Left lacks leverage to stop Obama's rightward tack
His backtracking on a government-surveillance bill has outraged the liberal blogosphere.
Appeal to the party's base, secure the nomination, then tack back to the center for the general election. It's a time-honored tradition in American presidential politics. And in the past few weeks Barack Obama, far more than John McCain, has made such maneuvers a nearly daily feature of his campaign.Skip to next paragraph
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Time to unilaterally renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the free-trade agreement that many working Americans believe threatens or has already cost them their jobs? Not so fast, Senator Obama now says. No death penalty for child rapists? The Supreme Court got that one wrong, he says. And on the court's historic assertion of an individual right to bear arms, Obama signaled approval.
Perhaps his most risky move has been to backtrack on a promise to oppose a government-surveillance bill, the so-called FISA legislation (named after the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978), which provides retroactive immunity for phone companies that have helped the Bush administration in its warrantless wiretapping program.
The liberal blogosphere has lit up with outrage, bemoaning how the man who promised to move beyond politics as usual is, well, engaging in politics as usual. Some have vowed to refocus their energy and donations toward progressive candidates further down the ballot. But they will still vote for Obama, not Ralph Nader, the onetime darling of the left, and certainly not Senator McCain. Not voting is also off the table, given the stakes. And so, progressive activists say, Obama is likely to get away with his rightward shift.
But there are potential risks.
"The peril is not as much among the progressive base as it is among the general electorate," says David Sirota, author of the book "The Uprising." "What Obama is saying is, 'I'm a vacillating politician.' The public does not like politicians who try to nuance their way out of principled positions."
Obama has shown some responsiveness to the left's push back. In one recent brouhaha, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, an Obama supporter, took after McCain on a Sunday talk show, saying that the senator's Vietnam experience did not necessarily qualify him to be commander in chief. An Obama spokesman disavowed General Clark's remark, but after liberal standard-bearer MoveOn.org defended Clark, Obama backed off the condemnation of the general.
"That was a significant moment when Obama realized he had gone too far – or at least [he] pulled back," says Matt Stoller, a liberal blogger and political consultant. "If he continued to betray the core values of some of his most ardent supporters, I think it would eventually become a problem."
Arianna Huffington, doyenne of the liberal blogosphere, is less charitable. "The Obama campaign is making a very serious mistake," she writes. "Tacking to the center is a losing strategy."