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What Obama Can Learn From Bubba

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The bitter ideological debate over Barack Obama's decision to support to controversial national security wiretapping legislation and other "moves to the center" has masked the real dangers of shifting positions during an election.

Most of the debate has been between advocates of "centrist" and "left" strategies, pitting those who believe Bill Clinton's kind of "triangulation" or moderation is the only way to win a presidential contest against those calling for more full-throated advocacy of economically redistributive, socially/culturally/morally/racially liberal, and/or progressive-populist stands.

In fact, the question for Democrats is less ideological than strategic.

Clinton won the presidency in 1992 with a political gameplan developed over many years -- a so-called Southern governor's strategy -- that stressed "ending welfare as we know it," coupling "rights" with "responsibilities," and granting priority to those who "work hard and play by the rules." Clinton set out to define his candidacy as independent of interest group liberalism, and, while campaigning, de-emphasized the more extreme and contentious elements of the rights revolution. Clinton maintained that stance through election day.

The current political climate has forced -- and permitted -- Democrats to shift their emphasis to the highly unpopular war in Iraq. As Glenn Greenwald points out, Democrat Chris Murphy beat Republican Connecticut Rep. Nancy Johnson in 2006 running on a platform of "ending the Iraq War, opposing Bush policies on eavesdropping and torture, and rejecting what he called the 'false choice between war and civil liberties.'" Similarly, in the seemingly rock-ribbed Republican district of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Bill Foster in a special election earlier this year "made opposition to the Iraq War a centerpiece of his campaign -- and emphatically opposed both warrantless eavesdropping and telecom immunity -- and then won a special election."

While Clinton on one side and Murphy and Foster on the other represent different approaches to winning office, they share the crucial characteristic of consistency.

Clinton's 1992 primary bid for the Democratic nomination and his campaign against George H. W. Bush were remarkable in their consistency. During the '92 campaign itself, Clinton, starting out at the center, displayed little or no "backtracking to the right" that many party strategists suggest is essential in the transition from primary to general election contests. In a series of policy lectures at Georgetown University in 1991 and early 1992, Clinton staked out the center with a vengeance, and never let go until the presidency was his.

In a development directly relevant to a potential Obama administration, Clinton began to shift positions almost immediately upon winning election, however, moving left and drawing attention to redistributive tax policies without a promised middle class tax cut; to at-the-time controversial gender equity issues (Zoë Baird, Lani Guinier); his wife's co-presidency; abortion rights; gay rights; pork-barrel spending; postponement of welfare reform, and so forth. The public quickly turned on him, and Democrats lost both the House and Senate to the successful Gingrich-led Republican Revolution of 1994.

What this suggests is that changing positions is a highly risky political strategy.

Mississippi Democratic strategist Jere Nash noted that in Obama's case, "it matters more that he is consistent than what his original position was vs. what his final position becomes. Or, he admits he has changed his mind because circumstances have changed. My own view is that [now], four months out, is too late to 'tack.' The GOP has thousands of things they can say about Obama to turn him into a liberal, even without FISA and guns (and even if they didn't have it, they'd make it up)...

"Folks in the middle of the bell curve who have become attracted to Obama are attracted to him because he represents something different, not from a public policy perspective but from the perspective of all of those intangible qualities we characterize a leader by. If he begins to contradict himself or change his mind or appear groveling to special interest groups, then he will slowly undermine what has heretofore been one of his signal strengths."

Another Democratic strategist with deep roots in the South, James Duffy, voiced considerable concern about Obama's changing stands:

"I honestly don't know what to think. He wins the primary by being the new face, the anti-Washington voice. Now, he is beginning to act in a completely different way... What happened to the new voice, the new way, the desire for change? Given the mood in the country, it may not matter, but for my money he is seriously undercutting his basic appeal."

Managing the shift from the primary election, in which voters have stronger partisan commitments on issues running the gamut from Iraq to health care, to the general is one of the more difficult processes in politics.

"Tacking to the right is the great summer pastime of Democratic nominees, particularly those who aspire to win electoral votes in places like Virginia and Colorado," said Yale political scientists Donald Green. "The risk for Senator Obama is that he is seen as shooting from the hip on the issues that arise daily, as opposed to stating his moderate positions ahead of time and indicating how they fit within a broad set of principles... The fact is that Americans vote less on issues than on persona, and one cannot be seen as a flip-flopper or a neophyte."

Taking a similar position, University of Virginia political scientist Sidney Milkis argues: "As the first African-American to receive a party's nomination for president, and with a very consistent liberal record, Obama has some discretion to take moderate positions on certain issues." But, Milkis contends, "there must be a 'nub,' as Lincoln put it, which he will not compromise....On certain core issues, therefore, the Iraq War and health care, in particular, I do not think he has that much room to compromise. No responsible candidate can guarantee exactly when all troops will be withdrawn; nonetheless, I think Obama has to commit to a fundamentally different Iraq and foreign policy than the GOP and McCain are offering. Similarly, I think he has to stay the course on pursuing fundamental reform of the health care system."

Robert J. Blendon, Harvard Professor of Health Policy and Political Analysis and director of the Harvard Opinion Research Program, made the case that there are three policy areas where Obama could face major upheavals among his own supporters if he substantially alters course: "These are 1) ending the war in Iraq and bringing the troops home, 2) re-negotiating U.S. trade agreements to make them fairer to American workers and 3) supporting a woman's right to choose on abortion."

Conversely, Blendon argued that the electorate is seeking moderation is two other areas, the economy and national security: "Key blocs of voters are looking for an activist moderate in the economy -- someone who will do targeted things to improve what is seen as a multi-faceted decline in American economic life. However, that candidate cannot be seen as advocating huge re-distributive tax-and-spend programs that would raise taxes on a range of middle-income Americans, or favoring large new regulatory interventions by government in the American economic system... On national security, key swing voters are looking for a president who can both protect us from perceived overseas threats and repair some of our apparently troubled relationships with other countries."

The issue that has provoked the most controversy for Obama is the reversal of his stand on a provision in national security legislation -- the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) -- granting telecommunications companies retroactive immunity from lawsuits based on their past cooperation with the Bush administration running wiretaps without warrants.

"I strongly oppose retroactive immunity in the FISA bill," Obama declared in a January 28 statement issued during his primary fight with Hillary Clinton. "No one should get a free pass to violate the basic civil liberties of the American people - not the President of the United States, and not the telecommunications companies that fell in line with his warrantless surveillance program."

On June 20, however, Obama announced:

"Given the grave threats that we face, our national security agencies must have the capability to gather intelligence and track down terrorists before they strike, while respecting the rule of law and the privacy and civil liberties of the American people. There is also little doubt that the Bush Administration, with the cooperation of major telecommunications companies, has abused that authority and undermined the Constitution by intercepting the communications of innocent Americans without their knowledge or the required court orders...

"[The legislation] is not all that I would want. But given the legitimate threats we face, providing effective intelligence collection tools with appropriate safeguards is too important to delay. So I support the compromise, but do so with a firm pledge that as President, I will carefully monitor the program, review the report by the Inspectors General, and work with the Congress to take any additional steps I deem necessary to protect the lives - and the liberty - of the American people."

FISA legislation is an arcane subject, and very few members of the public are aware of the details of the debate, making the controversy less a liability than would be the case if Obama shifted gears on an issue of high public salience, such as health care or the war.

"Am I bummed, am I pissed that Obama and most of our Democratic leaders caved in on FISA? Absolutely, and there's nothing wrong with saying so. But am I going to 'hold Obama accountable' for this action? Well, no, frankly," wrote Mike Lux on OpenLeft. "[I]n the last five months of a Presidential general, I get totally focused on one thing: winning the damn election. The stakes are simply too high. Winning the election won't solve all our problems, or give us a suddenly progressive America, but it at least gives us a chance to make progress. If I have to swallow my anger on an issue I care about, well, to be blunt, I'm down for that, too."