Focus on flip-flops: the McCain edition

SUMMARY: It's easy to say a candidate flip-flops. But what does that mean? We look at the various claims against John McCain.

It's the most popular political battle cry of recent elections, meant to summon visions of craven hypocrites willing to say anything: "Flip Flopper!"

No one is immune to the charge. Any change of position, no matter how reasonable or well explained, constitutes potential ammunition. In fact, using the flip-flop charge is so common now, it sometimes is used as defense against flip-flopping charges.

That's what happened during an episode of Meet the Press on June 15, 2008. In a Democrat vs. Republican Face-Off, U.S. Sens. Joe Biden and Lindsey Graham traded flip-flopping charges against their respective parties' nominees for president.

Moderator Brian Williams opened the show with the news of the week: Barack Obama's decision to opt out of public financing for the general election, even though he had previously said, early in the primary season, that he'd be open to accepting public money and the spending limits that go with it.

Graham seized the moment, saying Obama's original decision to use public financing "(has) been abandoned because of political expediency. He's a calculating politician."

Not so fast, Biden replied.

"I'm not sure this is the place this debate should go, but if you talk about flip-flopping, you've got John McCain all of a sudden deciding now we should drill in 600-million acres offshore that he adamantly opposed before," Biden said. "You've got John McCain changing his position on Iraq. He started off talking about how they were going to be accepted and greeted with open arms and how we'd have a lot of money to pay--oil to pay for this war, etc."

Biden made two distinct flip-flopping charges against John McCain, but others have made many more. Let's review the list of McCain flip-flops and see how the Truth-o-Meter rates them.

• Biden said McCain has changed position on offshore drilling. We looked into McCain's record on drilling and found that McCain's position is not so simple as for or against. McCain used to say, and continues to say, that states have the right to determine whether to permit drilling off their own coasts. But previously, McCain never expressed his own preference as to whether states should allow it or not. McCain still maintains his view that states should be allowed to decide, but now he is saying, in a way he never did before, that states should choose drilling. We checked McCain's statement, "I've always said it's up to the states and I still say that." We found McCain's claim of consistency Mostly True .

• Biden also said McCain has changed positions on Iraq. McCain definitely is a consistent supporter of the war and predicted a relatively fast invasion. But he also warned early on that creating a functioning government in Iraq would be difficult. We found Biden's remarks take McCain's anticipation of a successful invasion out of context, and Biden ignores McCain's warning about the post-invasion planning. So we found Biden's statement Barely True .

• Another popular flip-flop charge against McCain is that he's changed position on the Bush tax cuts. He used to oppose them; now he believes they should be made permanent. This was such a popular line of attack against McCain during the Republican primary that we checked it three different times . We found the charge to be True each time.

• Also during the Republican primary, Mitt Romney charged that John McCain had changed position on whether Roe v. Wade , the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision on abortion, should be overturned. Romney said McCain once favored keeping Roe vs. Wade in place. We looked at McCain's record and found an instance in 1999 when he spoke approvingly of Roe vs. Wade . He almost immediately back-tracked, saying he misspoke. We found a one-time remark falls short of a full-fledged change in position, so we rated Romney's claim Half True .

• McCain has also changed position on ethanol, a biofuel popular with Iowa's corn farmers. He used to oppose it, saying he was willing to tell people things they don't want to hear. Now he favors it, citing the new situation of a growing energy crisis. "I have adjusted to the realities of the world we live in today, and if I don't adjust to those realities, then I would be stuck in the past," McCain said. We found it Mostly True that he has reversed position on the issue .