Why we change our minds about candidates

We are nervous about Hillary Rodham Clinton’s new conservatism, wondering if it’s an act so she can run for president. But two-thirds of us want President Bush to admit he was wrong about Iraq and change course.

We tut-tut over John McCain’s new embrace of Jerry Falwell but click our tongues over the implausibility of liberal Republican Rudy Giuliani’s being the GOP nominee. We mull the wisdom of Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s shift to the right, but we almost dumped Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman for not budging from being pro-war.

Why do we demand that some politicians change their spots but refuse to accept it when others do?

We revere Ronald Reagan for sticking to his guns, although abortion foes suspected he didn’t really care about them, AIDS activists thought he gave them lip service and avowed anti-communists worried their hero was being taken for a ride by the Soviet Union.

The current president came into office vowing he would never commit U.S. soldiers to nation-building. Now, after four years of war, he remains determined to use the military to transform chaotic Iraq into a democracy. That thousands are dying and being maimed is "painful," he says.

In his last press conference of the forgettable year of 2006, he insisted, "Victory in Iraq is achievable." How that could happen he did not say, refusing to answer "hypothetical" questions. (Throughout, he referred to "troops" but never to the more personal "soldiers.")

Hillary Clinton’s venture as first lady into reforming health care was disastrous, costing Democrats power in 1994. She no longer talks about that issue but voted for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, pals around with Newt Gingrich (who helped impeach her husband) and cements relationships with the Senate’s most conservative members at prayer breakfasts.

The Washington Post has discovered that likely presidential candidate Romney has changed from being skeptical of Reagan’s economics, from support for the Roe v. Wade abortion decision to opposing it, from advocating civil rights for gays to opposing a federal nondiscrimination statute and gays in the military. The Post wonders who the real Romney is and if he is a viable candidate.

One could argue that 9/11 changed us forever and justifies Bush’s new predilection for preemptive war and nation building. But that also says we change our principles depending on what happens to us.

One could say that Hillary Clinton changed from naive idealist to pragmatic politician who goes along to get along. While that makes some uneasy, don’t Americans want less discord and more cooperation on Capitol Hill?

One could say that McCain got wiser after being beaten up by Bush’s conservative allies in 2000. But do we want a president who comes out swinging one day and is lovey-dovey with his enemies the next?

Giuliani has been out making money since running New York City during 9/11. He has been married three times and does not believe in much of the Republican Party’s platform. But he is currently the most popular Republican on polls about possible presidential contenders. Conservatives insist he is too liberal on abortion and gay rights to get the GOP nomination, even if he could be elected president. But many of them would vote for him if he moderates his views.

Lieberman lost his Senate primary in 2006 after being his party’s vice presidential candidate in 2000. He turned independent and won re-election, refusing to say the war in Iraq was wrong. Now, again, he is a lionized Democratic senator.

Americans admire consistency. But when we say we don’t like politicians who change their views, if we find them personally charismatic and "real," or if they change their views to suit our beliefs, we’re not as offended as we think we’d be.

A politician who seems stuck in his groove and is intractable on every situation or appears to be oblivious of reality begins to annoy us.

Bush was re-elected because we were in the middle of war and he seemed sincere in saying we were winning and his opponent was a weak candidate. But with two more years as president, he has been written off by many Americans and millions around the world. They fear he has destabilized the Middle East and presided over the beginning of the end of the American era. It will be a stunning comeback if he can change that perception.

Bush aside, strange as it seems for a 200-year-old democracy full of skeptics and idealists, we are a country vulnerable to cunning, manipulative, charming rogues with malleable beliefs and great TV skills. But every four years we get to change our collective mind.

(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)hotmail.com.)