Spinning the flip as a flop



We can't know today how the congressional elections will play out in November - will Democratic voters mount sufficient enthusiasm to blunt Republican grassroots anger? will the economy sufficiently improve to lighten the public's dour mood? - but it seems likely that control of the House chamber in 2011 could hinge on the voting results in only a handful of competitive districts.

Which explains why GOP campaign strategists have been focused this week on targeting a mere handful of Democratic House incumbents - namely, the five who voted No on health care reform back in November, but voted Yes on final passage in March. In current GOP parlance, these swing-district Democrats constitute the "Flip Flop Five."

Ah yes, the "flip flop" label, which is presumably the death sentence for any politician. The label certainly helped doom John Kerry in the '04 presidential race ("I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it"). On the other hand, flip-flopping is not necessarily fatal, in part because virtually all politicians shift issue positions with some regularity. Tagging these people with the flip-flop label is akin to handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500. 

But some issues are more visceral than others; we're talking here about health care reform. Hence the decision by the National Republican Congressional Committee - the GOP's House campaign strategy arm - to zero in on the "Flip Flop Five," thereby demonstrating that at least some Republicans are more politically savvy than the bacchanalian knuckleheads over at Michael Steele's party headquarters.

Four of the "Flip Flop Five" represent Republican-leaning districts that supported John McCain over Barack Obama in the '08 presidential tally. Two of those four - Floridians Suzanne Kosmas and Allen Boyd - are currently the targets of Republican-sponsored television ads that mock them as flip-floppers. The ads, which debuted in their districts on Tuesday, feature a succession of bare feet clad in flip flops - most notably, a pair of feet with gross toes. In the anti-Kosmas commercial, the narrator intones:

"Some flip-flops are elegant - carefree - even beautiful. But one flip-flop was just disgusting. Take Suzanne Kosmas. She voted against Obamacare in November. But then she flipped - and flopped. Kosmas cast a decisive vote in favor of Obamacare - massive tax increases - cuts to Medicare - bigger government. That’s a big flip. And she’s a big flop."

This is not particularly subtle stuff, but 30-second attacks rarely are. Kosmas is deemed highly vulnerable, because she's a freshman who got herself elected on the same day that 51 percent of the voters in her district cast ballots for McCain. Support for McCain was even higher in Allen Boyd's district - 54 percent - but he's probably less vulnerable, given the fact that he's a seven-term lawmaker who won re-election in '08 by a margin of 24 percentage points.

The big question is whether this particular flip-flop is automatically fatal. Voters are perfectly willing to excuse a flip-flop if the politician has flipped to their side of the issue.

Consider what happened, just the other day, in Illinois. Republican senatorial candidate Mark Kirk performed a gymnastic flip-flop worthy of the summer Olympics - and his Republican audience cheered him for it. He's currently a congressman representing a moderate House district, which is why he voted last year for the largely Democratic cap-and-trade bill. But that's a liability in his statewide Senate race, which is why he told the rally: "Briefly about cap and trade, I voted for it because it was in the narrow interests of my congressional district - but as your (senator), representing the entire state of Illinois, I would vote No on that bill coming up!" And the cheering crowd ate it up. That's a flip-flopper they could get behind.

Similarly, in Florida, Allen Boyd's Democratic base wanted him to flip-flop on health reform, to reverse his No vote in November with a Yes on final passage. If Boyd hadn't done that, the base might have defected to the guy who has been threatening to challenge him from the left in a Democratic primary. To the base, Boyd's flip-flop looks like a statesmanlike recalibration; to Republicans, it's the craven act of a guy who lacks convictions.

The art of the flip-flop is so common, we can barely keep tabs. For instance, Tim Pawlenty, the Minnesota governor who is mapping a GOP presidential bid, did a doozy the other day. He says he wants to sue the federal government over the health reform law, specifically the requirement that Americans buy insurance, calling it "unprecedented overreach...into the lives of individual citizens" - yet, last September on ABC News, he said there were no grounds to sue over such a requirement, stating "I wouldn't go so far as to say it's a legal issue." To Democrats, this flip-flop probably looks like the craven act of a guy who lacks a core; to the anti-Obama GOP base, it probably plays like a wise recalibration.

Nevertheless, Pawlenty's switch can't begin to compete with John McCain's latest image readjustment. It takes a fair measure of creative chutzpah to tell Newsweek, "I never considered myself a maverick" - after spending the '08 autumn campaign lapping up Sarah Palin's praise of him as "the original maverick," and subtitling his own memoirs, "The Education of An American Maverick."

As for Suzanne Kosmas, target of the disgusting-toenail ad, we can't know whether she'll ultimately fall victim to adverse flip-flop fallout in her Florida swing district. She'll reportedly have plenty of money to make her case that she flipped in the best interests of her constituents, but if the Republican strategists are correct in spinning her flip as a flop, that may well portend trouble for the Democrats in general as they seek to retain House control. Because, depending on the prevailing political mood on Nov. 2, some flip-flops may be judged more seriously than others.