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Playing the political flip flop game

By DAVID ESPO
May 24, 2011

Political flip-flops are in fashion these days, in red and in blue, from the White House to the Congress to the 2012 campaigns for both.

Raise the debt limit?

Democrats who voted against it when George W. Bush was president now say Republicans could wreck the economy if they do the same. Republicans who voted for it then demand spending cuts before committing now.

Remake Medicare, as recommended in the House Republican budget?

Republican Newt Gingrich, running for president, was harshly critical, then apologized after conservatives attacked him for his remarks. Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass. and seeking re-election in 2012, also seems conflicted.

“Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative,” the British humorist Oscar Wilde once wrote.

But President Barack Obama‘s explanation of why he opposed a 2006 debt limit increase while in the Senate may be closer to the mark. He chalks it up to politics

“That was just an example of a new senator, you know, making what is a political vote as opposed to doing what was important for the country,” he said recently, making the case for passage of what he once opposed.

Veteran lawmakers, too, have episodes of inconsistency.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., accused Senate Republicans in 2007 of the Capitol offense of originating a tax bill.

“Everyone knows, even in elementary school, that under our Constitution revenue bills must originate in the House of Representatives,” he said.

But a few days ago, Reid himself sought passage of a Senate-drafted tax bill to raise taxes on five large oil companies, in violation of the same Article I, Section 7 of the Constitution that he once used to taunt Republicans.

Democrats said his political objective was to force Republicans to choose between raising taxes, an idea that is anathema to GOP stalwarts, and defending oil companies, widely disliked by the public in a time of high gasoline prices and record industry profits.

Asked about being concerned the House would refuse to consider the bill if it passed the Senate, Reid replied drolly that it was the least of his concerns.

Republicans bottled up the bill but went easy on Reid — perhaps because they knew they were going to follow his lead later, when Goodwin Liu’s appointment to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals came to the Senate floor.

In an unusual move, Reid quoted from the speeches or writings of Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, to the effect that they would not support filibusters against judicial appointees regardless of political party.

All four voted to block a yes-or-no vote on Liu, knowing he had majority support but not 60 votes in his favor.

Cornyn said later he reversed course because Democrats had continued to filibuster Bush’s nominees and he didn’t want different sets of rules to apply to appointees of the two parties.

Hatch voted “present,” explaining it was the principled thing to do in light of his earlier declaration. It also worked against Liu, since the nomination required 60 affirmative votes to advance.

Alexander issued a statement saying he reserved the right to block a final vote in “an extraordinary case” for the appeals court, and cited a bipartisan compromise that broke a deadlock over nominations in 2005.

Isakson’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Reversing positions is off to a particularly fast start on Rep. Paul Ryan‘s proposal to turn Medicare into a free-market health care system when it comes time for those currently under age 55 to enroll.

A little more than a week ago, Gingrich called it “right-wing social engineering.” He backpedaled when conservatives criticized him, blamed the media for its reporting on the controversy — and then said he had called Ryan to apologize.

More recently, Gingrich said he would modify the Medicare proposal “in a way that people could voluntarily decide.”

Translation: Despite a switch in his position, he still apparently opposes Ryan’s plan, which is mandatory, not optional, for those more than 10 years from Medicare eligibility.

Brown, the first Republican to hold a Senate seat from Massachusetts in a generation, has held three positions on Ryan’s budget and its prescription for Medicare.

On May 13, he said he would vote in its favor. Then came a statement that said he supported the overall direction of Ryan’s budget but declined to say he would vote for it.

On Monday, he completed the turnaround, unambiguously so.

“Our country is on an unsustainable fiscal path. But I do not think it requires us to change Medicare as we know it,” he wrote in Politico.

Democrats strongly suggested politics was at work, pointing to polls showing strong public opposition to the plan.

And forgetting, perhaps, their own turnabout on something equally unpopular with the electorate, if not more so: Obama’s pleas for an increase in the debt limit.

Failure to raise borrowing authority could lead to a financial default by the government that “would cause a recession even worse than the one we just had, if not a depression,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said earlier this month as he jabbed at Republicans demanding spending cuts in exchange for their votes.

This time it was the Republicans’ turn for political mischief.

Schumer, they hastened to point out, voted against debt limit increases when Bush was president in 2003, 2004 and 2006.

In fact, it’s an issue on which the only consistency is change.

With Democrats often voting no, Republicans regularly had to provide the support needed to raise the debt limit when Bush was in the White House.

Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press

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