It took me a second to recover my breath when I received this email from a leading journalist, critic and fervent Obama backer:
I've supported you in my capacity as a journalist from the day you declared, and in spite of struggling with my finances; I've sacrificed to pay your campaign like it was a bill. But if you support this assault on the Constitution in the guise of this FISA bill, it's over. I will immediately have my bank stop any further funds going to your campaign, and as a journalist I will feel honor bound to inform my readers that yet another politician has caved in."
The writer as he aptly notes has raised money, made personal donations, and sent out countless emails touting Obama. He has often raked me over the coals publicly and privately for my blistering political criticisms of Obama. But Obama's back flip to support the absolutely terrible FISA bill was too much for him to stomach.
Obama's pirouette on the bill also drew a mild squeal from Left Obama backers such as Alternet, MoveOn.org, blog OpenLeft.com and the Huffington Post about betrayal and a tepid call for progressives to start holding him accountable. They have virtually turned the Obama campaign into a personal life and death crusade.
Obama's reversal on FISA capped a painful week for them. In quick succession he rejected public financing, blasted the Supreme Court's decision striking down the death penalty for child rape and in the process proclaimed that he's not against "a blanket" prohibition on the death penalty. He touted his Bible acumen with Christian fundamentalists, back pedaled from his pledge to sit down for talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, said he wouldn't support the reinstatement of the fairness doctrine and endorsed white conservative Georgia Rep John Barrow in his election battle with Regina Thomas, a liberal black state representative. The most painful Obama flop is Iraq. His much played up alleged anti-Iraq war stance was the biggest single reason the Left bought him. He now says he favors a glacially slow, vaguely laid out timetable for a phased withdrawal from Iraq.
The explanation for his policy shifts, back flips, and muddled statements is that this is an effort to parry a McCain prime attack point that he's a too liberal tax and spend, appeasing Democrat, woo fence straddling centrist to conservative independents, and do fence mending with Hillary Democrats. Or that he is merely conforming to his centrist, Beltway insider political beliefs.
It's all of the above. He is simply adhering to the ancient political axiom that Democratic presidential candidates run to the Left and Republicans to the right in the embryonic stages of the campaign. Then when the chips are down they move quickly to the center, the conservative center that is.
It can be no other way. The American electorate is staid, traditional, and moderate to conservative. It will not elect presidents who are on the fringe on the big ticket issues of the economy, foreign policy, health care, the environment, civil rights and civil liberties.
In Obama's case it's even more crucial that he run to the center, even right. There are three tormenting X factors which can easily translate into voting booth negatives for him.
They are race, his inexperience on foreign policy, and what he fears most, his past record as a relatively liberal Democrat. No matter what the polls say and despite the very premature talk in much of the media about Election Day landsides and routs of McCain, no one knows how the election will be decided. Take the polls as a cautionary tale. A much hailed recent poll showed Obama with a 15 percent lead over McCain. In 1988, three months before the election Democratic presidential contender Michael Dukakis led his Republican opponent Vice President George Bush Sr. by 16 percentage points in polls. There was much joy and confident talk among Democrats of a Dukakis landslide based on voter's presumed longing for change, and large scale voter fatigue and fury over class and racial polarization during the eight Reagan years. Bush Sr. won.
Some on the Left are mildly disappointed with Obama only because they had an inflated, starry-eyed hope, even desperate yearning, to believe that he was the man on the white horse who would magically undue Bush's economic and foreign policy wreckage. This expectation was unfair to Obama. Even when uttering his best shake up the Washington establishment stump rhetoric, Obama has never made any promise to make big sweeping changes. He could not have come as far as fast he did without engaging in the traditional deal making, political horse trading, and policy spins to corporate donors and Beltway insiders. This was confirmed when Democratic Party regulars publicly backslapped Obama for his recent moderate policy shifts.
The Left can moan over Obama's political role reversals all it wants. But the hard reality is that presidential wannabes routinely do policy back flips to win. It's simply part of the American political game.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His forthcoming book is How the GOP Can Keep the White House, How the Democrats can Take it Back (Middle Passage Press, July 2008).