The Republicans are making a big mistake by assuming they can successfully depict Barack Obama as an out-of-the-mainstream leftist. They are making it easier for him to move to the center, where he actually has been for most of his years in politics.
In fact, by the time the fall campaign is over, I predict Obama's reelection campaign will seem more like Ronald Reagan's in 1984 and Bill Clinton's in 1996, than leftist community organizer Saul Alinsky in 1960.
Indeed, with their extreme and ludicrous caricature of Barack Obama as a "socialist," the Republicans have ironically lowered the bar so much that they have made it far easier for Obama to claim the center, even the center-right. Meanwhile, the Republican presidential candidates and the congressional Republicans have leap-frogged each other to the far, far right even of traditional GOP fiscal conservatives.
So what does Obama have in common with Reagan and Clinton? Finding votes between the 40-yard lines, that's what.
Despite the mythology about Reagan's anti-tax fiscal conservatism and as a Republican partisan, Reagan was responsible for the largest tax increase in U.S. history in 1982, primarily by closing corporate tax loopholes. He said in August 1982: "The goal is simple -- just to see to it that everyone pays his fair share." Sound familiar?
A few months later, he sponsored and passed the Highway Revenue Act of 1982, which temporarily doubled the gasoline tax. And all this was done at the time of the deep 1981-82 recession, when unemployment reached 10 percent. He believed it was OK to raise taxes in a recession in order to reduce the deficit and the national debt. Sound familiar?
And then there was the bipartisan Reagan, who cut a deal with Democratic Speaker Tip O'Neill to ensure the solvency of Social Security for another generation. The deal involved raising the retirement age, raising payroll taxes, raising taxes on distilled spirits and -- get this -- taxing the wealthiest seniors. Sound familiar?
And what about Bill Clinton?
Clinton defied his left Democratic Party base in 1995-96 by supporting NAFTA and welfare reform, then cut a historic bargain with then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) to balance the budget, spurring an economic boom and converting the $300 billion deficit he inherited in 1993 into a trillion-dollar surplus when he left office (with a 65 percent job approval rating) in January 2001.
So does Obama have to flip-flop in order to move to the center in his presidential reelection year of 2012?
No -- ignore the extreme Republican rhetoric about Obama being a leftist or a "socialist" and look at the facts.
Obama began his presidency by supporting Independent Democrat Joe Lieberman's (Conn.) retaining of seniority in the Senate, despite Lieberman's support for his Republican opponent in the recent presidential race, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) -- infuriating his party's most hateful purist left base. He kept Guantanamo open and sanctioned targeted assassinations by drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including that of an American citizen.
Most important, he supported an all-private-insurance national healthcare system, rejecting the public option, using private competition on "exchanges" as the means to reduce insurance costs -- sounding very much like a believer in free markets, not "command and control" socialism.
As I have written before, there is one glaring weakness in Obama's ability to attract the broad center and the independent voters who decide elections, and that is his failure to endorse and fight for the Simpson-Bowles Deficit Commission's bipartisan recommendations to attack head on the nation's $15 trillion national debt. This is one of the great moral issues of our time -- we cannot leave payment of our credit card spending to our children and grandchildren.
If Obama makes his campaign about jobs and debt reduction -- and endorses Simpson-Bowles in his Democratic National Convention acceptance speech -- he can seize the center and win the bulk of independent voters, and thus stands a good chance of not only winning reelection, but doing so by landslide margins against a Republican nominee who by then will have painted himself into the far-right corners of the American electorate.
Cross-posted from The Hill.
# # # #
Mr. Davis is the principal in the Washington D.C. law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, which specializes in strategic legal crisis management. He served as President Clinton's Special Counsel in 1996-98 and as a member of President Bush's Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in 2006-07. He is the author of the forthcoming book to be published by Simon & Schuster, "Crisis Tales -- Five Rules for Handling Scandals in Business, Politics and Life." He can be found on Facebook and Twitter (@LannyDavis).
Follow Lanny Davis on Twitter: www.twitter.com/lannydavis