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Matt Welch: ’Tis the season of political shape-shifting

By Matt Welch Los Angeles Times

Did you hear the one about the Republicans and the Russians? No, not the whole campaign-hacking controversy, intriguing as this latest “WarGames” reboot has been.

I mean the way that Republican public opinion on Vladimir Putin has been jerked like a needle across vinyl. Since July 2016, when Trump was coronated as leader of the GOP, Putin’s net favorability among Republicans has increased by a stunning 56 percentage points, according to an Economist/YouGov poll released this month.

WikiLeaks, run by accused Putin enabler Julian Assange, has gone from negative-47 net favorability among Republicans in June 2013 to positive-27 now, according to the same poll. It seems that all it takes for a bad-haired international fugitive to win conservative hearts and minds is a little one-sided publication of Clinton-campaign emails.

“America owes you a debt of gratitude,” Sean Hannity tongue-bathed Assange this month. That’s a far cry from 2009, when he accused Assange of “waging war against the U.S.,” and called for his arrest.

Democrats, meanwhile, are also executing an unintentionally funny Russian back-flip. From his undisclosed bunker in the Sierra Madre, resistance leader Keith Olbermann, who spent the first decade of this century accusing the George W. Bush administration of McCarthyism, is calling Trump a “Russian whore” and raging that we’re “at war” with Moscow.

These whiplash-inducing ideological switcheroos are an underappreciated source of entertainment in these loamy interims between major-party handovers of the White House. On issues such as Putin and privacy, federalism and free trade, the teams are swapping core issues like jerseys.

Remember when Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., confessed in 2010 that “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president”? Democrats claimed that was just about the most egregious example of premeditated obstructionism they’d ever heard – until they found themselves bereft of executive power. According to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.: “Past is present, and what goes around comes around.” Also, same to you, but more of it.

It wasn’t long ago, to cite another rapidly changing value, that liberals thought bigotry lurked behind state-government opposition to federal mandates. As a February Vox headline informed us, the term “states’ rights” is part of the “sneaky language today’s politicians use to get away with racism and sexism.” That same website this month exulted that: “We’re about to see states’ rights used defensively against Trump.”

There is significance to this spot-changing beyond hypocrisy and opportunism. One lesson that the country seems to rediscover (and then quickly forgets) every two years or so is that the galvanizing passion of opposition tends to dissolve almost as soon as it comes into contact with real power.

Take the Bush-era antiwar movement. The rage that plucked Howard Dean out of comparative obscurity in 2003, then helped long-shot Barack Obama topple prohibitive favorite Hillary Clinton in 2008, trickled away into near nothingness during the Obama presidency, even as the Nobel Peace Prize-winner launched new follies in Libya and escalated old ones in Afghanistan.

“Once the fuel of partisanship was in short supply, it was difficult for the antiwar movement to sustain itself on a mass level,” wrote Michael T. Heaney and Fabio Rojas in “Party in the Street: The Antiwar Movement and the Democratic Party after 9/11.”

The same drama (or farce) played out with the tea party movement’s laserlike focus on fiscal restraint and spending caps: Once Republicans retook the Senate in 2014, the debt ceiling, which had been such a critical part of the national discussion from 2011 to 2013, disappeared as if by magic. As did the tea party movement itself, in any meaningful sense.

Political shape-shifting season is a fine time to remind all of us that ideology isn’t necessarily a dirty word; sometimes it’s a synonym for useful conviction. Who among the Trumpfied GOP is holding the line against the president-elect’s proposed excesses? Some of the most ideological: Rep. Justin Amash, R-Mich., Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

We will need such libertarian-flavored resistance to prevent Trump from finishing off his conversion of the GOP from the party of rules-based markets and trade (at least rhetorically) to the vanguard for protectionism and case-by-case federal meddling.

Another YouGov poll from earlier this month showed Republicans and conservatives overwhelmingly the most inclined to approve of Trump’s intervention into Carrier’s industrial decisions. They were also most likely to concur with Vice President-elect Mike Pence’s recent statement that “the free market has been sorting it out and America has been losing.”

We expect such brazen about-faces from the political likes of Pence, once an ardent free-trader. But if voters are ever going to make politicians suffer for their shamelessness, we need to avoid engaging in opportunistic spot-changing of our own.

Before you go declaring that deficits really don’t matter, or that threatening to shut down the government is a necessary strategy, or that Russia either is or is not America’s No. 1 geopolitical foe, ask yourself whether it’s the conviction talking or the political expediency. If it’s the latter, you’re probably getting played. And laughed at.

Matt Welch is editor at large of Reason, a magazine published by the libertarian Reason Foundation, and a contributing writer to the Los Angeles Times.