WASHINGTON — The Republican theory of victory in November is that John Kerry will by then have become an unacceptable choice for voters because of his well-documented penchant for flip-flopping on issues. It's a smart theory with only one problem: George W. Bush would not be immune to the same charge.
The president's domestic policy achievements in his first term aren't what one might have predicted in January 2001. He expanded Medicare by adding a prescription drug benefit; split the difference on stem cell research; signed the No Child Left Behind bill, which greatly enlarged the federal role in education; and brought the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance-reform scheme to life. Each of these measures cut against what most people assumed were Bush's natural political inclinations. (Running up the deficit also runs counter to how Bush presented himself in 2000, but here the unexpected costs and impact of Sept. 11 are clearly to blame.)
Bush's opponents don't seem to notice these contradictions; instead they accuse him of being a rigid ideologue. But his supporters, many of them conservatives nervous about his domestic performance, have noticed. They console themselves with the idea that although Bush's politics -- the wedding of "compassionate conservatism" to "big government conservatism" -- may not be classically conservative, he's an honest and forthright man whose word is oak.
Or, as the president said recently, "When I say something, I mean it."
Strictly speaking, this isn't true. In some cases, Bush has changed his mind for reasons he could not have foreseen. Before taking office, he said, "I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called nation-building." And in February 2001, the president was in favor of "smart sanctions" against Iraq, a softening of U.S. policy toward Saddam Hussein. His reversals on both counts were precipitated by intervening events, contradicting the claim that Bush was targeting Hussein from the day he took office.
Yet not all of the president's policy switches can be explained by events beyond his control. After the 2000 election, Bush was asked if his proposed $1.6-trillion tax-cut package was negotiable. "The answer is no," he responded. "I think it's the right number." A few weeks after taking office, the tax cut was negotiated down to $1.35 trillion.
In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, Bush spoke as if the war on terrorism would be waged against all terrorist organizations, saying, "Anybody who houses a terrorist, encourages terrorism, will be held accountable." On another occasion he said, "We are planning a broad and sustained campaign to secure our country and eradicate the evil of terrorism." And later the president proclaimed, "If any government sponsors the outlaws and killers of innocents, they have become outlaws and murderers themselves."
By November 2001, however, Bush had modified his position: "Where terrorist groups exist of global reach, the United States and our friends and allies will seek it out, and we will destroy it." The important clause "of global reach" was added to justify ignoring regional terrorism in Ireland, Spain, Chechnya, the Philippines and Israel.
In March 2003, the president was asked if he would call for a vote on the proposed U.N. Security Council resolution backing the use of force in Iraq, which faced near-certain defeat. "No matter what the whip count is," Bush said, "we're calling for the vote. We want to see people stand up and say what their opinion is about Saddam Hussein and the utility of the United Nations Security Council. And so, you bet. It's time for people to show their cards, to let the world know where they stand when it comes to Saddam." The vote was never taken.
The list goes on. After saying the U.N. would have only a perfunctory role in rebuilding Iraq, Bush went back to the world body seeking aid in September and more recently looked to U.N. special envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to help form an interim government in Iraq. After announcing he would file an amicus brief opposing affirmative action at the University of Michigan, Bush instructed his solicitor general to file a last-minute brief that essentially punted on the issue. As Weekly Standard Publisher Terry Eastland said, "By avoiding key issues in the litigation, the briefs would permit the illegal and immoral business at the core of the Michigan policies -- using race [and ethnicity] to favor and disfavor applicants."
More recently, the president departed from his program of de-Baathification and allowed former Maj. Gen. Jassim Mohammed Saleh to take command of Iraqi forces in Fallouja in the hope of neutralizing insurgents holed up in the city. When news that Saleh had been a commander in Hussein's Republican Guard leaked out, Saleh was pushed aside, although not out of the new Fallouja Brigade, and replaced by Mohammed Latif, who was merely a military intelligence officer under Hussein.
Asked by the U.S.-sponsored Al Hurra television channel if these appointments were a sign "that the U.S. is lowering its expectations" in Iraq, Bush replied: "Quite the contrary. We're raising expectations."
None of which is to suggest that Bush is, pace Al Franken, a lying liar who tells lies. No, George W. Bush is simply a politician whose principal interest isn't conservatism or unilateralism or anti-taxism or any other ism for which he is, by turns, admired and detested.
It is a realization that must surely disappoint both his friends and critics.