Debating Obama's 'Move' to the Middle

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During the DLC event I attended in Chicago over the weekend, I heard a lot of talk (most of it positive) about Barack Obama's various efforts to "move to the center" in preparation for the general election. In other precincts of the Democratic Party, this alleged phenomenon is being greeted with unhappiness and even panic. A case in point is Arianna Huffington's post arguing that pursuing "fickle" swing voters is a disastrous mistake that undermines the enthusiasm and inspiration that has characterized the Obama campaign up until now. Indeed, says Huffington, centrist pandering to swing voters is what ruined the Gore and Kerry campaigns (a highly counter-intuitive take on 2000 and 2004, I'd say).

Since we are likely to hear a lot of this sort of talk in the immediate future, it's helpful to question some of the assumptions that proponents and antagonists of a "move to the middle" are making.

First of all, a candidate doesn't really have to "move" at all to create the perception of a different message and strategy once the primary season is over. The general election issue landscape is inevitably going to be different, for the simple reason that the candidate and partisan debate will be different. An example: Barack Obama spent a significant amount of time during the primaries arguing with Hillary Clinton about the relative utility of an individual mandate as part of any plan for universal health coverage. Nobody would expect that issue to matter much in a general election competition with John McCain, who opposes public-sector enabled universal health coverage altogether. Much more broadly, the Democratic nomination contest was in part "about" the various candidates' applications of progressive principles to policy and political challenges, in detail. The general election is a contest between progressive and conservative agendas, and both candidates will naturally stress those aspects of their agendas that have the widest electoral appeals. That's not a matter of "moving," but simply of recontextualizing to a different audience and a different debate.

Second of all, as The Democratic Strategist's Roundtable on swing and base voters earlier this year illustrated, there's plenty of disagreement about the definition and nature of "swing voters." They don't necessarily all reside in the ideological "center" of the electorate on every issue, and moreover, "base" voters don't necessarily have inconsistent or antagonistic points of view from "swing voters." The two things that are pretty hard to deny are that (1) undecided "very likely" voters are indeed a disproportionately important electoral prize because winning each of them produces two net votes, and (2) most successful campaigns in a competitive environment manage to energize the partisan base while expanding it into the ranks of independents and even the other party's base. Huffington's horror at swing-voter pandering, and her manifest contempt for swing voters themselves, probably reflects the fashionable but very dubious Lackoffian belief that swing voters are cognitively confused, perhaps even stupid or amoral people who can only be appealed to by an even more strongly expressed partisan "frame."

Third of all, it amazes me that anyone should be surprised by Barack Obama's willingness on occasion to stray from Democratic Party orthodoxy or from strict down-the-line partisanship. It has been an important part of his political persona from day one. And those who accuse him of cynicism for expressing heretical thoughts on FISA or gun control or the death penalty now are perhaps the real cynics, who somehow thought he didn't really mean all his early talk about transpartisan politics or overcoming the stale debates of past decades.

Since 1948 (a complicated, multi-candidate contest), there's been exactly one successful presidential candidate whose strategy was focused overwhelmingly on base mobilization. That was George W. Bush in 2004, and we've seen how well his political capital held up since then. You can make the argument that the partisan landscape this year is positive enough that Barack Obama could run a similar campaign and win. But a lot of what has attracted so much enthusiasm for Obama's candidacy is precisely the belief that he can "break the mold" and win a victory that enables him to achieve things in office that will produce a genuinely overwhelming progressive and Democratic majority in the electorate of the future.

Personally, one of the things I like about Barack Obama as a politician is that he refuses to campaign according to anybody's playbook but his own. Inevitably, he's going to disappoint or even anger Democratic activists of every stripe on occasion. Those on the left who fear he's "blurring the lines" or "moving to the middle" really do need to concentrate on the vast differences between Obama and McCain on a vast number of prominent issues that actual voters as opposed to activists care most about (telecomm immunity or the nuances of gun control not being among them). Those in "the center" who want him to repudiate key elements of his past record to "signal" he's safe to swing voters are barking up the wrong tree as well.

It's fine to debate and second-guess Obama's strategy and message; we do a lot of that here at TDS. But trying to pigeon-hole Barack Obama as a member of one Democratic faction or another, or praising or damning his campaign in terms of our own notions of the strengths and weaknesses of past Democratic efforts, really does run the risk of missing the larger point about this remarkable man.

Let Obama be Obama.

Ed Kilgore is managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, where this was originally posted.

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