STRADDLING AND WAFFLING….Does John Kerry sometimes straddle difficult issues in an effort to please multiple constituencies? Sure. So do all politicians. Kerry’s real problem, though, isn’t that he straddles more than anyone else, but that he does it badly. When he explains his positions, he sounds like he’s straddling.

George Bush is Kerry’s exact opposite. He straddles issues with as much vigor as most politicians, but nonetheless manages to retain a reputation as a straight talking guy who says what he means and means what he says.

Today is an appropriate day to write about Bush’s penchant for straddling issues because it’s the third anniversary of the first great straddle of his presidency: the stem cell straddle. After weeks of well publicized agonizing three summers ago, he announced on August 9, 2001, that he would approve federal funding for embryonic stem cell lines already in existence but not for any new ones. This was an exquisitely calibrated position designed to keep his pro-life credibility intact with his conservative Christian base but still appear reasonable and non-scary to moderate suburbanites.

And that was just the start. He opposed the creation of a Department of Homeland Security, but when public pressure became too strong he changed his mind and supported it after all. He opposed accounting reform after the Enron scandal, but then signed the Sarbanes-Oxley bill as if he had campaigned on the idea. He opposed the 9/11 Commission, but when its recommendations came out he suddenly announced that he would adopt all of them. Except that he didn’t: he adopted the language of the commission but none of the substance.

These three straddles have a common feature: initially Bush took one side of the issue, but when it became clear that public opinion was against him he not only switched sides, he did it with gusto. By the time the dust cleared, you would have thought they were his ideas in the first place.

And this was hardly the first time. As governor of Texas, he opposed a Patients’ Bill of Rights twice. It finally passed over his opposition and without his signature in 1997, but by 2000, when he was campaigning for the presidency, he was bragging about it. You’d hardly know he had ever been anything but a proud and enthusiastic supporter.

Other straddles follow a different pattern. Bush says he favors free trade, for example, but when his advisors told him he needed to shore up his support in key swing states he promptly proposed tariffs on steel, subsidies for farm goods, and quotas on Chinese bras.

Then there are straddles with more subtlety. After months of tiptoeing around the subject of gay marriage, for example, he finally caved in to his conservative Christian base and announced that he supported a constitutional amendment to ban it. But despite his strong words, he knew very well that it would never pass Congress and did almost nothing to build support for it. Result: street cred with the fundamentalist crowd, but no actual result that can be held against him during the fall campaign.

On other subjects his actions flatly contradict his words. He says he supports veterans and the military, but has consistently opposed efforts to raise their pay and benefits. He said he wouldn’t negotiate with North Korea, but after a year of shilly-shallying he began quietly doing exactly that. He claims to favor small government, but has grown government in practically all areas faster than any president since LBJ.

So what explains Bush’s reputation as a straight shooter? Two things. First, he has a pair of signature issues on which he’s been as resolute as a bulldozer: Iraq and taxes. On these two issues, both of which have widespread support among both his conservative base and voters at large, Bush has been steadfast.

Second, and more important, his rhetoric is simple and uncompromising and most people are surprisingly willing to uncritically accept his speechwriters’ words as a reflection of his real self. Even the press, which has seen Bush’s clever waffling and straddling on a wide variety of subjects firsthand for nearly four years, has been mostly taken in by his rhetoric. On practically every major issue aside from taxes and Iraq, he’s adopted carefully calculated, poll-tested positions, clothed them in unyielding language, and gotten away with it. His reputation for being plainspoken has remained intact.

But if you scratch below the surface, it’s pretty plain that Kerry and Bush, like practically all politicians, straddle and waffle in nearly identical ways. If anything, Bush probably does it more than Kerry. The difference is that he does it better. Much, much better.