Barack Obama's candidacy is an ongoing series of calculations and adjustments with a single desired outcome: victory. And, controversial as this may sound, I have no problem with that - if (and this is a big "if") it doesn't over-calculate and bring harm to itself or the party.
Obama hasn't come near that point with the actions of the last week, but he is playing "chicken" with his own fate and that of his party. Obama appears to be a extremely centered person. But, as any meditator can tell you, the process of "centering" can paradoxically cause you to lose your balance. How? If you try too hard.
The real problem isn't that Obama indicated he'd vote for a so-called "compromise" FISA bill that gives the Right 90% of what it wants. The problem is that he'll gain absolutely no benefit from having done so. Here's why:
- The GOP will still hammer him as "soft on terror." They'll use his willingness to negotiate with hostile leaders, his Iraq withdrawal plan, and anything else they can get their hands on.
- With these changes, they'll also hit him as a "flip-flopper" who'll change his position for political expendiency. In fact, they've already started.
They're treating him the same way they treated former Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a fine public servant who bent over backward to work with the GOP on issues of war and terror. Daschle had genuine military and intelligence credentials as an Air Force intelligence officer, too - yet he lost to a businessman with no military experience. John Thune claimed Daschle was a virtual traitor who "emboldened the enemy" by questioning the Administration's execution of the war.
It's the same Republican Party now that it was then. That's why frequent Obama collaborator Sam Brownback is now falsely claiming Obama's never worked in a true "bipartisan" fashion, ignoring their extensive joint efforts.
The FISA vote's been delayed. That means Obama still has an opportunity to do several things differently:
- Make a new assertion - if we sacrifice our freedoms and our laws, the terrorists win. Obama's been eloquent on this point before, and he can say it again here even more strongly: We can protect ourselves and still be the America we love. In fact, to do anything less is a betrayal of our principles.
- Come up with an approach that's really new and bipartisan. If the Obama campaign has decided it's too risky to oppose telco immunity, than accept it - but with conditions. He can say that he's willing to consider immunity for the telco's if full details of their activities are revealed to a bipartisan working group, and the group then recommends it. That would address any suspicion that the Republicans are hiding some dirty dealings. (They probably won't take the deal, either, which means he can call them obstructionist - and then raise questions of corruption and cronyism.)
- Link this issue to McCain's integrity problem. Everybody wants to put those accusations of McCain infidelity behind them. It's a sleazy topic (and an icky thought.) But the real story of his association with Vicki Iseman is his ongoing use of lobbyists' airplanes and money. Surrogates should be discussing the unseemliness of seeking financial relief (which is what civil immunity really is) for companies that have been wining and dining Sen. McCain.
Which raises the (rhetorical) question: Has McCain been granted "retroactive immunity" from the press for his associations with lobbyists for telco's and other big businesses?
Here's the bottom line: Obama's in danger of making the same mistake Democrats have been making for the last eight years. He's running the risk of letting them define the narrative. That's exactly the criticism some of us levelled against the Clinton campaign's Kyl/Lieberman vote and hawkish rhetoric.
(Side note: If last week's actions are the fruit of the new collaboration unveiled in "Unity, New Hampshire," the end result will have some of us feeling it should've taken place in "Intercourse, Pennsylvania." But fair is fair: Hillary did a terrific job and is back in the running for VP.)
The biggest danger Obama exposed himself to this week isn't that he alienated his base, although diminishing his intensity of support is a genuine risk. It's that he's playing an uncharacteristically weak game of chess. He needs to look a couple moves ahead: This unusually proactive candidate could find himself painted into a corner, where he looks like a flip-flopper if he accommodates and is labelled "weak" if he doesn't.
Obama's got a lot to lose all of a sudden. That means he's going to have to fight the temptation to play it safe even when it may be unwise. The Republicans know that, and they're going to try to get inside his head with it. He'll need to remember in the coming weeks and months that sometimes the best defense is still a good offense.
(related post - Blue Alert: Obama and the Dems Need a Strategy for War and Terror)