcroft around…. I might just end up giving everyone a big one-fingered salute and vote for Nader or something.

  29. joe,

    I can understand the Reason writers bashing Bush “on principle”. However, you criticize Bush’s actions, but when Kerry holds similar (or a little more “nuanced” and “flexible”) positions about many issues, somehow you want to defend him.

    Kerry has done exactly what Jesse Walker described – he voted for Patriot Act, he bashed it (and Ashcroft) when Dean surged, now he is nuancing his support for it (when polls show it has popular appeal). Neither Jesse nor you can read Kerry’s mind – but Jesse explains Kerry’s motives in human terms (self interest) and you try to defend Kerry on … god knows what basis.

  30. Does Kerry know the difference between a pair of thongs and a pair of flip-flops?

    I still find it hard to believe the Dems won’t give him the hook before November.

  31. Ted Rall wrote an interesting column in which he admitted that Kerry would probably not undo much of the damage Bush has caused (PATRIOT Act, the mess in Iraq, etc.) but at least Kerry would not cause MORE Bushian damage. I think there’s something to that.

  32. “Kerry would probably not undo much of the damage Bush has caused…but at least Kerry would not cause MORE Bushian damage”

    That would make an inspiring campaign slogan. Sadly, it’s probably one I’m going to have to accept cuz I’m in a swing state and Bush has got to go….

  33. I think the exact phrase was something like “Kerry won’t make things better, but at least he won’t make things worse.”

  34. joe,

    The problem is not Kerry’s nuanced position, but his change in emphasis over time. And his change of emphasis corresponds pretty closely to the typical pattern of political expediency in an election year: run to the left in the primaries, and then back to the center in the general election. As Jesse pointed out, what Kerry said when he was fighting Dean for the Democratic base was different from what he’s saying now.

    As for myself, I despise Kerry; but I’ll probably vote for him if the vote is close enough in Arkansas. This isn’t a case, as it was with the libertarians for Dean supporters, of convincing myself Kerry has some good points hidden in there somewhere. Back when Kerry was trailing in the wake of Dean, I put him in the same category as the rest of the DLC clones (Lieberman, Gephart and Edwards). My opinion of him hasn’t changed.

    I hold my nose and reluctantly plan to vote for Kerry (again, if Arkansas is close) only because Bush is so damned scary. If the choice were between a DLC clone like Kerry and a stodgy establishment Republican like Dole, I’d vote Libertarian this year as I did in 2000. But Bush is far scarier than the pre-2000 party establishment candidates, by at least an order of magnitude. He’s surrounded, among other things, by the Iran-Contra mafia of the ’80s (Negroponte, Armitage, Noriega, Cheney, etc.). Not to mention Ridge and Ashcroft. I thought Janet Reno was bad, but Ashcroft has managed to take it up a notch.

    If the polls aren’t too close here in the week before the election, I may still vote Libertarian. I’d much rather, if Bush is beaten, that his margin of defeat be less than the Libertarian vote. That might be one way of making the Weekly Standard and PNAC people persona non grata in the GOP for the next generation. Believe me, I’d like to see Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz selling apples.

    So count me as a very reluctant and ambivalent member of the ABB club.

  35. It’s hardly shocking to see a politician leaning left to win the Dem primary and then moving to the center for the general election. While you can label this misleading rhetoric if you like, I don’t think Kerry has changed his substantive position: he likes parts of the Patriot Act and dislikes others.

  36. why are you so eager to punish a politician for having opinions that don’t fit on a bumper sticker?

    That’s a pretty good bumper-sticker slogan itself, but no fair-minded reader could conclude that that’s what my post was doing.

  37. Kevin, (and Jesse, I guess), if Kerry had actually been changing his position based on the political winds, your point would be much stronger. But what he’s changing is just his “emphasis,” the prioritization of points he makes on the stump. I don’t see anything wrong with that. Kerry’s position of the Patriot Act has been consistent, that it is a mixed bag, some good and some bad, and that the way it has been implemented by the Ashcroft Justice Dept. is abusive. Some days, he chooses to talk about what’s good about it. Some days, he chooses to talk about areas where it is too weak, or too strong, or wrongly implemented. Show me a substantive change is policy position, rather than a change in which point he wishes to make during his campaign stops, and I’d have more respect for this “Kerry’s a flip-flopper” meme being pushed by the “Steady Leadership, No Matter What” crowd.

    I haven’t seen a single news clip of Kerry talking about his smart growth policies. If the California wildfires torch a few hundred homes, he might decide to drop the deficit talk for a week, and discuss that issue. Is that a flip flop?

  38. And thank you, Jesse. I wrote it myself.

  39. Ruthless,

    They won’t give Kerry the hook before November, if only because the DNC thinks he’ll lose, and ensure there won’t be a Democratic incumbent to postpone Hillary’s 2008 run.

    Having said that, I shudder to think what further damage a second Bush term would inflict.

  40. Frankly, I have to go with Joe on this one. Skimming over the speech linked to by the linked to article, I see Kerry saying there are both good and bad things about the Patriot Act and then I see him spending a lot of time criticizing the administration. If he had been gratuitously bashing the Patriot Act in a way that might give someone the impression of total condemnation, Kaus would have a point. But it doesn’t seem like it to me. If I missed something in the speech that matches what Kaus is accusing Kerry of, someone feel free to point that out. Otherwise, I don’t see the flip-flop, technical or otherwise, at least not based on this speech.

  41. This month’s American Prospect has a story about paleocons and libetoids abandoning Bush.

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