Moving Towards the Center Versus Leadership

When Obama announced his decision to vote for the FISA compromise, I assumed that this was primarily a politically motivated decision. I also questioned if he was making the same mistake that other Democrats made when voting on the Iraq war. Similarly I’ve noted how Obama has taken the politically more cautious route of failing to back same-sex marriages, also wondering if taking a less than consistent viewpoint is really the best course. Glenn Greenwald has written a number of excellent posts on the FISA bill and today addresses the politics of moving towards the center on such issues:

The central problem is that if Democrats embrace the GOP framework of National Security — that “Strength” means what the GOP says it means — then that framework gets enforced and perpetuated, and it’s a framework within which Democrats can’t possibly win, because Republicans will always “out-Strength” Democrats within that framework. It’s only 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 — for the first time in a long time, and really despite themselves — 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). Drawing a clear distinction with the deeply unpopular GOP is how Democrats look strong. 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. One of the very few things in the universe with a worse track record than America’s dominant Foreign Policy Community is the central religious belief of the Democratic consultant class and Beltway punditry that Democrats, to be successful, must shed their own beliefs and “move to the Center.”

Moving to the center does give the impression of “flip-flopping” and does make a candidate look weaker. The more serious problem in the long run is that if Democratic candidates run away from liberal positions, how can they expect the voters to either understand these positions or to support them? Liberal Democrats take the positions they do on national security matters not because they are weak on national security but because they believe that their views are better for the long term security of the country. They also consider civil liberties considerations to be important. However if nobody has the courage to stand up and publicly defend their views on national security and civil liberties, this leaves the Republicans as the only ones presenting a consistent viewpoint. Worse, when Democrats fail to coherently articulate their positions, they leave Republican free to define them.

While I’ve expressed my disagreement with Obama on issues such as the FISA compromise I’ve also pulled my punches out of understanding for his political predicament. It is far from clear as to which course would be the best in terms of electability. Obama can make the point that the only way he can bring about any change is if he does get elected, even if this means presenting his views in a manner more acceptable to the majority of voters.

The Anonymous Liberal does make a strong point in Obama’s defense. It would be far easier for Obama to vote against the FISA bill if more Democrats were also taking the principled positon:

I agree with Glenn that there is no reason the Democratic party should, in the current climate, feel the need to align its security policies more closely with the current administration. Indeed, if the Democrats were to stand up and run in full-throated opposition to the current policies, they’d probably do quite well in November.

I’m not sure the same thing is true of individual Democrats, however, particularly those running for national office. For instance, while I’m not going to defend Obama’s capitulation on FISA, I think it nevertheless is true that he is in a very difficult position politically and that opposing the bill might well hurt him in November. But the reason it might hurt him has nothing to do with the substantive merits of the bill or public opinion on issues like FISA reform and telecom immunity. The reason it might hurt him is because of the symbolism of the vote. With over two thirds of the members of his own party prepared to vote in favor of the bill, he had no political cover. If he opposes the bill, the question posed to him by every reporter and debate moderator would be: if the bill was so bad, why did over 2/3rds of the members of your own party think it was necessary to keep America safe?

This certainly could be a problem for Obama. Already we hear claims that Obama is the most liberal member of the Senate, often based upon a misleading survey from The National Journal. Many voters are now open to voting Democratic who have not done so in the past, but they might not vote for one who is characterized as the most extreme, along as being weak on national security.

There are strong arguments for Obama to move towards the center but we also must consider Obama’s strenghts as an orator. We now have a unique situation in which people are listening to the message from Democrats in larger numbers than we have seen for decades. This is the perfect moment for Obama to be taking the lead and use his oratory skills to convince the voters of the validity of his positions. Rather than go by the polls and by prevalent beliefs spread by Republicans which many are rejectilng, this is a time in which Obama can create a new majority by explaining his beliefs and convincing people that he is right. Voters who are overwhelmingly rejecting the Republicans are open to new ideas, but only if Democrats have the courage to express them.

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  1. 1
    MsJoanne says:

    Ron, Out. Standing. Post! Kudos.

  2. 2
    BAJ says:

    I’m thinking it was a bad move to hire Clinton’s people. It does seem as if he’s taking some of their advice. Best be sure what he’s doing because they can sink him too…

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