Monday, November 24th, 2014

Flipping and flopping

SUMMARY: Joe Biden defends his nominee Barack Obama by saying John McCain has changed positions, too. We find that's true, but not so much in the case of Iraq.

In a Democrat vs. Republican Face-Off, U.S. Sens. Joe Biden and Lindsey Graham appeared on "Meet the Press," to discuss the positions of their respective parties' nominees for president.

Moderator Brian Williams opened the show with the news of the week: Barack Obama's decision to opt of public financing for the general election.

Graham seized the moment, saying of Obama's decision, "It's 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."

We're checking whether McCain has been consistent on oil drilling or not. But Biden is on shaky ground when he says McCain changed his position on Iraq.

McCain was definitely a supporter of the war and spoke positively about prospects for the invasion. But he also warned early on that creating a functioning government in Iraq would be difficult.

"I think we're in a long and difficult process of bringing democracy to a country that's never experienced it," McCain told Fox News on May 31, 2003. "I know it's going to be very, very expensive. This is one of the reasons why I thought the tax cuts were premature. We have to spend a lot more money on this issue, on the reconstruction as well as the cost of the military action in Iraq. And I think we need to get a handle on those costs. I think it's going to be long. I think it's going to be difficult. And this will not be the first -- the last extension of the presence of the U.S. military in Iraq, I'm sorry to say. But it doesn't mean it wasn't a worthwhile effort."

Note the tax cut comment: McCain has subsequently changed position on tax cuts and now believes they should be made permanent, an issue we've checked previously several times .

On the issue of Iraq, McCain was asked specifically about flip-flopping on Jan. 10, 2007, by moderator Tim Russert on "Meet the Press."

Russert: "Go back, Senator, to 2002 -- the administration saying we'd be greeted as liberators, John McCain saying that you thought success would be fairly easy."

McCain: "Well, it was easy. It was easy. I said we -- a military operation would be easy. It was easy. We were greeted as liberators. Look at the films when we rolled into Baghdad. And then there was a period of time where we allowed looting, when the whole country literally evolved into chaos. I went over there. I saw what was happening. I came back, and I made a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations and said exactly, tragically, what was going to happen unless we got control of the situation. It was easy, by the way."

Russert: "But certainly securing the peace and instilling a democracy in Iraq has been far more challenging --"

McCain: "Absolutely. Just as I said it would be."

Russert: "But not nearly as much as the administration had suggested to the American people?"

McCain: "Well, the mistake and failure...it's well-documented of what happened. We went in there, we won an easy military victory. They did greet us as liberators. The recent testimony of Saddam Hussein's own words indicate what kind of brutality they were subjected to. And then all of a sudden the looting started, understandably. We didn't have control of Anbar province. We didn't have control -- eventually, there was a steady deterioration which led us to the terrible situation that we are in today. And all along, it was because we did not have the classic counterinsurgency strategy which is clear, hold and build. We cleared and would leave. As I've said in other hearings, we were playing a game of Whack-a-Mole."

When Biden says McCain has changed position on Iraq, he's pointing to McCain's comments early in the invasion. As the situation in Iraq has changed over time, elected have changed the way they've talked about it. For fact-checking purposes, we have granted them that leeway without calling them out as flip-floppers. For an example, see how we critiqued attacks here and here on Barack Obama that cherry-pick from the time when Iraq was relatively calm in 2004.

And even in the face of terrible poll numbers showing declining public support for operations in Iraq, McCain still holds a fairly staunch stay-the-course position. Biden is glossing over too many nuances of John McCain's positions on Iraq to make the charge of flip-flopper stick. We rated his claim Barely True.

In a sad footnote, the "Meet the Press" discussion with Bidena nd Graham was a postponement from its intended air dateThe show was the last one scheduled by Russert, who died suddenly of a heart attack on June 13, 2008. A tribute show in Russert's honor aired June 15, and the Biden-Graham meeting moved to June 22, hosted by Brian Williams.