Mr. Obama's move to middle is smart politics

July 10, 2008|By CLARENCE PAGE

Until recently, one of the biggest raps against Sen. Barack Obama from conservatives was his delicate dance around any issue that might upset his core constituents. How can he claim a break from "politics as usual," they said, if he wasn't willing to upset the left? They can't say that anymore. Now they say he's flip-flopped.

That's OK. If you want to please everybody, you don't belong in politics. Mr. Obama's bigger worry is the old slogan of liberal commentator Jim Hightower, a former Texas officeholder: "There ain't nothing in the middle of the road but a yellow line and dead armadillos."

In recent weeks, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee has taken that risky road. He has softened or abandoned his earlier positions on a parade of issues, including wiretaps, abortion, trade with Mexico and Canada, gun control and public funding of his own campaign.

Liberal bloggers, such as Arianna Huffington of The Huffington Post, have howled that Mr. Obama is selling out the left. But viewed another way, he's buying into the middle. He's reaching for what former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has called the "sensible center," that big, broad place in the political middle where most American voters live.

Ironically, Mr. Obama's best ally in this venture is his presumptive Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain, whose supporters have cast Mr. Obama as a "flip-flopper," just as they branded Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004.

Mr. McCain has his own easily remembered flip-flops. He opposed extending President Bush's tax cuts before he more recently favored them. He has softened his opposition on offshore oil drilling. He has shifted to a more punitive stance on illegal immigration after a bill he favored failed to pass.

Much of Mr. Obama's perceived shift in positions comes because he was not pressed hard on the issues earlier. He navigated the primaries as a Rorschach candidate, an ink-blot test in which Democratic voters tended to see what they wanted to see, not always where he actually stood on various issues.

For example, he told NBC's Tim Russert last September that his Iraq pullout plans would be subject to changing "conditions on the ground." That's sensible. A candidate unwilling to consider changing conditions would be castigated as too stubborn.

On another hot-button issue, Mr. Obama said he did not think "mental distress" should qualify as a threat to "the health of the mother" in late-term abortions. Yet there's no question that he's a bigger ally of abortion rights than Mr. McCain, an avowed opponent.

But the issue that filled the e-mail bag on the Obama campaign's social networking Web site, MyBarackObama.com, was Mr. Obama's reversal of his promise to filibuster against the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which was passed by the House last month. The biggest objection by Mr. Obama and other critics is a provision that would allow federal judges to grant immunity from civil lawsuits to the large telecommunication companies that cooperated with the National Security Agency's now-defunct warrantless wiretapping program.

Mr. Obama invited critics to object on his Web site, and many eagerly - and angrily - wrote in. Yet, as Morton H. Halperin, executive director of the Open Society Policy Center, argued in a New York Times op-ed, "the alternative to Congress passing this bill is Congress enacting far worse legislation that the Senate had already passed by a filibuster-proof margin, and which a majority of House members were on record as supporting."

Like Mr. Obama, Mr. Halperin isn't totally satisfied with the current bill. But Mr. Obama can argue that if he is elected, he has a chance to improve it.

That's why Mr. Obama appears to be following President Richard Nixon's old dictum: Run toward your party's base in the primaries, then move back to the center for the general election. Bill Clinton did the same, calling it "triangulation." Mr. Obama is taking a risk by following the same strategy, but he's smarter to lurch to the middle of the road in midsummer than to risk becoming roadkill in the fall.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears regularly in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

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