Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Obama's Move to Right Shows Self-Defeating Weakness

July 1, 2008, 7:30 a.m.

What If It Turns Out That . . .

. . . Liberals Tacking to the Right is a Dated, Failed Strategy That Doesn't Even Work?


Nicholas Johnson, "Change We Can No Longer Believe In," June 22, 2008

Nicholas Johnson, "Holding Obama's Feet to the Fireside Chat,"
June 24, 2008.

Nicholas Johnson, "The Bundling Business," June 26, 2008.

Nicholas Johnson, "Will the Real Obama Stand Up -- For Us?" June 27, 2008.

Nicholas Johnson, "Pragmatic Idealism," June 28, 2008.

Nicholas Johnson, "Obama's Geometry: Triangulation," June 30, 2008.]

With the transformation of Senator Obama's campaign from a primary campaign to a general election campaign the public's and media's perception is that he's been making some pretty sharp turns to the right on such subjects as NAFTA, public financing of campaigns, government funding of faith-based programs, the death penalty, Israel, tax cuts for corporations, regulation of guns, FISA and immunity for telephone companies caught illegally spying on Americans.

This blog -- which has been a supporter of Senator Obama -- has been exploring the issues this raises with regard to political campaigning in general, Senator Obama's campaign in particular, and his most effective winning strategies. (See links, above.) So have many others (most of whom were also at least leaning in Obama's direction) in the mainstream media and blogosphere.

Today's blog entry addresses the possibility that when liberals shift to the right in general elections they lose; that whatever else may be said about the ethics of electorate manipulation, it's a failed strategy.

But first, to recap, yesterday the entry laid out four categories of voter response to a candidate's change in positions -- to which Stephen Ducat provided a fifth:

1. My candidate doesn't support all my positions. Few sophisticated "political people" would express this objection. They are satisfied with the Rolling Stones' advice: "You can't always get what you want/But if you try sometimes you might find/You get what you need." For them, elections have always involved the compromise of picking the "least-worst." But there are some voters who would rather stay home, or cast a protest third-party vote, than vote for someone who's less than their perfect, ideal candidate.

2. There's one issue that's a deal breaker for me. Folks on either side of an emotionally charged issue, such as abortion, sometimes feel that who may end up getting appointed to the Supreme Court, say, trumps for them the candidates' positions on all other issues combined. Others are more willing to give a little on their most important issue so long as the candidate is "right on the issues" with regard to everything else they care about.

3. My candidate is shifting his/her positions from the primary to the general election campaign. However discouraging it may be, most voters have come to accept that some shift in their candidates' positions from primary to general is just a natural part of real politique in America.

4. It turns out my candidate is a very different person, with very different positions and approaches, from what they represented themselves to be. Some voters feel essentially betrayed when they discover they've been manipulated into supporting a candidate based on that candidate's either clearly expressed or vaguely implied misrepresentations. Such voters may respond by voting for someone else, staying home, or at a minimum cutting back on or eliminating their campaign contributions and volunteer time. This is most serious when the candidate's "brand" has been one of courage, character, change, idealism, high moral ground, progressive populism, and a "new kind of politics" -- as was the case with Obama.

To which Stephen Ducat has added,

5. Apparently my candidate "does not believe in his own ability to reframe certain key issues in a way that makes . . . liberal principles intellectually clear and emotionally compelling." In other words, it's not that Obama actually holds and advocates conservative Republican beliefs; and it's not that he's willing to do so just to get elected. The problem is that he either doesn't have, or at least is not willing to show us, the leadership qualities we need in a president who can move our country in a more rational and progressive direction. Apparently, notwithstanding his Harvard Law School education and record, either he doesn't have the ability or he isn't willing to put in the effort, to come up with compelling ways to sell the public, and lead the political establishment, toward innovative reforms that will better serve the public interest.
Stephen Ducat, "Understanding Obama's Recent Right Turn," Huffington Post, June 29, 2008.

And Compromising Principles Isn't Even a Winning Strategy

This morning we examine a sixth suggestion from Glenn Greenwald.

You may think it's morally reprehensible for a candidate to misrepresent who he or she is, and the positions they hold, for the purpose of manipulating voters, who would not otherwise have done so, into supporting them. Or, you may think that's just good old pragmatic politics.

Glenn Greenwald suggests we need to put those considerations aside and more thoroughly examine the data and answers to three questions: (1) "did that strategy ever work?" and, if so, (2) "have the times changed sufficiently that it no longer works?" (3) If a candidate wants (or needs) to project "strength" can it be better done by appearing to drift toward, and ultimately adopt, Republican positions (on national security, torture, war, and spying on Americans) or by consistently opposing those positions?

Could it be that by his "move to the center" Senator Obama is not only alienating his most fervent former supporters -- now feeling something more akin to betrayal than mere buyers' remorse -- but he is also projecting weakness rather than "strength" to the Independents and Republicans looking for a "strong" presidential candidate?

(Greenwald also refers in this piece to Senator John Kerry's campaign in 2004, a subject I addressed at the time in Nicholas Johnson, "What's Kerry Thinking?" May 15, 2004.)

Here are some excerpts from his article:

. . . In 2006, [Republican Congresswoman Nancy] Johnson [who had served 12 terms from a Republican district, and beat her challenger in 2004 by 22 points] was challenged by a 31-year-old Democrat, Chris Murphy, who ran on a platform of, among other things, ending the Iraq War, opposing Bush policies on eavesdropping and torture, and rejecting what he called the "false choice between war and civil liberties." Johnson outspent her Democratic challenger by a couple million dollars, and based her campaign on fear-mongering ads focusing on Murphy's opposition to warrantless eavesdropping . . ..

Johnson's final margin of defeat was 12 points. Despite continuing to represent a tough, split district, Rep. Murphy -- as he runs for re-election for the first time -- recently voted against passage of the FISA/telecom amnesty bill, obviously unafraid that such Terrorism fear-mongering works any longer.

That pattern has repeated itself over and over. In the 2006 midterm election, Karl Rove repeatedly made clear that the GOP strategy rested on making two National Security issues front and center in the midterm campaign: Democrats' opposition to warrantless eavesdropping and their opposition to "enhanced interrogation techniques" against Terrorists. Not only did the Democrats swat away those tactics, taking away control of both houses of Congress in 2006, but more unusually, not a single Democratic incumbent in either the House or Senate -- not one -- lost an election. . . .

Earlier this year, Bill Foster made opposition to the Iraq War a centerpiece of his campaign -- and emphatically opposed both warrantless eavesdropping and telecom immunity -- and then won a special election to replace Denny Hastert in his bright red Illinois district.

As the 2008 election approaches . . . it's actually difficult to identify [Democrats] who have any real chance of losing. That's how weakened the GOP brand is and how vehemently the country has rejected their ideology and politics -- in every realm, including national security.

So what, then, is the basis for the almost-unanimously held Beltway conventional view that Democrats generally, and Barack Obama particularly, will be politically endangered unless they adopt the Bush/Cheney approach to Terrorism and National Security, which -- for some reason -- is called "moving to the Center"? There doesn't appear to be any basis for that view. It's just an unexamined relic from past times, the immovable, uncritical assumption of Beltway strategists and pundits who can't accept that it isn't 1972 anymore -- or even 2002.

Beyond its obsolescence, this "move-to-the-center" cliché ignores the extraordinary political climate prevailing in this country, in which more than 8 out of 10 Americans believe the Government is fundamentally on the wrong track and the current President is one of the most unpopular in American history, if not the most unpopular. The very idea that Bush/Cheney policies are the "center," or that one must move towards their approach in order to succeed, ignores the extreme shifts in public opinion generally regarding how our country has been governed over the last seven years. . . .

[W]as John Kerry's narrow 2004 loss to George Bush due to the perception that Kerry -- who ran as fast as he could towards the mythical Center -- was Soft on Terrorism? Or was it due to the understandable belief that his rush to the Center meant that he stood for nothing, that he was afraid of his own views -- the real hallmark, the very definition, of weakness?

By the time of the 2004 election, . . . [Bush said] "Even when we don't agree, at least you know what I believe and where I stand."

Bush's ability to project "Strength" came not from advocacy of specific policies, but from his claim to stand by his beliefs even when they were politically unpopular.

For that reason, isn't the perception that Obama is abandoning his own core beliefs -- or, worse, that he has none -- a much greater political danger than a failure to move to the so-called "Center" . . . ? . . . That narrative -- that he's afraid to stand by his own beliefs -- appears far more likely to result in a perception that Obama is "Weak" than a refusal to embrace Bush/Cheney national security positions.

What's most amazing about the unexamined premise that Democrats must "move to the Center" (i.e., adopt GOP views) is that this is the same advice Democrats have been following over and over and which keeps leading to their abject failure. It's the advice Kerry followed in 2004. It's why Democrats rejected Howard Dean and chose John Kerry instead.

And in 2002, huge numbers of Congressional Democrats voted to authorize the attack on Iraq based on this same premise that doing so would enable them to avoid looking Weak on National Security. The GOP then based its whole 2002 campaign on attacking Democrats as Weak on National Security and the Democrats were crushed -- because, having accepted rather than debated the GOP premises, there was no way to challenge GOP National Security arguments. What makes Democrats look weak is their patent fear of standing by their own views. A Washington Post article last week on Obama's move to the center included this insight:

"American voters tend to reward politicians who take clear stands," said David Sirota, a former Democratic aide on Capitol Hill and author of the new populist-themed book The Uprising. "When Obama takes these mushy positions, it could speak to a character issue. Voters that don't pay a lot of attention look at one thing: 'Does the guy believe in something?' They may be saying the guy is afraid of his own shadow."

[If] . . . "Strength" means what the GOP says it means . . . it's a framework within which Democrats can't possibly win, because Republicans will always "out-Strength" Democrats . . .. [O]nly by challenging and disputing the underlying premises can Democrats change the way that "strength" and "weakness" are understood.

The Democrats had such a smashing victory in 2006 because . . . there was a perception (rightly or wrongly) that they actually stood for something different than the GOP in National Security (an end to the War in Iraq). . . . The advice that they should "move to the center" and copy Republicans is guaranteed to make them look weak -- because it is weak. It's the definition of weakness.

The most distinctive and potent -- one could even say exciting -- aspect of Obama's campaign had been his aggressive refusal to accept GOP pieties on National Security, his insistence that the GOP would lose -- and should lose -- debates over who is "stronger" and more "patriotic" and who will keep us more safe. The widely-celebrated foreign policy memo written by Obama's adviser, Samantha Power, heaped scorn on Washington's national security "conventional wisdom," emphasizing how weak and vulnerable it has made the U.S. When Obama took that approach, he appeared to be, and in fact was, resolute and unapologetic in defending his own views -- the very attributes that define "strength."

The advice he's getting, and apparently beginning to follow, is now the opposite: that he should shed his prior beliefs in favor of the amorphous, fuzzy, conventional GOP-leaning Center, that he should cease to insist on a re-examination of National Security premises and instead live within the GOP framework. That's likely to lead to many things, but a perception of strength isn't one of them. . . .

UPDATE: . . . Many Democrats support Bush policies because they believe in them. Others don't believe in them but are persuaded that they must support them in order to be re-elected. Still others have no beliefs at all other than their own re-election and do whatever they perceive is most likely to achieve that. Here, I'm simply taking the political argument at face value -- that Democrats must "move to the Center" in order to win -- and arguing why that's empirically false.
Glenn Greenwald, "The Baseless, and Failed, ‘Move to the Center’ Cliche," Salon.com/CommonDreams.org, June 30, 2008.

Thus, there appears to be both good news and bad news.

The bad news is that by following the consultants' advice to engage in manipulating, triangulating, and misrepresenting who one is and what they believe a Democrat may well lose both their soul and their election.

The good news is that there is an alternative, and that staking out positions on the issues can be a win-win. By avoiding the advice to appear "Republican-lite," by having core beliefs, distinguishing them from those of the Republicans, holding to them, making a persuasive and even emotionally appealing case for what one believes, a liberal Democrat can not only come across to voters as "strong" and a person of integrity, he or she can have the satisfaction of both doing the morally commendable thing -- AND WINNING!

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