07/11/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

To Win, Presidential Candidates Move ... Left

The punditocracy won't tell you, but Barack Obama and John McCain are moving to the Left.

Take Iraq. Sensing that voters did not react kindly to McCain's December remarks expressing comfort with U.S. troops remaining in Iraq for 100 years, he predicted in May that if he was president, "By January 2013, America has welcomed home most of the servicemen and women who have sacrificed terribly so that America might be secure in her freedom." He also changed his slogan to highlight "Peace," and released a TV ad in which he pronounced, "I hate war."

And on immigration, during the primary McCain said he would not vote for his own legislation providing a pathway to citizenship for those who immigrated illegally, to win votes from anti-immigrant conservatives. But now, he's embracing his pro-immigrant legislation again, calling it "my top priority yesterday, today and tomorrow."

Whereas Obama spent the first month of the general election campaign reiterating support for public investment in universal health care, renewable energy and other modernization of infrastructure, comparing his vision to major public works projects from progressive Presidents Jefferson, Lincoln and both Roosevelts.

On Iraq, Obama continues to argue for the same position he held throughout the primary: a gradual withdrawal of combat troops over 16 months and a total rejection of permanent military bases. (Attempts from conservative commentators to say he has shifted his position are false. They point to Obama foreign policy adviser's recent comment about the 16-month timetable, "That's not a deadline. That's a timetable." Such flexibility is not new. It was stated during the primaries on CBS' 60 Minutes, not exactly a low-profile platform. Obama was asked if he would "pull out according to that time table, regardless of the situation?" Obama responded, "No, I always reserve as commander in chief, the right to assess the situation.")

You may or may not be skeptical of the nuance. That's a matter of opinion. What's a matter of fact is Obama is running on the same position, opposing the policy of permanent occupation, as before.

Other issues where Obama is accused of moving rightward after the primaries -- such as gun rights, death penalty, faith-based initiatives, NAFTA and FISA -- he also has mainly reiterated previously held positions. With the exception of FISA, there's no movement.

He previously argued for different gun laws in different states and cities (a position Howard Dean advanced in his 2004 presidential run.) He writes in "Audacity of Hope" of support for "carefully tailored" faith-based initiatives and the death penalty for "beyond the pale" crimes including "the rape and murder of a child." His tone on NAFTA may have changed slightly, but his position of reform, not repeal, is the same.

Some of those positions wouldn't necessarily be considered liberal. But Obama never claimed to hold liberal positions on everything.

Even taking those positions into account, it's not plausible to argue Obama is trying to win by moving rightward when his campaign continues to be based on supporting a revitalized government role in creating jobs, fighting poverty, providing health coverage, generating clean energy, recruiting teachers, making college affordable and protecting retirement security -- not to mention revamping global diplomacy and rejecting permanent occupation of Iraq.

Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson disingenuously argues today in the W. Post that Obama has made a "head-snapping shift to the center [because America] remains a center-right country. And so Obama has shifted, trimmed or retreated on nearly every issue that won him the nomination."

That is factually wrong in every possible way.

In the aftermath of eight years of conservative failure led by Gerson's old boss, the distance between the average "liberal" voter and "moderate" voter has shrunk, and the distance between the average "moderate" voter and "conservative" voter is a gulf.

America has proven not to be the center-right country of Karl Rove's fantasies, but a country with a Progressive Majority.

Offering a clean break from failed conservatism is what is serving Obama so well, as he leads McCain in every poll.

Obama does not have to jettison to core planks of his platform to appeal to those moderate independent voters who did not participate in the primaries.

While McCain continues to have huge difficulty crafting positions that can appeal to both moderates and conservatives, forcing him to incoherently move Left and Right simultaneously. Still he recognizes that he cannot win simply by appealing to the conservative base. His rhetoric in some key areas has to move leftward for his political survival.

On the fundamental issues of any presidential election -- the role of our government and direction of our foreign policy -- it is the political center that moved to the left. The candidates are merely reacting accordingly.

Originally posted at the Campaign for America's Future blog