- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 14, 2004

When John F. Kerry declared George W. Bush’s middle initial “stands for ‘wrong,’ ” the most common rejoinder was the senator’s middle initial must stand for “flip-flopper.” This familiar anti-Kerry epithet certainly seems apt, especially on the war in Iraq.

The other day, Mr. Kerry called the U.S. invasion of Iraq “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.” I happen to agree with that assessment, but Mr. Kerry apparently does not; he almost immediately reverted to his earlier position, that the war was justified but was not carried out properly.

Mr. Kerry has gone through this bait-and-switch so many times that I’ve lost count. His admirers, I suppose, see his ability to hold inconsistent positions as a sign of his subtlety, in contrast to Mr. Bush’s simplistic, black-and-white view of the world. But it’s clear Mr. Kerry is playing to antiwar Democrats while trying not to alienate pro-war voters.

The Bush campaign has emphasized the insincerity, opportunism and lack of principle this suggests. Yet the president also tries to have it both ways.

Consider the federal “assault weapon” ban, which expired Monday, because Mr. Bush did not push for its renewal, although he claimed to support it.

Unlike the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which took out full-page newspaper ads excoriating Mr. Bush for his inaction, I am happy to see this law fade away. It was a fraud from the outset, based on deliberately misleading the public about the weapons covered by the ban.

Contrary to the Brady Campaign’s ads, so-called assault weapons, distinguished mainly by their scary appearance, do not fire any faster than other semiautomatics, and they are not especially suited for killing cops or committing mass murder.

Not surprisingly, the latest evaluation from the National Institute of Justice, as described last month by The Washington Times, concludes the decade-old ban has had no discernible impact on gun violence.

The honest response to the “assault weapon” ban would have been to oppose it as an empty, feel-good measure that accomplished nothing but to prepare the way for more ambitious restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms. Instead, Mr. Bush played to the majority that supported the ban by promising to sign a renewal bill but placated the highly motivated (and better-informed) minority that opposed the ban by making sure the bill never reached his desk.

Mr. Bush’s handling of the “assault weapon” issue was no more honorable than Mr. Kerry’s flip-flops on Iraq, but at least it was more artful. The same cannot be said of the president’s shifting stances on political speech restrictions.

Back in March 2000, when he was asked about independent ads attacking Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and his rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Mr. Bush steadfastly defended the First Amendment. “That’s what freedom of speech is all about,” he said on “Face the Nation.” “People have the right to run ads.”

A couple years later, presented with Mr. McCain’s attempt to make it harder for people to criticize politicians, Mr. Bush swallowed his constitutional compunctions and signed the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, which Republicans thought would give them an advantage because it increased the importance of the restricted “hard money” donations they excelled at collecting.

Now the president complains the law did not go far enough, leaving leeway for independent groups to run ads attacking him. He wants the Federal Election Commission to shut them up.

To be fair, the president demands an end to all so-called 527 groups, not just those critical of him. Mr. Kerry, by contrast, has focused objections on Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, alleging the group illegally coordinates with the Bush campaign.

Yet anti-Bush groups such as MoveOn.org and the Media Fund seem no less closely allied with the Kerry campaign, sharing not just goals and donors but personnel. Such connections are not in themselves illegal. So unless Mr. Kerry can demonstrate direct coordination, he will just have to put up with the attacks on his Vietnam record.

Under Mr. Bush’s approach, however, 527s simply would disappear — a welcome development for Republicans, who have not been nearly as successful as Democrats at collecting money that way. So let’s give the president his due: He is a more consistent opponent of free speech.

Jacob Sullum is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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