Why Obama’s “Move to the Center” Need Not Alarm Progressives

by Paul Hogarth on July 7, 2008

In recent weeks, some progressives have been alarmed at Barack Obama – who they fear has “moved to the center” for the general election. They have argued that his recent shifts won’t help him pick up “swing voters,” but it’s clear that Obama is playing pre-emptive defense rather than trying to win new supporters. Obama knows that if he sticks to the progressive rhetoric that helped him win the nomination, a media narrative will take hold that he is running like George McGovern – and the campaign is deftly trying to avoid such a trap. But unlike Bill Clinton’s right-wing capitulations in 1996, it’s hard to conclude from Obama’s recent “shifts” any long-term policy consequences. For those who fear that Obama’s posture signals another Clintonian “sell-out,” the time to hold him accountable will be after the election – when as President he will be in a position to bring about change. But for now, there hasn’t been much to signal such an alarm.

Civil libertarians are furious at Senator Obama’s decision to vote for the latest FISA bill – which includes retroactive immunity for phone companies who helped the government spy on American citizens. Obama also took a “centrist” position on two Supreme Court decisions – he condemned the Court’s ruling that applying the death penalty to child rapists is unconstitutional, while agreeing with the Court’s opinion that struck down the gun ban in Washington DC. And late last week, while maintaining his commitment to end the Iraq War, Obama said he may be flexible about when troops will come home.

Not only are some progressives upset, but a few have concluded it’s a losing strategy. “Running to the middle to attract undecided swing voters didn’t work for Al Gore in 2000,” said Arianna Huffington. “It didn’t work for John Kerry in 2004. And it didn’t work when Mark Penn convinced Hillary Clinton to do it in 2008. Fixating on – and pandering to – this fickle crowd is all about messaging tailored to avoid offending rather than to inspire and galvanize. And isn’t galvanizing the electorate to demand fundamental change the raison d’être of the Obama campaign?”

The trouble with Huffington’s logic is that she assumes Obama is doing this to win the sliver of voters who are currently undecided between the two candidates.

Huffington is probably right that Obama’s recent moves won’t win many voters still trying to choose between him and John McCain. But Obama doesn’t need those people. Assuming he doesn’t bleed support between now and November, Obama has already won the election. What Obama’s really playing is a game of “pre-emptive defense”: don’t give McCain any opening to grab a chunk of his voters with a wedge issue, sabotaging what should be a Democratic rout. Not all Obama supporters are progressive, and some are vulnerable to defecting if dynamics change. With four months left, it could still happen.

In July 1988, Michael Dukakis was polling ahead of George Bush Sr. – because enough working-class “Reagan Democrats” had concluded that the Reagan years had not helped them economically. But in one of the nastiest and most negative campaigns in history, the Bush camp persuaded them to vote Republican by elevating Massachusetts’ weekend prison furlough program as a prominent campaign issue. We all know the tragic outcome of a Democratic front-runner who refused to play pre-emptive defense, as Willie Horton came to define Dukakis in the eyes of many voters.

It’s conventional wisdom that in presidential politics, a candidate courts the party base to win the primary – and then “shifts to the center” in the general election. Obama’s camp knows that failing to do so may typecast them as a “McGovern-like” candidate – and as perception becomes reality, a media narrative will take hold that could marginalize their chances. Many progressives will say that Obama is the unconventional transformational candidate who should defy that trend, but the campaign is not taking any chances. The trick now is how to do it without compromising basic progressive principles.

Before dismissing Obama’s “move to the center” as a callous betrayal, it’s important to assess each action he has taken to determine (a) if it’s truly a “shift” in position, (b) what policy consequences – if any – are the result of Obama’s “shift,” (c) whether he had any power as a candidate to change the outcome and (d) what would happen if Obama took the principled stand that the Left wants him to take.

On Iraq, Obama has suggested he may alter his proposed timetables for withdrawal after an upcoming visit. Here, the policy consequences are tremendous – and there’s little backlash for sticking to your guns. But Obama has always said “we should be as careful getting out as we were careless going in” – making it seriously questionable if he has ever “shifted” on this position. Iraq is the most important issue that progressives will have to hold Obama accountable on, but there’s little in this recent statement that indicates cause for concern.

On the Supreme Court’s ruling that repealed Washington DC’s gun control law, Obama issued a statement in support that he believed in a private right to bear arms with some restrictions. This was a “conservative” position that offended gun control advocates, but what would be the impact of opposing the Court’s decision? With most voters – and many Obama supporters – believing in a private right to bear arms, McCain could scare rural voters into thinking that Obama will take their guns away. As a candidate, Obama had no power to influence the Court; after their decision, his statement had no impact.

Likewise, commenting on the Court’s death penalty decision had no policy consequences within Obama’s control. And while many progressives oppose capital punishment under any circumstances, for Obama to take a public position that it’s wrong to execute people who rape small children would have been political suicide. The Supreme Court has ruled against the death penalty for child rapists, so it’s not likely to be revisited for a while. By saying he disagreed with the decision, Obama deflected any chance that Republicans will paint him as a coddler of child rapists – bringing back racist Willie Horton-like attacks.

Finally, there’s the FISA vote that includes telecom immunity. Most Americans agree with progressives, so the backlash for “standing firm” would not have hurt Obama with voters. While some will argue that the policy consequences are huge, retroactive immunity means that telecom companies cannot be sued for their past collusion with the Bush Administration. From a legal standpoint, lost damages for such a potential lawsuit – while emotionally strong – are not likely to be substantial monetarily.

As a U.S. Senator, Obama had a say in the matter – but only one vote, and Congress was going to pass it anyway. Unlike when Bill Clinton chose to sign the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) or Welfare Repeal in 1996 in order to play “pre-emptive defense” against Bob Dole, Obama had no power to stop telecom immunity from happening. Progressives upset at the FISA vote should direct their anger at Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership in Congress for caving on this issue.

When Clinton repeatedly “moved to the center” in 1996, he signed laws like DOMA and Welfare Repeal that he not only had the power to stop – but that created long-term policy consequences we are still facing today. Welfare ceased to be a “problem” for Democrats because we threw single mothers into the street, while DOMA empowered the religious right to pass hateful amendments across the country. What Obama has done, however, is avoid political fights without permanently crippling the progressive cause. It might make some of his supporters cringe, but it doesn’t create lasting policy damage.

After Obama wins in November, progressives must hold him accountable for pushing a positive agenda. For at that point, he’ll be in a position of power to change the political reality. Before progressives cry “betrayal” at Obama for issues beyond his control, maybe they should wait until he’s actually in a place where he can do something about it.

EDITOR’S NOTE: In his spare time and outside of regular work hours, Paul Hogarth volunteered on Obama’s field operation in San Francisco. He also ran to be an Obama delegate to the Democratic National Convention.

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