Left lacks leverage to stop Obama's rightward tack
His backtracking on a government-surveillance bill has outraged the liberal blogosphere.
WASHINGTON — 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.
Time to unilaterally renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the 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's 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.
On Thursday, the longtime Iraq war opponent showed new flexibility on his plan to withdraw troops within 16 months, saying that he could refine his policies after he visits the country later this summer.
The liberal blogosphere has lighted 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 farther 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." "Obama is saying ,'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 pushback. 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."
She cites the unsuccessful centrist approaches of recent Democratic nominees Al Gore and John Kerry as well as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's unsuccessful bid for the 2008 Democratic nomination. In the case of Senator Clinton, her centrism was more pronounced in foreign affairs – most notably, her 2002 vote to authorize military action against Iraq – but that was enough to jump-start a successful insurgency by Obama, who has opposed the war from the start.
Then there's the other Clinton – Bill – who won two terms as president as a centrist.
Liberals argue that Bill Clinton won both contests with pluralities, winning in 1992 with just 43 percent of the vote (because of the strong independent candidacy of Ross Perot) and 49 percent in 1996. With no strong third-party candidate on the horizon in 2008, chances are the winner will need a majority of the vote. While most national polls show Obama with a modest lead over McCain, few have shown him winning a majority.
Still, these are the dog days of the campaign. Many voters have not tuned in yet and won't until the end-of-summer conventions, if not the final days of the campaign. This is the time when campaigns test out themes and fine-tune their positions before heading into the fall push.
So far, polls show no obvious movement of voters based on Obama's repositioning. But independent pollster John Zogby sees a particular risk among young voters, who have turned out in droves for Obama and may be disillusioned by his display of old-style politics.
In the end, though, this election will be fought and won in the middle, says Mr. Zogby. "So both Obama and McCain are going to be in the middle."
For Obama, how he gets there could be key to whether he keeps the faith with his supporters. Some issues matter to the left more than others.
"Labor is frustrated about NAFTA and the civil-liberties groups are frustrated about FISA," says Mr. Stoller. "There's also dismay about his decision on the death penalty and sort of some dismay about his faith-based initiatives. But the real core frustration is coming from the NAFTA and FISA decisions, because those are actually reversals."
On FISA, the "netroots" opposition is especially fierce; Obama's backtrack on the filibuster represents a capitulation to the conventional wisdom on national security and to big business, activists say. But in a twist reflective of the Obama campaign's embrace of the Internet, the senator's own Web portal – my.barackobama.com – has become the virtual gathering spot for opposition to his new FISA position. A group called "Senator Obama – Please Vote NO on Telecom Immunity – Get FISA Right" was started on June 25 and by July 3 was the largest group on the website.
The Obama campaign says it welcomes the feedback, and is happy to provide a Web vehicle even for critics. But the moment of truth will come when Obama faces the FISA vote, scheduled this week.