Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Obama's bait and switch

Obama's move to the political "middle" (better known as the political "center") has been causing serious consternation among his more progressive, left-leaning supporters, to the point that they have even organized a group on his campaign Web site to voice their concerns--in particular about Obama's switcheroo on the wiretapping surveillance (FISA) bill now pending in Congress.

In today's New York Times, columnist Bob Herbert takes Obama seriously to task for his flip-flopping on this and a series of other issues in a piece called "Lurching With Abandon." Herbert speaks for many when he says the following:

One issue or another might not have made much difference. Tacking toward the center in a general election is as common as kissing babies in a campaign, and lord knows the Democrats need to expand their coalition.

But Senator Obama is not just tacking gently toward the center. He’s lurching right when it suits him, and he’s zigging with the kind of reckless abandon that’s guaranteed to cause disillusion, if not whiplash.

So what is a poor progressive to do?

For the last 40 years, I have been arguing with my liberal friends about the Democratic Party and what to do about it. In 1968, I voted for Eldridge Cleaver on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket, and did not vote for president again until 2004, when--out of solidarity with my desperate friends and out of conviction that the politics of the Bush administration had to be seen to be discredited before anything good could happen in the country--I voted for John Kerry. But as I did so, I argued again, including on a few blogs, that the Democratic Party would never become more progressive as long as it could count on its left-of-center wing to vote for its candidates no matter how disappointing they were. Why should it?

So once again we lefties are in the same situation. I think it is clear that Barack Obama knows exactly what he is doing: He knows he can count on our votes, no matter how much we protest his political slide headlong to the center, if not all the way to the right (sorry, Ralph Nader, this situation ain't gonna help you much this time around.) And sure enough, the poll numbers have not budged an inch since the slipping and sliding and lurching began; that is, he is doing just fine against McCain no matter what he says and does.

So, we can protest all we want--and we should--but it is not going to change anything Obama does. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, we have to work with the candidate we have, not the candidate we would like to have. But once Obama is elected, that's the time to unleash all that social activism--in the schools, in the workplace, in the health care sector, and in the streets. Obama's election will open the door to all that, even if the winning candidate might find himself running behind the movement he helped create.

Afterthoughts: This may sound harsh, but I think leftists need to spend less time attacking others (like Obama) for not being as progressive as they are, and start thinking more about why leftists are not more influential in getting people in the "center" or even the right to think like they do. And no, blaming the mainstream media doesn't get it, that's become too much of an excuse. More thoughts on this as time goes by.

More thoughts: This time by Bill Boyarsky on Truthdig. I don't entirely agree, but I have a lot of respect for Bill from the days when I was a freelance writer in Los Angeles and he worked for the Los Angeles Times. He had the grace to write and congratulate me when I scooped the Times on a big L.A. water contamination story, in a 1985 issue of the L.A. Weekly.

Old campaign news: The Times reports today (July 9) that Obama donors are not rushing to help Hillary Clinton retire her campaign debt. They have only come up with $100,000 so far. Wasn't most of that debt run up after it became almost mathematically impossible for Clinton to win the nomination (unless her dishonest and hypocritical ploy to count Michigan and Florida worked, that is?) I hate to stir up old stuff in this epoch of "unity," but perhaps Clinton should take responsibility for her own decisions and bite the bullet on this one. Lord knows she can afford it without even losing one of her homes.

Update (July 9): Glenn Greenwald is still smoking on the FISA bill and he cuts Obama no slack on his turnaround. I can't blame him, but I also can't blame readers of this blog if they detect my ambivalence about what to do about Obama's "centrism." The Obama campaign obviously thinks that Republicans can't attack him over his support of the bill, leaving only the "left" to do so--and who cares about the left, right? The only problem is that without it, Obama never would have gotten off the ground.

Update (July 12): The editor of The Nation, Katrina vanden Heuvel, explains why the magazine and two of its writers are is joining the ACLU's lawsuit against the 2008 FISA bill. In essence, warrantless wiretapping would interfere with the need of journalists to talk with confidential sources overseas.

Cartoon: John Fox, 2006


bystander.again said...

One issue or another might not have made much difference. Tacking toward the center in a general election is as common as kissing babies in a campaign, and lord knows the Democrats need to expand their coalition.

Don't blame the media, you say. It would be a good deal easier not to if they could get their basic facts straight.

From the Pew Research Center:

The balance of party identification in the American electorate now favors the Democratic Party by a decidedly larger margin than in either of the two previous presidential election cycles.

In 5,566 interviews with registered voters conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press during the first two months of 2008, 36% identify themselves as Democrats, and just 27% as Republicans.

The share of voters who call themselves Republicans has declined by six points since 2004, and represents, on an annualized basis, the lowest percentage of self-identified Republican voters in 16 years of polling by the Center.

The Democratic Party has also built a substantial edge among independent voters. Of the 37% who claim no party identification, 15% lean Democratic, 10% lean Republican, and 12% have no leaning either way.

Obama did not need to tack to the (so-called) center on FISA. Where are the good honest Conservatives when you need them? Probably identifying themselves as Democrats. Herbert has all of the credibility of a concern troll.

Michael Balter said...

Bystander, I agree with you that Obama did not NEED to tack right, given his high poll numbers and the high likelihood that he will beat McCain simply because the latter is a Republican. So why is he doing it? Try this explanation on for size: We are seeing the real Obama, what he really thinks, and his "progressive" stance was an opportunistic strategy to attract the activist netroots! Just an idea.

bystander.again said...

I agree. What we see now, is the real Obama. But, I have thought this was the real Obama from the beginning. On many issues, Obama was less progressive than Clinton. And, Clinton was less progressive than Edwards, etc.

I would argue this, however. If Obama wanted the attention of the Netroots, he got it. But, to a degree, he also has a tiger by the tail. See the odd coalition of liberals and libertarians flying under the banner of Strange Bedfellows, and note the ad that's running in the Washington Post, here (pdf).

I'm willing to bet that, barring some unforeseen disaster, Obama gets a first term, I'm increasingly less convinced he'll get a second term. I firmly believe that Obama and the Democratic Party have misjudged the mood of the electorate. But, we'll see.

bystander.again said...

PS. When did it fall to the radical, progressive left™ (mainstream media) to "conserve" the Constitution?

Anne Gilbert said...


I agree completely with you on your last update. Why don't< more people think like "leftists"? There are a lot of reasons, no doubt. But one that seems absolutely salient to me is that some of them, at least, seem way too far ahead of the pack to seem comprehensible. Plus the fact that it is still possible to identify them with "Marxists" or "Stalinists" or some other undesirable label. And the "wingnuts" have happily been doing just that for years.
Anne G