Is Ed Markey’s Present Vote Better Than a Flip Flop?

Look what happened when John Kerry changed his mind.


Image Credit: nnwo on Flickr

As with any news story where conventional wisdom settles within about five seconds, there has been some reconsideration of Senator Ed Markey’s ‘present vote’ in the days since.

In the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Markey voted neither yes nor no on a resolution authorizing the use of force against the Syrian regime. The committee approved the measure 10-7, which moves it to a vote in the broader Senate. There were immediate groans from both ends of the political spectrum at Markey’s indecisiveness. But in the days since, others have considered how serious Markey’s transgression really is, and how badly it will hamstring him in a reelection campaign.

Markey himself explained after the vote that some language with which he wasn’t comfortable was added to the resolution last minute, and he didn’t want to offer his approval without considering it, but neither did he want to deny the Senate the chance to debate the bill.

Whether you call that prudent or cowardly, there’s a side question of how it plays politically. In the short-term, obviously it seems like a poor choice. But look no further than Ed Markey’s Senate predecessor John Kerry to see why in the long-term, a present vote might have been an undecided Markey’s best option (short of, you know… deciding.) Politics, Kerry learned, doesn’t really accommodate a politician changing his vote to suit changing circumstances. In the 2004 campaign, Kerry noted that he voted for the $87 billion military appropriations bill before he voted against it. He handed President Bush a great soundbite to portray him as indecisive on Iraq. (Seriously, it was so great, that it haunts Kerry’s media coverage even as Secretary of State a decade later.) The actual votes to which Kerry was referring had some nuance to them. He had reasons to support one and not the other. But that hardly matters in a 30 second commercial, a land where you can’t change your mind on issues of war.

If Markey had voted before he felt he’d truly made up his mind, then upon further consideration, changed his vote during the wider Senate deliberation, he might actually be worse off politically. He’d be open to a “Markey voted against Syria before he voted for it!” (They’d only say that if the Syrian military operation had good results.) With a “present” vote in committee, what will matter in a few years is how he votes in the end, and then how the crisis plays out. (“He wasn’t decided on it before he was against it!” just isn’t as good a soundbite.)

On the Mass Politics Profs blog, Jarold Duquette argues something similar:

Republican efforts to call Markey an indecisive coward won’t mean a thing after the Senator casts his floor vote. In fact, Markey could then turn around and argue that he was not only decisive when it mattered most, he was careful and prudent as well.

That doesn’t mean Republicans won’t hold the ‘present’ vote against Markey until kingdom come. But unlike with Kerry, it so far doesn’t fit in with a larger narrative that paints Markey as indecisive. Attacks are less effective when they don’t feed a preexisting critique of a politician. Meanwhile, Markey will offer an argument of ‘prudence’ to rally Democrats—themselves often skeptical of military interventions but supportive of the president—who were initially just as disenchanted with his committee vote. And he’ll offer a plausible counter-narrative to battle for the independents who aren’t sure how to feel about it.