Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Cage Match: Lurching or Sensible Turn?

Bob Herbert knocks Barack Obama for lurching to the center, while the Washington Post thinks it’s the right thing to do.

Mr. Herbert:

Only an idiot would think or hope that a politician going through the crucible of a presidential campaign could hold fast to every position, steer clear of the stumbling blocks of nuance and never make a mistake. But Barack Obama went out of his way to create the impression that he was a new kind of political leader — more honest, less cynical and less relentlessly calculating than most.

You would be able to listen to him without worrying about what the meaning of “is” is.

This is why so many of Senator Obama’s strongest supporters are uneasy, upset, dismayed and even angry at the candidate who is now emerging in the bright light of summer.

One issue or another might not have made much difference. Tacking toward the center in a general election is as common as kissing babies in a campaign, and lord knows the Democrats need to expand their coalition.


Mr. Obama is betting that in the long run none of this will matter, that the most important thing is winning the White House, that his staunchest supporters (horrified at the very idea of a President McCain) will be there when he needs them.

He seems to believe that his shifts and twists and clever panders — as opposed to bold, principled leadership on important matters — will entice large numbers of independent and conservative voters to climb off the fence and run into his yard.

Maybe. But that’s a very dangerous game for a man who first turned voters on by presenting himself as someone who was different, who wouldn’t engage in the terminal emptiness of politics as usual.

But Senator Obama is not just tacking gently toward the center. He’s lurching right when it suits him, and he’s zigging with the kind of reckless abandon that’s guaranteed to cause disillusion, if not whiplash.

The Washington Post:

Mr. Obama’s shift came when he was asked last week about his withdrawal plan, which he first proposed in late 2006, a time when Iraq appeared to be sliding into a sectarian civil war. Since then, a new U.S. counterinsurgency strategy has helped bring about a dramatic drop in violence, and the Iraqi government has gained control over most of the country. Among other things, Mr. Obama said “the pace of withdrawal would be dictated by the safety and security of our troops and the need to maintain stability” — an apparent acknowledgment that the hard-won gains of the last year should not be squandered. He also said that “when I go to Iraq, and have a chance to talk to some of the commanders on the ground, I’m sure I’ll have more information and will continue to refine my policies.”


In fact, Mr. Obama can’t afford not to update his Iraq policy. Once he has the conversations he’s promising with U.S. commanders, he will have plenty of information that “contradicts the notion” of his rigid plan. Iraq’s improvement means that American forces probably can be reduced next year, but it would be folly to begin a forced march out of the country without regard to the risks of renewed sectarian warfare and escalating intervention in the country by Iran and other of Iraq’s neighbors. The Democratic candidate is reportedly planning a visit to Iraq in the coming weeks. That will offer an opportunity for him to lay out a new position on the war that both distinguishes him from Mr. McCain and gives him the freedom to be an effective commander in chief.

I may be revealing my age-earned cynicism, but Mr. Obama’s statements are a reflection of two realities: people running for the presidency have to shift their positions for any number of reasons, including the coldly calculated changes to appeal to a broader audience when the primaries are over and the audience goes from being just the party faithful to the electorate in general. And second, because there might actually be a valid reason to reassess your views and objectives if the circumstances warrant. It would be amazingly thick-headed for a candidate to take a position and staunchly never budge, and disastrous for a president to do so. (As if the last seven years hasn’t been proof of that.)

I do agree with Mr. Herbert that the ham-handed way that Mr. Obama has dealt with this “refinement” makes it look like he’s being reactive to the taunts of the McCain campaign rather than using his own judgment and angering constituencies in the process. He may be right in thinking that they won’t abandon him in the long run, but it does test their trust, and he will sorely need that if he’s to be an effective leader in the Oval Office. Once bitten, twice shy.

For whatever reason he may have for the puzzlement over the reaction to his perceived lurch, Mr. Obama should have seen it coming and used it effectively to point out that for every so-called “flip-flop” he’s done, John McCain has done many more; he’s just gotten down to a fine art (not to mention bought and paid for fawning press coverage). Barack Obama is learning that in such things, it’s not the act itself but the execution that tells the tale.