Washington John McCain is the candidate who actually had experience as a wartime flyer, but Barack Obama is the one who has most successfully adapted a favorite tactic of those intrepid aviators. When the pilots were over a target heavily defended by anti-aircraft guns, they would release a cloud of fine metal scraps, hoping to confuse the aim of the shells or missiles being fired in their direction.
In the weeks since he clinched the Democratic presidential nomination, the Illinois senator has done a similar trick, throwing out verbal hints of altered positions on any number of issues. This is creating quandaries for the Republicans who can't figure out where to aim.
In their effort to embarrass him, Republicans ask: Who is the real Barack Obama? Is he, as he claims, a fresh face, heralding a new era of post-partisan politics, or a cynical old-style pol making poll-driven adjustments with scant regard for principles? A protectionist or a free-trader? A corporate-basher or an ally of interest-group contributors? Is he a doctrinaire liberal, disguising himself as a late-blooming centrist?
Last week, the Republican National Committee, in a statement cataloguing some half-dozen recent Obama "flip-flops," threw up its hands without offering answers. The McCain campaign issued its own list of Obama's changed positions totaling 17 items, but confessed that "nobody knows what Barack Obama truly believes."
I can do no better, and I confess that it is only speculation to suggest that Obama's recent performance is motivated by a desire to confuse the opposition. Candidates often change their emphasis, if not their basic positions, once they shift from running against others in their own party primaries and start thinking about a general election with millions more voters of all ideologies poised to weigh in. McCain has done some of that himself, most notably in the week when he campaigned in the traditionally Democratic territories of New Orleans, Selma, Ala., and Appalachia.
But Obama's case is more challenging than the typical candidate's post-primary adjustment. For one thing, he is more opaque than the usual nominee. No one in recent decades has emerged as the party standard-bearer from so truncated a political career: four years in the United States Senate, during which he has yet to lead on any major domestic or foreign policy issue, preceded by largely anonymous service in the Illinois State Senate.
There have been few occasions when Obama's professed beliefs can be tested against his action. And in the fight for the nomination, virtually no issues emerged on which Obama's stands were seriously challenged by his opponents.
He won by convincing a narrow majority of Democratic voters that he could mobilize otherwise distrustful and alienated citizens with his promise to change Washington and to introduce a more open and less partisan brand of politics. Because his personal credibility was such a key to his success - and remains so - the changes now occurring in his positions have a significance far beyond themselves.
Few if any of those inclined to support him have been so deeply offended by his readiness to "refine" his pledge to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq in 16 months or his opting out of the public finance system he had once pledged to use (to cite the first two items on McCain's bill of particulars) that they are thinking of switching sides.
Obama will be in trouble only if the pattern continues to the point that undecided voters come to believe that he has a character problem - that they really can't trust him. As Peter Hart, the Democratic pollster, repeatedly reports from his focus groups with independents, this campaign turns much more on voters' struggle to size up Obama than it does on McCain.
Obama is making it hard for the Republicans to figure out how to attack him. The risk for him is if he also frustrates those voters' need to understand what makes him tick. They don't elect enigmas to the Oval Office.
¢In my last column, I butchered the history of the War Powers Act of 1973, saying it was signed by the president when it was actually passed over Richard Nixon's veto. I also mistakenly said it set a limit of 30 days for a deployment not backed by a declaration of war, when it was actually 60 days. In any case, the law has yet to be invoked.