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

Presidential Campaigning on the Down-Low?

As predicted by Obama supporters and detractors alike, the junior senator from Illinois is now catching flak from all sides for each position he takes -- on ethanol; on Israel and AIPAC; on a strategy for ending the US occupation of Iraq; and most recently, his campaign's apparent shunning of a Muslim presence in a photo opp.

In general, Obama supporters are split between the Criticism Is Healthy School and the Circle the Wagons Camp.

"This is about winning, not feeling good," as Logan Nakyanzi Pollard put it yesterday on this site when discussing the Muslim flap. "Obama is simply being pragmatic about how he is being perceived by the larger public, a public that does not wholly embrace Islam."

Addressing the same issue, my friend and former colleague at CNN Lucy Carrigan wrote: "There is no doubt that the messengers of disinformation are extremely effective. But that does not mean that the Obama Campaign should wave the white flag and surrender."

I side with Lucy -- and with folks like Jim Hightower -- who say that asking one's candidate to stand up for what is right is not petty, obstructionist, or blindly idealistic. Taking a stand for American Muslims is taking a stand for all Americans, full stop. It is pragmatism in its purest form.

It is pragmatic to ask one's candidate to explain and support his positions. And it's one's right to push back when one believes he's violating core principles that the candidate himself has laid out. That's not comforting the enemy; that's strengthening the presumptive leader. We are voting for a president, a politician, not beatifying a savior, after all.

Any citizen is entitled to ask, If my candidate shuns me in public, what will he do for me -- or to me -- when safely ensconced behind a wall of Secret Service agents? People of color -- and women of all hues -- have been accused of raining on the Democratic parade in the past for doing this. But when we don't challenge "our" candidate, history shows that we get ignored and discounted, plain and simple.

"Obama's not going to do it for us," progressive commentator Jim Hightower said in a WNYC radio interview about Obama's promises of change. "No politician does it for us; they do it to us. So the only change comes when we go inside and we keep demanding that change. That's the only way that it has ever worked in our country." Preach, Jim.

Hightower admitted to being less than thrilled with Obama for his decision to opt out of the public campaign financing system. But Hightower listened to, and grudgingly accepted, Obama's explanation for his about-face: because John McCain will reap bushels of cash from 527 organizations, which is allowed under the "public" system". That's money that will be used to hurt and smear Obama, and he needs to be able to counter it.

I suspect that some folks -- closet racists, campaign finance purists, Naderites -- are looking for any excuse not to back Obama. Public financing may provide it. But even if one disagrees with his call, Obama did a principled thing: he made a tough choice, and then he defended it publicly. That's democracy in action.

And practicing real democracy may just appeal to potential voters who are sick and tired of the traditional politics of the down-low, practiced so artfully by both Republicans and Democrats: Say what you must in public to get elected; do as you wish in private to stay in power.

To me, "winning," isn't about simply launching a black man into the Oval Office -- and I say this as a black man who is keenly aware of both the symbolism and the stakes of Barack Obama's candidacy. This election is about electing a person who makes hard decisions based on both principle and reason -- and one who has the courage and patience to explain those decisions. It's about walking the walk, not just talking the talk.