"The [Democratic] candidates are an interesting group, with diverse opinions: For tax cuts, and against them. For NAFTA, and against NAFTA. For the Patriot Act, and against the Patriot Act. In favor of liberating Iraq, and opposed to it. And that's just one senator from Massachusetts."
I laughed the first time I heard President Bush tell that joke. Then, as he told it again and again, I began to think I'd heard it before. Not from Bush, but from somebody else. Finally I remembered: It's the litany Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich kept repeating in the Democratic presidential primaries. Here's the version Dean delivered on Feb. 17:
A year ago, the Democrats were falling all over each other to vote for the war in Iraq. They sure don't talk like that now. A year ago, the Democrats were accepting reckless budget deficits and huge tax cuts that mortgage our children's futures. They don't talk like that any more. A year ago, they were adopting the president's education policies, which leave every child behind. They all voted for it, but they don't support it anymore. Some of them even adopted the phony Medicare bill, which gives more money to HMOs and insurance companies and drug companies than it does to seniors. But they don't talk like that anymore.
Kucinich made the same points, throwing in NAFTA and the Patriot Act. What's interesting about this critique, in retrospect, is that it didn't apply just to John Kerry. Dean was talking about John Edwards, Dick Gephardt, and lots of other congressional Democrats. They were all flip-floppers.
What's with all the weak backbones? Is it a Democratic establishment disease? No, that can't be it. John DiIulio has the same problem. He's the guy the White House recruited to run the "faith-based and community initiatives" Bush promised in 2000. DiIulio quit in August 2001. A year later, he faulted the administration for caring more about politics than policy. "In eight months, I heard many, many staff discussions, but not three meaningful, substantive policy discussions," he recalled. The result was "a virtual absence as yet of any policy accomplishments that might, to a fair-minded nonpartisan, count as the flesh on the bones of so-called compassionate conservatism." In short, DiIulio felt conned. How did the White House respond? According to Newsweek, "Officials cast aspersions on … DiIulio's truthfulness." DiIulio had a credibility problem: He had helped the administration but now criticized it. He was a flip-flopper.
Then came Paul O'Neill. He was fired as Bush's Treasury secretary in 2002 after opposing the administration's third package of budget-busting tax cuts. In Ron Suskind's The Price of Loyalty, O'Neill described his dismay as an administration he had expected to practice sound economics indulged instead in political protectionism and runaway deficits. He felt conned. How did the White House respond? Bush noted that O'Neill had "worked together" with him for two years on economic policy. Meanwhile, Bush's spokesman shrugged that the disgruntled ex-secretary was retroactively "trying to justify personal views." O'Neill had a credibility problem: He had helped the administration but now criticized it. He was a flip-flopper.
Now comes Richard Clarke. He decided to leave his post as U.S. counterterrorism coordinator three months before 9/11 because the White House, despite assurances to the contrary, wasn't treating al-Qaida as an urgent threat. In a book and in public testimony last week, he said so. He felt conned. How did the White House respond? It outed Clarke for having defended Bush's counterterrorism policies, as instructed, in a 2002 briefing that the White House had declared off the record at the time. Bush's national security adviser asked reporters "which of [Clarke's] stories is he going to stand by," since "he's got a record of having said something very different." Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., noting that Clarke had praised Bush in congressional testimony when he still worked for the administration, charged that Clarke had "told two entirely different stories under oath." In the words of Bush's spokesman, Clarke had a "credibility problem." He had helped the administration but now criticized it. He was a flip-flopper.
What do all these flip-floppers have in common? Not subject matter: DiIulio worked on social policy, O'Neill on economics, Clarke on national security. Not party: Kerry, Edwards, and Gephardt are Democrats; O'Neill is a Republican; Clarke worked for President Reagan and both Bushes as well as for President Clinton. The only thing they have in common is that they all cooperated with this administration before deciding they'd been conned. Flip-flopping, it turns out, is the final stage of trusting George W. Bush.
That's how Kerry, Edwards, and Gephardt got whiplash. They supported tax cuts in 2001 when Bush challenged them to give back some of the surplus. Then the surplus vanished, Bush demanded more tax cuts, and they decided they'd been conned. They supported Bush's "No Child Left Behind" education bill in 2001. Then the administration withheld money for it, and they decided they'd been conned. They supported the Patriot Act after 9/11 when Bush urged them to trust law enforcement. Then the Justice Department took liberties with its new powers, and they decided they'd been conned. They voted for a resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq after the administration promised to use the resolution as leverage toward U.N. action, reserving unilateral war as a last resort. Then Bush ditched the United Nations and went to war, and they decided they'd been conned.
When the administration offered them a supposedly $400 billion Medicare bill stuffed with goodies for health insurers and drug companies, they said no. But lots of fiscally conservative House Republicans said yes. Now, thanks to yet another flip-flopping Bush administration whistleblower, those Republicans have discovered that the real bill, concealed by the White House, will be $150 billion higher than advertised. You don't have to be a Democrat to feel conned.
Once you vote with Bush, serve in his cabinet, or spin for him in a classified briefing, you're trapped. If you change your mind, he'll dredge up your friendly vote or testimony and use it to discredit you. That's what he's doing now to all the politicians at home and abroad who fell for his exaggerations about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. "In Iraq, my administration looked at the intelligence information, and we saw a threat," he tells audiences. "Members of Congress looked at the intelligence information, and they saw a threat. The United Nations Security Council looked at the intelligence information, and it saw a threat." It's too late to admit that Bush is wrong and that you were fooled. You're on record agreeing with him. He doesn't even look dishonest when he rebukes you, because, unlike the people who run his administration's scams, he can't tell the difference between what he promised and what he delivered.
Maybe the White House will get away with this chicanery. Maybe people will believe its spin that flip-flopping is Kerry's idiosyncrasy, not the Bush administration's design. Or maybe some of the folks who voted for Bush last time around will decide they were conned and throw him out. Flip-floppers, every one of them.