Who's the Biggest Flip-Flopper?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, September 29, 2004; 11:24 AM

It's looking increasingly like one of the key questions at tomorrow night's presidential debate will be: Who's the biggest flip-flopper?

President Bush has arguably succeeded in making resoluteness in the face of terror the defining issue of the campaign.

But Bush is vulnerable on the issue.

Marc Sandalow writes in a San Francisco Chronicle news analysis about how Bush's position on Iraq is not as steady and unwavering as he represents.

Sandalow writes that "there is much in the public record to suggest that Bush's words on Iraq have evolved -- or, in the parlance his campaign often uses to describe Kerry, flip-flopped.

"An examination of more than 150 of Bush's speeches, radio addresses and responses to reporters' questions reveal a steady progression of language, mostly to reflect changing circumstances such as the failure to discover weapons of mass destruction, the lack of ties between Iraq and the al Qaeda terrorist network and the growing violence of Iraqi insurgents."

And Sandalow notes one presidential reversal that is, ironically, central to the charge that Kerry is a flip-flopper.

"In the fall of 2002, as Bush sought congressional support for the use of force, he described the vote as a sign of solidarity that would strengthen his ability to keep the peace. Today, his aides describe it unambiguously as a vote to go to war."

David Paul Kuhn highlights "Bush's Top Ten Flip-Flops" on CBSNews.com.

So how does Bush come off as resolute? Maybe it's the bluster.

William Saletan writes in Slate that Bush makes his arguments unfalsifiable.

"In 1999, George W. Bush said we needed to cut taxes because the economy was doing so well that the U.S. Treasury was taking in too much money, and we could afford to give some back to the people who earned it. In 2001, Bush said we needed the same tax cuts because the economy was doing poorly, and we had to return the money so that people would spend and invest it. . . .

"Now Bush is playing the same game in postwar Iraq. When violence there was subsiding, he said it proved he was on the right track. Now violence is increasing, and Bush says this, too, proves he's on the right track."

The Wrong Track

Dana Priest and Thomas E. Ricks write in The Washington Post: "A growing number of career professionals within national security agencies believe that the situation in Iraq is much worse, and the path to success much more tenuous, than is being expressed in public by top Bush administration officials, according to former and current government officials and assessments over the past year by intelligence officials at the CIA and the departments of State and Defense. . . .

"People at the CIA 'are mad at the policy in Iraq because it's a disaster, and they're digging the hole deeper and deeper and deeper,' said one former intelligence officer who maintains contact with CIA officials. 'There's no obvious way to fix it. The best we can hope for is a semi-failed state hobbling along with terrorists and a succession of weak governments.' "

A Shared Challenge: Finding a Way Out

Robin Wright writes in The Washington Post: "Iraq, the issue most likely to ignite fire in tomorrow's debate, has become the chief symbol of differences between presidential candidates George W. Bush and John F. Kerry.

"Bush cites Kerry's positions on Iraq to portray him as an indecisive flip-flopper on strategic issues. Kerry says Iraq demonstrates Bush's arrogant misuse of U.S. power. . . .

"Yet, for all their squabbling on the campaign stump, both presidential candidates actually share a common commitment to Iraq -- and have many of the same long-term goals."

Bryan Bender and Thanassis Cambanis write in the Boston Globe: "Iraq has become the key issue in the presidential race and is sure to be at the center of tomorrow night's presidential debate in Coral Gables, Fla. But officials steeped in the day-to-day handling of the postwar situation say that when it comes to the nuts and bolts of Iraq policy, many of the candidates' positions seem both similar and unrealistic."

Ronald Brownstein writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry both face intensifying challenges to their credibility on Iraq as they approach Thursday's potentially pivotal debate on foreign policy."

The Bushes on Dr. Phil

Jennifer Frey writes in The Washington Post: "Forget Iraq. Forget the economy. Forget those pesky National Guard records.

"Today on the 'Dr. Phil' show, voters can find out all sorts of unusual tidbits about their president, such as: Did Papa Bush spank Jenna and Barbara when they were little? How did daddy feel when Jenna stuck out her tongue at reporters?"

From the Dr. Phil Web site: " 'I am really committed to putting family back in America,' Dr. Phil tells them. 'I think it's what you have put in the White House, and I think it's what we need to put back in America.' "

Some excerpts aired on CBS this morning:

"Phil: How did y'all discipline the girls as they were growing up? I mean, who was the heavy?

"Laura: I wouldn't say either one of us was really the heavy. Maybe that's obvious now.

"Phil: Were y'all spankers? Did you spank them? . . .

"George: Not really. We were 'In your roomers.' You know, 'Get to your room.' I think I used a little harsher rhetoric at times than Laura would have. But not mean. Not mean. But just kind of 'You've crossed the red line, and don't cross it again.' . . .

"Phil: You think they'll marry someone like their dad? . . .

"George: Listen, I just want somebody to go fishing with other than Barney the dog."

Bush on Dr. Bill

The second of three segments from Bush's 25-minute interview last week with Fox News's conservative commentator Bill O'Reilly was on last night.

Here's the transcript, and the video, part one and part two.

O'Reilly asked Bush about the controversy related to his National Guard service, but Bush expressed no regrets.

"O'REILLY: If you had to do anything again during those years, if you had to live, re-live them, would you have done anything differently?

"BUSH: No, I fulfilled my duty, and was honorably discharged. . . .

"O'REILLY: They say you didn't register in Massachusetts, is that bogus?

"BUSH: I fulfilled my duties, I mean, this is . . .


"I did exactly what my commanders told me to do."

Notably, O'Reilly did not follow up by asking why Bush did not take his required physical in 1972, which resulted in his grounding.

O'Reilly did, however, ask Bush if he feels he gets a fair shake from the elite media.

"O'Reilly, you know I'm smarter than that, to be taking on the press in the middle of a campaign," Bush said.

On tonight's final installment, O'Reilly asks: "Let's clear this up once and for all: The classroom in Florida on 9/11. What were you thinking?"

Debate Expectations Watch

Mark Knoller of CBS Radio reports: "While top aides low-ball expectations for the President's performance in Thursday's debate, not so the First Lady.

" 'Well, of course, I think he's going to do very well,' she said yesterday in a radio interview with CBS News.

"While senior aides would only say they expect Mr. Bush to 'hold his own,' Mrs. Bush trumpets her husband's debating skills.

" 'He has great characteristics. He says what he thinks. He's very straightforward. He means what he says. I think people will see that again in this debate,' she said. . . .

"She said her husband isn't nervous about the debates, but she is."

And Terry Moran on ABC's Good Morning America reports: "On the surface, the president's team is sober and serious about the debate and the race right now. They say they respect -- even fear -- Senator Kerry's debating skills. But behind the scenes, all of the body language and even some of the private remarks tell a different story: This campaign, Robin, is cocky."

The Importance of the Debates

Steven Thomma and Frank Davies write for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "George W. Bush probably won the presidency in his debates against Al Gore. He could win it again -- or lose it -- in a rapid-fire series of three 90-minute debates with John Kerry starting Thursday night in Miami. . . .

"On substantive issues of foreign policy and national security, the most critical questions facing each man are: What would you do to keep the country safe from terrorists, how would you secure Iraq, and why should voters trust you to achieve these goals? . . .

"Yet style will count as much as substance, and it could both reinforce each man's arguments and answer lingering questions about their characters and personalities."

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service: "Tomorrow night, for 90 prime-time minutes, preaching to the choir will take a back seat to targeting the undecideds. . . .

"To date, President Bush and Democratic challenger John Kerry have spent much of their time and energy talking to the enthusiastic supporters who show up to scream support at rallies."

The Debate Rules

Mike Allen writes in The Washington Post that "officials from the Commission on Presidential Debates continued to chafe at demands from the Bush-Cheney campaign for rigorous enforcement of unprecedented debate restrictions designed to limit chances for the candidates to interact directly. One debate official said jokingly that the Bush campaign was so insistent about keeping the candidates in their designated spaces that organizers were 'thinking of using flares or building a campfire' to satisfy the GOP handlers. Instead, the organizers will settle for strips of tape that are likely to be visible to television viewers, officials said."

Joe Strup writes in Editor & Publisher: "The restrictive guidelines for the upcoming presidential debates -- which include limits on follow-up questions, audience participation, and even camera shots -- have drawn heavy criticism from some of the country's leading veteran journalists, who claim the rules will diminish what voters can gain from the events."

David Folkenflik writes in the Baltimore Sun about the role of the moderator. Tomorrow night, it's PBS's Jim Lehrer.

"Lehrer poses direct questions and asks worthwhile follow-up questions. He hates flashy journalists who use the setting to gain notice for themselves, and this commends him to the candidates. Because of his genial style, however, Lehrer can be much more easily deflected than the insistent Ted Koppel of Nightline or Tim Russert of Meet the Press."

Debate Spin Watch

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "Tens of millions of Americans will watch the first of three Bush-Kerry debates and draw their own tentative conclusions as to who got the best of it. But perceptions can shift as commentators, analysts and spinners chew things over and selected sound bites are endlessly replayed on television, creating 'moments' that may not have seemed particularly dramatic at the time."

An Embroidered Anecdote

In the Fox interview segment broadcast Monday night, while talking about how optimistic he is about the upcoming Afghan elections, Bush once again used this anecdote:

"Do you remember what happened in Afghanistan when the Taliban pulled the four women off the bus and killed them because they had voter registration cards?" he asked O'Reilly.

Well, no. Not really.

Bush has used the anecdote at least seven times since early August, by my count.

But it's not exactly right. It appears to be about this incident. What really happened was that a bomb exploded on a bus carrying Afghan women working as voter registration officials, killing three of them.

I asked the White House to clear this up, but I haven't heard back.

Taliban Gone?

Remember Gerald Ford's 1976 comment "there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe?"

The Kerry campaign is calling attention to Bush's statement Monday that the Taliban no longer exists, and saying that it exhibits a similar cluelessness.

Here's what Bush said, in a talk in Springfield, Ohio: "I said to the Taliban in Afghanistan: Get rid of al Qaeda; see, you're harboring al Qaeda. Remember this is a place where they trained -- al Qaeda trained thousands of people in Afghanistan. And the Taliban, I guess, just didn't believe me. And as a result of the United States military, Taliban no longer is in existence. And the people of Afghanistan are now free."

Indeed, the Taliban no longer governs Afghanistan, but as the Kerry press release points out, pro-Taliban militias and Taliban-affiliated factions are in fact active in many parts of the country.

Missile Defense

Bradley Graham in The Washington Post looks at Bush's record in missile defense, and reports that "what the administration had hoped would be a triumphant achievement is clouded by doubts, even within the Pentagon, about whether a system that is on its way to costing more than $100 billion will work."

Intel Watch

Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times: "The White House on Tuesday endorsed the intelligence reorganization measure under consideration in the Senate, warning lawmakers that it would oppose efforts to dilute powers that the bill seeks for a proposed national intelligence director."

Today's Calendar

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press that Bush is surveying hurricane damage today in Lake Wales, Fla., a fast-growing swing area in the center of the states, on his way to Miami.

"The hurricanes have all but halted campaigning in Florida, where the close 2000 election was decided in Bush's favor by 537 votes. But Bush, with the power of incumbency at his disposal, has visited after every storm and has helped distribute ice and water, and patted the backs of residents whose homes and possession have been damaged."

Who Wrote Allawi's Speech?

Not the White House, insists press secretary Scott McClellan.

Here's an excerpt from McClellan's gaggle yesterday:

"Q Speaking of the paper, The Washington Post does a line-by-line juxtaposition of the President's comments on Iraq and Prime Minister Allawi's comments on Iraq . Can you tell us, today, whether any U.S. officials had a hand in crafting either the --

"MR. McCLELLAN: None that I know of.

"Q None that you know of?

"MR. McCLELLAN: Yes. No one -- no one at the White House. . . .

"Q The embassy in Baghdad, was the speech run through the embassy in Baghdad?

"MR. McCLELLAN: I don't know. You can direct those questions to them. I mean, those were, obviously, Prime Minister Allawi's words when he was talking about -- and he talked about the progress that is being made, but he also talked about the ongoing security challenges."

About Those Tax Cuts

James Toedtman writes in Newsday about Bush's "four-year winning streak as a tax-cut pitchman. . . .

"Since taking office, Bush has engineered three major cuts aimed at individual taxpayers and a fourth targeting business. Together, they have reduced federal revenue by more than $2.5 trillion over a decade, with the cuts expiring in 2010."

Warren Vieth writes in the Los Angeles Times: "In appearances across the country, President Bush contends that the tax proposals of Sen. John F. Kerry would shut down a powerful engine of employment growth in America.

"Kerry's plan to roll back income tax reductions for the wealthy, the president says, would 'raise taxes for the 900,000 small businesses and entrepreneurs . . . who are creating most of the new jobs in our changing economy.' . . .

"But statistics show that only 1 in 25 small-business owners would be affected by Kerry's tax increases. Of those who would get hit, half have no employees other than themselves. They include lawyers, accountants, consultants and investors who fall within Bush's generous definition of small business."

Home Town Paper

Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times: "President Bush may be leading in the national polls, but Tuesday he awoke at his ranch in conservative central Texas to some surprising news: The hometown newspaper had endorsed his Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry."

The Cost of Being a Swing State

Debbie Howlett writes in USA Today: "The presidential campaign has concentrated on as many as 17 battleground states where the race has been close. So the candidates and their wives have visited often.

"At least eight cities have billed the campaigns for security and other costs. Only one has gotten paid."

Born Again or Not?

Alex Johnson writes for MSNBC.com about the mysteries of Bush's faith.

"While he has dropped many clues, they do not constitute a definitive statement of his faith," Johnson writes.

"I don't think Bush says, 'I'm God's man,' " Johnson quotes Richard J. Mouw, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., as saying this month at a conference of religion writers. "But he doesn't correct it when others say that."

An accompanying story asks: Is George W. Bush born again?

The Joke That Keeps on Giving

The vice president and Mrs. Cheney were in Dubuque yesterday for a "town-hall" meeting.

"Q Mr. Vice President and Mrs. Cheney, it's indeed an honor for me to speak with you today. Thank you. And I know after you and the President are reelected, I know that you're a duck hunter, please feel free to come back. We will have -- (Laughter.)

"MRS. CHENEY: Can he bring Nino Scalia?

"Q Absolutely. (Applause.) I would be more than happy to host you. We would just have the time of our lives, I'm sure.

"THE VICE PRESIDENT: Be sure and get that man's name, will you? (Laughter.)"

Yes, another joking reference to the fact that Cheney went duck-hunting with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia before Scalia ruled in Cheney's favor in a case about the vice president's energy task force.

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