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Look for the Next President in the History of Flip-Flops

By David Mastio

The Democrats haven't even finished picking the House and Senate candidates they'll use to thrash the Bush-hobbled GOP this fall and already the political world seems more focused on 2008 than anything that will happen this year.

Failed presidential candidate and Vietnam veteran John Kerry wanders the political landscape grumbling to himself while Hillary Clinton continues to contort herself into the Stepford-candidate. Mark Warner polishes himself as the son-of-the-South who is a) not a trial lawyer and b) hasn't already blown it. Southern trial lawyer John Edwards is busy proving he cares the most about the poor while a celluloid Gore returns to his pre-Clintonian apocalyptic environmentalist roots in the hopes that a timely hurricane will do what the Florida Supreme Court couldn't. Even some Senator named Dodd is pretending he's in the race.

Meanwhile on the Republican side, Freepers debate which Republican apostate, McCain or Rudy, would go down easier while another Bush warms up in Florida as if the nation pines for a third. Then there's Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney, former Speaker Newt Gingrich and a legion of others including no-way, no-how, no-no-no Rice, the Secretary of State.

Each day closer to the 2006 elections, it seems they'll only matter as much as they reshape the playing field for 2008. It is safe to say that the partisans are already fully engaged in Campaign '08, but they're only half the story. Inside each party is the cohort who pick their candidate not by who makes them go weak in the knees, but by asking themselves, "Who can win?"

They're not always the brightest bunch - and they easily stampede into disaster (see Kerry, John, also Dole, Bob). Regardless of the track record, shaping the conventional wisdom of this "winner" primary in both political parties will be the real business of the next couple years.

So what does a "winner" look like? "Straight Talkers" and their automatic, continuous Sista Souljah moments such as a McCain or a Lieberman? Is it the play-against-type types - the free-market Mormon from Massachusetts, the liberal trial lawyer from the South, or the business-friendly moderate Democrat from Virginia? Is it the power of dynasty that can only be offered by a Bush or a Clinton?

You can argue which might connect with voters this year, but even if you argue until you pass out, there's no way to prove anything. But perhaps there's something that would let any of these wannabes become the one.

The answer might lie in the recent history of gigantic flip-flops that have slid by and those that have turned into political disasters.

Consider a couple that the public let slide:

While Ronald Reagan was famous for his tax cuts, after his big success, he spent the rest of his presidency raising taxes - the public didn't seem to hold it against him. The same can be said for Reagan's relations with the Evil Empire where he set his rhetoric aside to strike agreements with the Soviets that would have made Nixon, or for that matter, Carter proud. Closer to our time, our current President Bush ran just on the respectable side of isolationism - vowing never to get involved in such silly things as nation-building, yet after 9/11 when Afghanistan was in need of rebuilding, Bush didn't bat an eye and the public didn't care.

Now consider a couple that blew up in presidential faces. Bush I abandoned the "no new taxes pledge" for a budget deal and torpedoed his presidency. Clinton dumped the whole moderation thing for aborted tax increases and Hillary-care. Voters handed Congress to the GOP. Our current Bush decided he'd stick a politically dubious crony on the Supreme Court and ignited the wave of distrust that has stripped him of his conservative support.

What's the difference? Try this - what the public is looking for, perhaps more so since 9/11, is principle tempered by a strong connection to reality. Reagan could raise taxes because the facts had changed - he lowered taxes, raised spending and the deficit exploded. It needed to be fixed. Bush I couldn't raise taxes without a horrible price because the public didn't perceive any big change in circumstances - there were big deficits when he made his promise and nothing had changed.

Our current President Bush could rebuild Afghanistan without political cost because 9/11 was a rather big change in circumstances.

Which brings us to Iraq. How is it that President Bush had public support when he went in, but it has been slowly disappearing? The comforting answer for Bushies (and I count myself as one) is that when things are tough, the uncommitted drift away - by sticking to his guns, President Bush is showing principled leadership.

But there is another way to look at this. Ever since looting began as Saddam Hussein's government fell, there have been nagging doubts about American troop levels. The battle has gone on with fits and starts with the latest round being the fracas over retired generals now calling for Rumsfeld's resignation. Maybe the public is melting away from Bush in Iraq not because the going is tough or that President Bush has made some mistakes, but because President Bush seems to be clinging to his ideas about how to handle Iraq in the face of changing facts on the ground.

A lot can change between now and the 2008 election - but I'll bet on the guy who knows when - and how -- to flip-flop.

David Mastio, the editor of InOpinion.com, writes frequently for RealClearPolitics.com.

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