Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Did Obama Gravitate to the Center?

Less controversial than Retired Army General Wesley Clark's comments about Senator John McCain's military service -- but every bit as important -- is the current debate about whether Senator Barack Obama has moved to the political "center" in the aftermath of the highly contentious primaries. And you guessed it, Blog Pals. Yours truly is prepared to weigh in.

"I've been struck by the speed and decisiveness of his move to the center," observed Will Marshall, president of the Progressive Policy Institute. In his June 30 New York Times column titled "The Obama Agenda," liberal economist Paul Krugman wrote, "It’s feeling a lot like 1992 right now. It’s also feeling a lot like 1980. But which parallel is closer? Is Barack Obama going to be a Ronald Reagan of the left, a president who fundamentally changes the country’s direction? Or will he be just another Bill Clinton?" Meantime, Michael Gerson's Washington Post column on Obama's move to the center featured the headline, "The Audacity of Cynicism." "Obama Turns Centrist," said the headline of Ruth Conniff's column in the Progressive magazine. In her commentary titled "Memo to Obama: The Center is for Losers," Arianna Huffington wrote:

As part of this process, I looked at the Obama campaign not through the prism of my own progressive views and beliefs but through the prism of a cold-eyed campaign strategist who has no principles except winning. From that point of view, and taking nothing else into consideration, I can unequivocally say: the Obama campaign is making a very serious mistake. Tacking to the center is a losing strategy. And don’t let the latest head-to-head poll numbers lull you the way they lulled Hillary Clinton in December. Running to the middle in an attempt to attract undecided swing voters didn’t work for Al Gore in 2000. It didn’t work for John Kerry in 2004. And it didn’t work when Mark Penn (obsessed with his “microtrends” and missing the megatrend) convinced Hillary Clinton to do it in 2008.

I could go on with countless other examples of commentaries about Obama moving to the comfy middle of the road. Many -- but not all -- of them come from progressives and lefties who worry that Obama is jettisoning his progressive views to win support from centrists. The strategy, they say, backfired for Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. By contrast, Obama triumphed in the primaries, they insist, because he was decidedly progressive in his positions.

Movement is all relative, I suppose. For the longest time, I was a John Edwards (right) supporter. Now there is a genuine progressive -- in the fighting, populist Robert La Follette/Paul Wellstone tradition. I admit, I was a Johnny-come-lately to the Obama cause. In fact, after Edwards dropped out of the race, I was depressed for two weeks. My loved ones and friends were starting to wonder what the hell was wrong with me.

It took me a while to throw my support behind Obama. You may recall that during the primaries, an awful lot of folks -- including many who are now lamenting Obama's post-primaries drift to the center -- expressed concerns about his vague positions. They agreed that Obama could deliver a hell of a speech, but he was short on specifics. Author, film professor and screenwriter Trey Ellis commented about his reluctance to support Obama during the primaries: "I didn't find his positions, especially on universal health care, as progressive as I would have wished. Both he and Hillary seemed very much of the DLC centrist mold despite calling themselves progressives." Ellis suggests that Obama was always a centrist candidate on a host of issues, but the candidate also took some bold and humane stands, especially on the Iraq War. Ellis concludes with this parting shot: "Obama's strength isn't his slavish adherence to party line but his ability, issue by issue, to decide the right medicine at the right moment. If that makes you call him a centrist then so be it. Get over it already. He's nobody's man but his own."

I agree with Ellis. I think Obama is walking a tightrope, carefully juggling progressive ideas and centrist pragmatism. It's a difficult balancing act, but so far, he has pulled it off and maintained his freshness and credibility. In fact, he's so good at it, he makes it look downright easy. I'm not saying for a minute that progressives/liberals/lefties/dissenters/nonconformists (or whatever your chosen label might be) should refrain from criticizing Obama. Throughout the campaign, he has taken serious missteps and embraced dubious positions. And from time to time, he needs to feel pressure from principled people to put him back on the right track.

But I also think commentators on the left side of the spectrum have a responsibility to circle the wagons around Obama and keep their criticisms constructive. Too many folks on the Left have, for too long, viewed even reasonable compromise as a sin and they've aimed for a level of moral purity that simply does not exist in the charged and brutal world of American politics. As a third party supporter in my youth, I used to be one of those purists -- always attacking the notion that voters should support Democrats simply because they were the "lesser of two evils." Back in those days, I agreed with Michael Moore that American politics was a contest between the "evil of two lessers."

I have left my dogmatic moral purity behind with my youth, though, especially after I've seen what two terms of George W. Bush has done to America. Whatever you may think of Bill Clinton (and a quick perusal of my earlier Blog entires will show that I can be a pretty hard on Old Bubba), he was light years better than Dubya. Light years. My bottom line is: Goal No. 1: Get Obama in the White House. Goal No. 2: At that point, turn up the heat and keep the pressure on from the progressive side of the fence.


Anne Gilbert said...

I salute your closing remarks about getting Obama into the White House and once there, keeping his feet to the fire so that he keeps a really progressive agenda going. IOW, no "triangulation".

As for the Sixties, I lived through them, for better or worse. I remember that there were any number of "crazies" back then. I knew some of them. But you are right. Most of them were motivated by a desire to have the US live up to its ideals, whether those were expressied in various movements like civil rights, feminism, etc, which had their roots then, or dealing fairly and justly with the rest of the world. Which, of course meant that we should not be wasting the lives of young people in wars that have no purpose. Vietnam had no purpose that I could see, and I regularly protested against it, along with many others. The war in Iraq has no purpose either. and too many good minds have been wasted already in this senseless episode. The "wingnuts" see only the mass demonstrations and the "riots" and the "chaos"(sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, I guess), and want to suppose that this was al that the Sixties was "bout". But they fail to realize that much of what they now take for granted, in a way, e.g. more equal marriages, the acceptance of people like Martin Luther King, are a direct result of those times.
Anne G

Michael Balter said...

Great post, Andrew. What I find puzzling is that Obama began his move to the center at a time when every poll showed him at least 4 points and as much as 12 points (Newsweek poll) ahead of McCain. John Kerry also began waffling when he had everything going for him. It sometimes makes me think the Democrats want to lose.