LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Changing positions on the issues is not new in politics. But this year critics have thrown out the word flip-flop at a record rate. And that's certainly true regarding John McCain and Barack Obama, the likely respective Republican and Democratic nominees. This is CNN's Jack Cafferty on McCain.
Mr. JACK CAFFERTY (Commentator, The Situation Room, CNN): If John McCain doesn't stop changing his position on the issues, he threatens to make John Kerry look like an amateur.
WERTHEIMER: And this is Brit Hume of FOX News, on Obama.
Mr. ALEXANDER BRITTON HUME (Anchor, Special Report with Brit Hume, FOX News): When Barack Obama declined to join John McCain's invitation to appear at a series of joint town hall meetings, he not only went back on an earlier indication that he would do that - but that is the tandem(ph) - But he also contradicted what he wrote in his book.
WERTHEIMER: So when is a change in position a flip-flop, and when is it a thoughtful reflection of a changing world? We've brought in NPR's political editor, Ken Rudin, to find out. Ken, how damaging is it to be called a flip-flopper?
RUDIN: Well, Linda, I think it depends on, often, who it is. Like earlier this year, the charge was used devastatingly against Mitt Romney when he was running for president. When Mitt Romney was running for governor of Massachusetts, he supported abortion rights, he supported gay rights. But when he tried to win the Republican nomination this year, he was very pro-life, opposed to stem cell research, opposed to gay rights. So it really - it rang hollow. And it basically ended his career.
When the senior George Bush - remember in 1988 at the convention - he said, read my lips, no new taxes. And he got tremendous plaudits. Two years later he had to go back on his word to raise taxes. He never recovered from that, and he lost reelection. And I think nobody paid a price like John Kerry in 2004. Part of it was his own fault. He made this famous comment about his views on the war in Iraq.
Senator JOHN KERRY (Democrat, Massachusetts): I actually did vote for the 87 billion dollars before I voted against it.
RUDIN: Which led to this Republican commercial, one that showed Kerry windsurfing on the screen.
(Soundbite of commercial)
Unidentified Announcer: In which direction would John Kerry lead? Kerry voted for the Iraq war, opposed it, supported it, and now opposes it again. He bragged about voting for the 87 billion to support our troops before he voted against it. He voted for education reform and now opposes it. He claims...
RUDIN: You see, you get the picture with John Kerry. But sometimes you can get away with it. Ronald Reagan was considered strongly against taxes. But he raised taxes in 1982 to make up for the deficits that his tax cuts cost America in 1981, and yet he did not pay a price for it. He won a landslide reelection in 1984.
WERTHEIMER: It's kind of hard to get away with this kind of stuff, isn't it, these days?
RUDIN: Well, it is. Especially when you have - I mean, now all you have to go to is YouTube, and you see almost every comment by any politician or any would-be politician is there for everybody to see. So it's hard to really flip-flop and get away with it.
WERTHEIMER: Both Obama and McCain have been accused of flip-flopping in recent days. What are some of the issues involved, and are they really flip-flops?
RUDIN: Well, sometimes it is a flip-flop, sometimes it's about pragmatism or being open minded or just dealing with reality. Take, you know, Obama on the public funding of campaigns. You know, he said originally that he would participate in the system for the general election. But he has such a huge fundraising advantage over McCain. So he opted out of the system. And I guess it is a flip-flop. But, you know, when you have all that money staring at you in the face, it's hard to turn it down. And then there was also the FISA bill. President Bush wanted to give telecommunications companies amnesty for participating in the government's warrantless wiretap program. Then he said he would filibuster the bill. Now he supports the bill.
But, I mean, is it a flip flop, or is it a way to combat terrorism? And just this week in North Dakota, Barack Obama was asked about his position on the withdrawing of troops from Iraq. And he said, well, a lot depends on the situation on the ground. I'll know more when I go there. And of course a lot of Republicans said that's a flip-flop, because he said he would call for an immediate withdrawal. But Barack Obama says it's not a flip-flop at all, it is something he's been saying all along, that it depends on what's going on on the ground.
WERTHEIMER: So what about John McCain?
RUDIN: Well, he's been hit with that charge as well, especially on offshore drilling off the coast of Florida, for example. He opposed it for years. His ally, Charlie Crist, the governor of Florida, also opposed it. Now they both support it. John McCain says he supports it because with the price of gas, it's changed his mind. But there are other shifts he's taken. For example, in 2001 he voted against President Bush's tax cuts, said that they would increase the deficit. Now he supports them. He embraces evangelical conservatives now. But remember when he ran for president eight years ago, he battled them. You know, a lot of critics say he no longer stands for the things he stood for in 2000. But if you remember 2000, he lost. And so maybe the name of the game is winning.
WERTHEIMER: Thank you very much, Ken, for joining us.
RUDIN: Linda, I should tell you that I used to think that Scott Simon was America's best radio host. But now I'm sure it's you.
WERTHEIMER: Now that is possibly a flip-flop.
RUDIN: No, actually, it's a thoughtful reflection of a changing world.
WERTHEIMER: NPR's political editor, Ken Rudin.