WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In what has become the year of the flip-flop, U.S. presidential candidates have been accusing each other of switching positions on policy issues as often as they change their clothes.
Campaign researchers are leaving no stone unturned in their search for information on rival candidates, hoping to duplicate President George W. Bush’s successful charge in 2004 that Democrat John Kerry voted for Iraq war funding before he voted against it.
The most famous examples this year are Republican Mitt Romney’s shifting position on abortion and Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton’s move from hawk to dove on Iraq.
But is changing positions, or flip-flopping, all that bad?
“Most of the people who we regard as our greatest presidents have made massive turnarounds in their careers,” said Bruce Schulman, a political history professor at Boston University, who has studied flip-flops.
A prime example would be Abraham Lincoln. He ran for president in 1860 with no intention of doing anything about slavery in places where it existed, only to issue the Emancipation Proclamation banning slavery in 1863.
But there is a difference between changing your mind to reflect changing circumstances and naked pandering for votes, which many analysts say is driving this year’s cross-fire.
Romney’s switch from governing the fairly liberal state of Massachusetts to presidential candidate seeking support from the Republican conservative base has left him exposed to months of criticism from, in particular, Arizona Sen. John McCain.
First Romney was in favor of a woman’s right to choose an abortion, but now he is against it.
“There are several things people are interested in when they’re picking somebody to be president — consistency, reliability and predictability,” said a McCain senior adviser, Charlie Black.
“You can’t be sure what he’s going to do when he’s president when he has a history of changing positions,” Black said of Romney.
The Romney campaign is tired of McCain’s attacks.
“They can keep doing it if they want, and Romney just keeps getting stronger and stronger in the polls,” said his adviser, former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent. “I’ve got to tell you, I’m a Romney guy, but I don’t think it’s working, these people making all these accusations.”
It seems that every major candidate has faced charges of switching positions based on the political winds.
Besides her stance on Iraq, New York Sen. Clinton is accused of opposing government supports for ethanol, a big issue in the corn-growing and key presidential caucus state of Iowa, before she was for them.
One of her Democratic opponents, former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, is accused of having voted for and against storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, and believed Americans were safer against terrorists, but now thinks they are not as safe.
Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who has only been in the Senate for two years, in May voted against a $100 billion Iraq war funding bill, saying it was time to change course in the war. But in April he vowed not to cut funding for U.S. troops.
Schulman said the reason flip-flops are of such great interest is because U.S. political campaigns are now more personal.
“In this modern world there is such an interest in the personality of the candidate that looking for chinks in the armor, looking for inconsistencies and playing gotcha has become much more prevalent,” he said.