I was on a panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado this week when Newsweek‘s Jonathan Alter asked me, “Is Obama a sellout?” The question isn’t whether he is a sellout or not — it’s about what demands are made by grass-roots social movements of those who would represent them. The question is, who are these candidates responding to, answering to?
Richard Nixon’s campaign strategy was to run in the primaries to the right, then move to the center in the general election. Bill Clinton’s strategy was called “triangulation,” navigating to a political “Third Way” to please moderates and undecided voters. This past week, Barack Obama has made some signal policy changes that suggest he might be doing something similar. Will it work for him?
Take the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, for example. A Dec. 17, 2007, press release from Obama’s Senate office read: “Senator Obama unequivocally opposes giving retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies and has cosponsored Senator Dodd’s efforts to remove that provision from the FISA bill. Granting such immunity undermines the constitutional protections Americans trust the Congress to protect. Senator Obama supports a filibuster of this bill, and strongly urges others to do the same.” Six months later, he supports immunity for the companies that spied on Americans.
I asked Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., about Obama’s position on the FISA bill. He told me: “Wrong vote. Regrettable. Many Democrats will do this. We should be standing up for the Constitution. When Sen. Obama is president, he will, I’m sure, work to fix some of this, but it’s going to be a lot easier to prevent it now than to try to fix it later.”
Feingold and Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., are planning on filibustering the bill. It will take 60 senators to overcome their filibuster. It looks like Obama will be one of them. Disappointment with Obama’s FISA position is not limited to his senatorial colleagues. On Obama’s own campaign website, bloggers are voicing strident opposition to his FISA position. At the time of this writing, an online group on Obama’s site had more than 10,000 members and was growing fast. The group’s profile reads: “Senator Obama — we are a proud group of your supporters who believe in your call for hope and a new kind of politics. Please reject the politics of fear on national security, vote against this bill and lead other Democrats to do the same!”
Then there were the recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions on gun control and the death penalty. Obama supported the court in overturning the 32-year-old ban on handguns in the nation’s violence-ridden capital. It’s the court’s most significant ruling on the Second Amendment in nearly 70 years. And in a blow to death-penalty opponents, Obama disagreed with the high court’s prohibiting execution of those who were found guilty of raping children.
In a Jan. 21, 2008, primary debate, Obama called the North American Free Trade Agreement “a mistake” and “an enormous problem.” He recently told Fortune magazine, “Sometimes during campaigns the rhetoric gets overheated and amplified … my core position has never changed … I’ve always been a proponent of free trade.” This, after the primary-campaign scandal of the alleged meeting between Obama economic adviser Austan Goolsbee and a member of the Canadian consulate. A Canadian memo describing the meeting suggested Obama was generally satisfied with NAFTA. Goolsbee described the accounts as inaccurate. Now people are beginning to question Obama’s genuine opposition to NAFTA and “free trade.”
Then there is the floating of potential vice presidential candidates. Jonathan Capehart of The Washington Post was on the Aspen panel and noted that he has been receiving emails from gay men who angrily oppose former Sen. Sam Nunn as an Obama running mate. They can’t forget Nunn’s key role in shaping “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which prohibited gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the military. The emails trickled up, prompting the writing of an influential Capehart column, “Don’t Ask Nunn.”
It may be the strategy of the Obama campaign to run to the middle, to attract the independents, the undecided. But he should look carefully at the lessons of the 2004 Kerry campaign. John Kerry made similar calculations, not wanting to appear weak on the war in Iraq. Uninspired, people stayed home. There are millions who care about the issues from which Obama is distancing himself, from FISA to gun control to gay rights to free trade to the death penalty. Rather than staying home, they should recall the words of Frederick Douglass: “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”