The McCain campaign has noted a number of Mitt Romney’s policy/rhetorical shifts over the past few weeks, including such issues as stem cells, immigration, and abortion.  Now the ex-governor from Massachusetts, or at least his campaign staffers, have struck back against Senator McCain in an attempt to derail the so-called “straight talk express.”

Michael Cooper of the New York Times’ “Caucus” political blog reports that the Romney camp is publicizing a discrepancy between McCain’s campaign rhetoric and his voting record regarding the U.S. Information Agency.  Until the public diplomacy agency’s duties were folded into the State Department in 1999, it sought to promote and publicize official U.S. policies and positions to foreign governments and populations.

Excerpts from a speech McCain was scheduled to deliver in Palm Beach, Florida find the Senator advocating reconstituting the Information Agency as an independent body.

“Dismantling an agency dedicated to promoting America and the American message amounted to unilateral disarmament in the struggle of ideas,’’ he will say, according to excerpts of the speech obtained from the campaign.

As the Romney campaign points out, though, this opinion is apparently at odds with his Senate voting record:

The Romney campaign lost no time in pointing out to reporters that Mr. McCain voted for the 1998 bill that merged the United States Information Agency with the State Department – a bill that also authorized payments to the United Nations and authorized spending for the State Department.

While the Romney campaign is certainly correct that McCain’s new statement represents a direct departure from the bill for which he voted nearly ten years ago, the actual significance and relevance of this point requires a few caveats.

First, the bill “also authorized payments to the United Nations and authorized spending for the State Department,” which means it was much more complicated than just the one agency.  In fact the bill addresses a number of issues and is rather complex, running 119 pages in PDF format.  McCain surely bears responsibility for his votes, but this was only part of a larger bill — given the log-rolling and compromise in Washington, it’s not unusual for politicians to support bills that they do not entirely support in exchange for their own provisions and so forth.  According to Wikipedia, the department’s functions were not eliminated but rather folded into other departments for bureaucratic expediency — which means this flip-flop is not as earth-shaking as McCain’s opponents would desire.

Second, this bill was authorized in 1998, at the very height of the “e-revolution” — a period that the neocon Francis Fukuyama had erroneously suggested followed “the end of history,” which had occurred with the fall of the Soviet Union.  It was optimistically predicted that the inexorable spread of free-market capitalism would usher in era of peaceful entrepreneurship and prosperity for all.  Since then, we’ve had a long-term sluggish economy, the fall-out from outsourcing, and — of course — 9/11.  The term “flip-flop” is really supposed to refer to broad shifts in rhetoric, approach or philosophy for political reasons — generally not other instances when politicians decide to change their minds based on the events around them.  Due to the relatively technical and arcane nature of the U.S. Information Agency, it is unlikely that McCain masterminded this shift to pander to a particular demographic, so it’s unclear whether this shift qualifies as a true “flip-flop.”

Secure in the knowledge that McCain’s position on the U.S. Information Agency does not really represent a juicy flip-flop, prospective voters (and donors) can go back to examining his proposal on its own merits.  And scrutinizing all the candidates’ records of flip-flopping on such more sweeping and fundamental issues like the war in Iraq and America’s immigration policy.