Listening to Obama

Gail Collins also comments on the question of Obama moving towards the center and what he stands for, which I discussed in the previous post. She argues that some people are surprised by his current views because they have failed to listen to what he has been saying all along. This is consistent with the argument of my previous post that his views don’t fit clearly on the traditional left to right spectrum. Liberals who expect him to take the traditional Democratic line on all issues would be expected to be surprised by some of his statements.

Collins does not see a major change in ideology and finds that most of the alleged policy changes fall into one of two categories:

Most of the things Obama’s taken heat for saying this summer fall into these two familiar patterns — attempts to find a rational common ground on controversial issues and dumb-avoidance.

On the common-ground front, he’s called for giving more federal money to religious groups that run social programs, but only if the services they offer are secular. People can have guns for hunting and protection, but we should crack down on unscrupulous gun sellers. Putting some restrictions on the government’s ability to wiretap is better than nothing, even though he would rather have gone further.

Dumb-avoidance would include his opposing the gas-tax holiday, backtracking on the anti-Nafta pandering he did during the primary and acknowledging that if one is planning to go all the way to Iraq to talk to the generals, one should actually pay attention to what the generals say.

Touching both bases are Obama’s positions that 1) if people are going to ask him every day why he’s not wearing a flag pin, it’s easier to just wear the pin, for heaven’s sake, and 2) there’s nothing to be gained by getting into a fight over whether the death penalty can be imposed on child rapists.

There is only one change she considers a flip-flop, but she still does not think this will affect many voters:

His decision to ditch public campaign financing, on the other hand, was nothing but a complete, total, purebred flip-flop. If you are a person who feels campaign finance reform is the most important issue facing America right now, you should either vote for John McCain or go home and put a pillow over your head. However, I believe I have met every single person in the country for whom campaign finance reform is the tiptop priority, and their numbers are not legion.

I see this as more a tactical decision than as a complete flip-flop. It is more a realization that the current system does not work than a violation on principles with regards to campaign finance reform. John McCain has hardly been pure on this issue either.

Obama has changed which aspects of issues he has stressed due to the differences between a general election campaign and fighting for the votes of partisans in a nomination battle, but there has been little in the way of actual policy differences which matter (with the exception of his FISA vote, which I find more of a change than Collins describes, but the political motivations are obvious). Ultimately it is a question of what he stands for compared to McCain. Collins tries to find Obama’s core beliefs and rather than looking more in terms of his philosophical views as I discussed in the previous post. She tries to distill Obama’s concerns down to three main issues:

Obama has made it clear what issues he thinks all this cleverness and compromising are supposed to serve: national health care, a smart energy policy and getting American troops out of Iraq. He has tons of other concerns, but those seem to be the top three.

For many Democratic voters, these issues will be enough to overlook what they see as a move to the center. I must point out one major area of disagreement in her assumptions in writing this column. Comparing Clinton and Obama she writes that their “policies were almost identical.” While true of the issues which the mainstream media primarily covered, there are significant underlying differences between the two which I discussed in many posts, such as here. While differences beween Clinton and Obama do not matter any longer with regards to the nomination, being aware that there are differences between Democrats, even when the media generally miss them, helps understand why Obama’s current views might be received by different Democrats in different ways.

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