Susan Estrich: Flip-Flop Season Begins

Flip-flop. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.

So John McCain is now against the federal ban on drilling in coastal waters that he was for as recently as May. And Barack Obama is not going to accept public funds even though he agreed with McCain last year that they would live within the public financing system if the two were the nominees of their respective parties.

The jury is still out, or should be, on whether McCain made the right move in switching sides on coastal drilling. In Obama’s case, it’s a no-brainer, made even easier by the timing: When both candidates flip-flop in the same week, who is to say that one is more principled than the other?

But one definitely will have more money to spend than the other. Advantage: Obama.

Talk to voters now and you can find a majority who will say yes to almost any idea that sounds like it might bring down the cost of filling up. The last time I got gas this week, at the station right next to FOX News’ L.A. bureau, the number on the pump whizzed to $70 before I’d even had time to throw away all the old papers in the back seat.

I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I pointed it out to the guy at the next pump (of course, this was the self-serve price) and he pointed to his register, which was even higher. We just rolled our eyes. What can you do? Almost anything is the obvious answer.

So, sure, you can find a majority in favor of coastal drilling. My guess is you could find a majority that also favors price controls, windfall profits taxes, higher mileage standards and lower federal gas taxes — in other words, all kinds of good, bad and inconsistent ideas most of which will have no impact on any of the forces driving up prices in the short run.

On the other hand, even the $70 fill-up is not going to convince those who care passionately about the preservation of our coasts to give up their environmental principles in the hopes of getting cheaper gas in 2030.

This is not an issue in which the politics can be judged simply by figuring out which side has more supporters. It’s about the intensity of support.

There’s a joke in politics about the pig and the chicken and how they figure in your ham and egg breakfast. The chicken is involved, but the pig is committed. When it comes to protecting our environment from paying the price of our oil and gas addiction, environmentalists are committed.

They may not show up as a majority in polls taken in this summer of high temperatures and high gas prices, but they’ll vote the issue, and McCain’s flip-flop on drilling may cost him their votes.

Nor is McCain’s new position necessarily enough to satisfy the proponents of more domestic drilling, who can’t understand why McCain continues to oppose drilling in ANWR.

If it’s necessary to drill off the coasts of Florida and Virginia and California, why not Alaska?McCain is neither here nor there on the issue, but somewhere in the middle, which is a recipe for losing votes.

Flipping on ANWR at this point, however, with so much video of him as recently as a few weeks ago defending his position, is an invitation to do one of those ads in which the gymnast contorts himself into as many positions as the old Gumby dolls.

And, thanks to his decision to forego federal funds, there is no question that Barack Obama will have plenty of money to spend on such an ad, or any other one he wants to put out there.

By declining to accept public funds, Obama foregoes the $80-some million he would have received in federal money and the spending cap, which is the stick that accompanies this particular carrot.

For a guy who already has raised over $230 million from a divided Democratic Party, this is not a hard call. He hasn’t even tapped the Clinton donors yet. He gets to go back to his primary base and start over, as it were, in collecting general election dollars. How much can he raise for the general election? Three hundred million? Why not? By how much can he outspend McCain? Three-to-one? Four-to-one? At least.

And does anyone care if he does?

Yes. There are a few people. Those of us who have toiled long and hard to support public financing of campaigns can shake our heads in sorrow at the first candidate to turn down federal dollars. But seriously. For how many people is public funding a voting issue? Not many, I can tell you, or we’d have a better system, without the huge loopholes that allow so-called independent and party groups to partially circumvent the rules.

Ironically, it is McCain’s support for campaign finance reform that has earned him the enmity of many on the ideological right whose support, and money, he will need if he is to begin to compete against Obama financially in this campaign.

No one needs the swift boaters more than McCain. But are they likely to do for him what they did for Bush? Not necessarily. And if they do, Obama and his friends surely will call McCain on his failure to rein them in.

That a group of North Carolina Republicans went after Michelle Obama for her patriotism and McCain did nothing to try and stop them is one reason cited by the Obama side for the candidate’s decision to go the private route.

What would be the point of Obama abiding by spending limits if the McCain campaign was going to evade the system by relying on "independent" groups to bust the limits and do his dirty work?

Truth be told, it would have been the right move for Obama to go the private route regardless of anything the North Carolina Republicans said about his wife; a guy who can raise more than $200 million in the primaries against a Clinton does not need a mere $80 million from the government.

But the fact that the North Carolina crowd already had made its move and McCain did nothing to quash it gave Obama cover for the decision in the eyes of anyone who cared. And, frankly, most people don’t.

The Obama decision to forego federal funds is a one-day story. The advantage it will give the Democratic nominee will be good for months.

Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first female president of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.

Estrich's books include the just published "Soulless," "The Case for Hillary Clinton," "How to Get Into Law School," "Sex & Power," "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women."

She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the "Blue Streak" column for