To win the election, John Kerry has to eliminate the main line of attack against him: that he's an unprincipled flip-flopper. And quickly.
It was a constant theme in the vice presidential debate, and polls last week showed the "flip-flopper" label sticking with as many as 61% of voters.
The label keeps Kerry on the defensive. He can't make a clear argument about the war in Iraq because he's too scared to appear to be changing his mind. And he can't fully expose Bush's fatal flaw, which is that he will never change his mind. The best way for Kerry to counter the straight-talking Texan is straight on, by redefining himself as a principled flip-flopper.
Flip-flopping has a bad name -- undeservedly so, as PBS' Gwen Ifill pointed out in a question at the vice presidential debate. In a 30-second universe, it's hard to explain that it takes a big man to admit a mistake and to shift one's position commensurate with new facts. Making a course correction is never going to trip off the tongue like staying the course. But if the Bush people can turn the guy who evaded Vietnam into a more stalwart patriot than the one who risked his life in the Mekong Delta, surely Kerry can turn this flip-flopping thing to his advantage (even if it means flip-flopping).
He botched his best opportunity this summer. At an event at the Grand Canyon, he was asked if, knowing what he knows now, he would still vote to give Bush authority to go to war. He should have been clear: Of course not. But Kerry was so spooked by advisors who saw the "flip-flop" ads working, he couldn't take a clean swing at that dream pitch.
The final weeks of a campaign are simple one-act plays that allow for no nuance. People just need to look at the carnage on the nightly news, their shrinking paychecks and their escalating doctor bills to know that Bush's steadfastness is stubbornness. His insistence that he's always right means he can't get off the wrong track. When there's violence in Iraq, Bush says that's the price of democracy. When there's even more violence in Iraq, Bush says that's because democracy is growing ever closer. The more democracy, the more beheadings -- Bush is covered either way.
It is the same with tax cuts. Bush says they're working and the economy is recovering, but if you don't think it's recovering fast enough or creating enough jobs, the answer is more and permanent tax cuts.
Bush has always insisted he sent the right number of troops to keep Iraq from slipping into chaos, but now L. Paul Bremer III, Bush's first head of Iraq's interim government, admitted the troop level was inadequate. Maybe that's why so many Iraqis turned against us. On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he couldn't find ties between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, although he later tried to backtrack.
A front-page article in Sunday's New York Times removed another pillar of Bush's rationale for war. Those aluminum-tubes-for-nuclear-bombs that his administration waved around as "compelling evidence" of Hussein's nuclear intentions? That was a discredited theory, rescued from the burn basket of a low-level CIA analyst to bolster a less-than-slam-dunk case. Former CIA Director George Tenet emerged from seclusion and issued a statement that he had shared with the White House the fact that there were "alternate views" of the tubes.
Kerry doesn't need a plan to end the war. A quagmire doesn't readily yield one and Bush doesn't have one, unless you count not blinking in the face of evil. But it's becoming clear what Bush is going to do: Hold elections in January, even if Fallouja has become Fallujistan and won't participate.
As Rumsfeld said, no election is perfect. After these imperfect elections, Bush will declare victory and turn the country over to Iraqi security forces, no matter how few or badly trained, and to a leader, no matter how shaky his selection.
It's simple, stupid. Do we want more of the same? Bush is never going to change his position. So the voters will have to do that.