Welcome to the flip-flop competition. John McCain accuses Barack Obama of flip-flopping on campaign finance and Iraq: "Senator Obama has switched his positions on fundamental issues--not really cosmetic issues, but fundamental issues." Obama accuses McCain of flip-flopping on immigration and other big issues: "This is a person who opposed [President] Bush's tax cuts before he was for them, who opposed drilling in the continental shelf before he was for it."
Have voters noticed? Apparently, they have.
A June CNN poll, conducted by Opinion Research, asked: "Do you think John McCain has or has not changed his position on issues for political reasons?" Sixty-one percent said they think he has. When the same question was posed about Obama, an almost identical number, 59 percent, said he has.
A pair of flip-floppers! Shock? Horror? Maybe not.
In 2004, when Bush attacked Democratic nominee John Kerry as a flip-flopper, the charge stuck. In October of that year, 65 percent of voters said that Kerry had changed his positions on issues for political reasons. And Bush? No flip-flopper he. By 60 percent to 36 percent, voters in 2004 said that Bush had not changed his positions for political reasons. He's Mr. Resolve.
But there's a fine line between resolve and stubbornness. Bush may have crossed it.
This year, voters appear to welcome some flexibility in their leaders. After eight years of the Bush presidency, both of his potential successors are pledging to bring the country together. McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, has promised, "I will, as I often have in the past, work with anyone of either party to get things done for our country." Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has said, "The time has come to move beyond the bitterness and the partisanship and the pettiness and the anger that have consumed Washington for so long."
Do voters think that either candidate can end the partisan gridlock in Washington? Apparently, they do not. Asked in the CNN poll whether McCain can end the gridlock, voters said "no" by more than 2-to-1, despite the Arizonan's reputation as a maverick. Voters are a little more optimistic about Obama's ability to change Washington. But slightly more than half, 52 percent, don't think that he can do it either. Is that cynicism or bitter experience? After all, both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush entered the White House promising to bring the country together.
Obama's first task is to bring the Democratic Party together. He appears to be facing some problems on that front, specifically with Hillary Rodham Clinton's supporters. How are they coping with Clinton's loss? More or less in line with what psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified as the five stages of grief.
First, denial. We heard that from Terry McAuliffe, one of her top advisers, when he introduced Clinton on the final primary night, saying, "Are you ready for the next president of the United States?"
Second, anger. We heard plenty of that when the Democratic Rules and Bylaws Committee met in Washington on May 31." "I will not vote for any Democrat who threw their support behind [Obama]," a Clinton protester threatened.
We may now be at the third stage, bargaining. Just after the primaries, Robert Johnson, a prominent Clinton supporter and the founder of Black Entertainment Television, urged members of the Congressional Black Caucus to pressure Obama to put Clinton on the ticket. "We have the best chance of winning with Senator Obama at the top of the ticket and Senator Clinton as his vice president," Johnson said.
Immediately after the Democratic primaries, 60 percent of Clinton supporters said they would vote for Obama, 17 percent said they would vote for McCain, and 22 percent said they wouldn't vote at all. And now? Only 10 percent say they will vote for McCain. But just 54 percent say they will vote for Obama. Nearly one-third of Clinton supporters now say they won't vote. Could they be holding out to see if Obama chooses Clinton as his running mate?
If he doesn't put her on the ticket, Clinton supporters may get to the fourth stage of grief, depression.
But there is also a fifth stage, acceptance. From the signals that Clinton has been sending, she's already there.
This article appears in the July 12, 2008, edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.