The biggest flip-flops of 2008

In the latest salvo in the war on inconsistency, Barack Obama is being accused of flip-flopping on the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

But the presidential race has featured so many alleged flip-flops by either Obama or John McCain — on issues ranging from tax cuts to offshore drilling, wiretapping to campaign cash — that the charge itself is in danger of losing some of its potency. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to determine on which issues the candidates have actually reversed their positions, and whether their shifts were indeed motivated by political expediency (the implication behind most flip-flop charges) or changing circumstances.

Politico, in conjunction with PolitiFact, a partnership between the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times and Congressional Quarterly, sorts through the charges to get to the truth of five key flip-flop allegations.

Obama on the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and offshore drilling

Obama’s announcement this week that he supports tapping a national stockpile of crude oil reverses a position he articulated as recently as last month, when he asserted that oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve should only be released in case of emergency.

His campaign explained his new position, which calls for releasing 70 million barrels of easy-to-refine light oil, by asserting the situation had reached a tipping point and explaining that Obama would replace the barrels later with heavier crude oil.

The shift came just days after Obama dialed back his opposition to drilling for oil off U.S. shores. He said he’d consider supporting limited drilling as part of a comprehensive gas-price-reduction effort, but only after oil companies looked for oil on 68 million untapped acres to which they have access.

PolitiFact ranked the Strategic Petroleum Reserve reversal a “full flop” on its new Flip-O-Meter, unveiled Tuesday, but rated the offshore drilling shift a less-severe “half-flip.”

McCain on offshore drilling

McCain’s recent support for offshore drilling is actually not as stark of a flip-flop as has been portrayed.

It’s true that McCain never actively pushed for it until this summer, but there is scant evidence that he opposed it or supported a federal moratorium on it.

Two California newspaper stories from his 2000 presidential run paraphrase McCain as supporting the moratorium, but many more accounts include direct quotations in which McCain says he would support states’ decisions on whether they want to drill.

In February 2000, McCain said, “I understand Texans want offshore oil drilling. That’s fine with me. Off Florida, they don’t. I think that we should allow these decisions, to some degree to be made — significant degree to be made by the people who are directly affected by them.”

As for his voting record, McCain in 2003 was among 10 Republicans who voted to call off a survey and inventory of possible offshore oil and natural gas deposits. And in 2006, he voted to authorize drilling in about 8.3-million acres of the eastern Gulf of Mexico, off the coasts of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

However, in 1992, McCain voted against an amendment that would have increased coastal states’ input in federal government decisions about offshore drilling.

Still, the shift from his states-rights position to offshore-drilling cheerleader warranted a half-flip from PolitiFact.

Obama on public financing

Obama clearly reversed himself in June when he announced he would not participate in the public financing system, which grants taxpayer cash — this year it’s $84 million — to presidential candidates who agree not to raise or spend more than that during their general election campaigns.

Obama had indicated he would participate in the system if the Republican nominee agreed to do the same, which McCain has done. Obama’s campaign told Politico in March 2007 he would “aggressively pursue an agreement with the Republican nominee to preserve a publicly financed general election” and later in the year, it indicated on a questionnaire he would participate if the Republican nominee agreed to “a fundraising truce.”

What changed? Obama demonstrated unrivaled fundraising ability that likely will allow him to raise substantially more than $84 million for the general election.

Obama justified his decision by asserting the private cash would be necessary to fend off attacks from outside groups and by asserting that McCain’s campaign was unwilling to negotiate the terms of a truce.

McCain’s campaign denied Obama even tried to negotiate, but, setting aside the question of a truce, Obama’s positioning brought a full flop ruling from PolitiFact.

McCain on the Bush tax cuts

Fresh off his stinging defeat to George W. Bush in the 2000 GOP presidential primary, McCain burnished his reputation as a maverick by opposing the tax cuts proposed by President Bush in 2001. He was one of the few Republicans to do so, and he opposed their renewal in 2003, both times asserting they were fiscally imprudent.

But McCain voted in favor of the cuts, which also reduced taxes on capital gains and dividend income, when they came up for renewal again in 2006, as he was working to mend fences with the Republican base in preparation for another bid for the party’s presidential nomination.

McCain explained his reversal by asserting “American businesses and investors need a stable and predictable tax policy to continue contributing to the growth of our economy. These considerations lead me to the conclusion that we should not reverse course by letting higher tax rates take effect.”

Justification aside, this is an actual change of position for McCain, and PolitiFact rated it full flop.

Obama on FISA

Obama reversed himself when he voted last month for a wiretapping bill granting retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that helped the government monitor customers’ calls and e-mails without warrants.

Obama had won plaudits from online liberal activists last year when he pledged to filibuster any bill containing such immunity.

He explained his shift by asserting that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act legislation had changed from when he made his filibuster pledge, partly because it requires internal government watchdogs to investigate the program.

But that did little to sate the Netroots or obscure his flip-flop.

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