One of the World Wide Web’s most distinguished organs of fake news, the Borowitz Report, leads its current issue with this flash: The liberal blogosphere was aflame today with new accusations that Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill) is trying to win the 2008 presidential election.
Except that sometimes it’s hard to tell fake from real. These sentiments, for example, are from actual blogs: If Obama believes the BS he said about the FISA Capitulation bill, then he is not fit to be President.
He is turning on every major issue and I am not going to vote for him. From here on out, the netroots should refuse to donate to any Democratic nominee, including Barack Obama.
Obama, it turns out, is a politician. In this respect, he resembles the forty-three Presidents he hopes to succeed, from the Father of His Country to the wayward son, Alpha George to Omega George. Winning a Presidential election doesn’t require being all things to all of the people all of the time, but it does require being some things to most of the people some of the time. It doesn’t require saying one thing and also saying its opposite, but it does require saying more or less the same thing in ways that are understood in different ways. They’re all politicians, yes—very much including Obama, as Ryan Lizza shows elsewhere in this issue. But that doesn’t mean they’re all the same.
It was inevitable that the boggier reaches of the blogosphere would eventually smell betrayal. In contrast, what bloggers call the MSM—the mainstream media—seldom trades in the currency of moral indignation. Although the better newspapers have regular features devoted to evaluating the candidates’ proposals for workability, the MSM generally eschews value judgments about the merits. The MSM—especially the cable-news intravenous drip—prefers flip-flops.
Obama has been providing plenty of plastic for the flip-flop factories with the adjustments he’s been making as he retools his campaign for the general election. Under headlines like “IN CAMPAIGN, ONE MAN’S PRAGMATISM IS ANOTHER’S FLIP-FLOPPING,” the big papers have been assembling quite a list of matters on which the candidate has “changed his position,” including Iraq, abortion rights, federal aid to faith-based social services, capital punishment, gun control, public financing of campaigns, and wiretapping. Most of them are mere shifts of emphasis, some are marginal tweaks, and a few are either substantive or nonexistent. Let’s do a quick tour d’horizon.
On July 3rd, Obama remarked to reporters, vis-à-vis his projected visit to Iraq, that he will “continue to refine” his policies in light of what he learns there. The flip-flop frenzy exploded so quickly that Obama called a second press conference that same day in an effort to tamp it down, saying that while he “would be a poor commander-in-chief” if he “didn’t take facts on the ground into account,” his intention to withdraw American combat troops from Iraq within sixteen months of his Inauguration—which is to say less than two years from now—remains unchanged. Flip-flop category: marginal tweak.
The same week, Obama said he didn’t think that “mental distress” alone was sufficient justification for a late-term abortion, prompting the president of the National Organization for Women to rebuke him for feeding the perception that women seek abortions because they’re “having a bad-hair day.” In “The Audacity of Hope,” Obama had written that
the willingness of even the most ardent prochoice advocates to accept some restrictions on late-term abortion marks a recognition that a fetus is more than a body part and that society has some interest in its development.
The leading reproductive-rights group, NARal Pro-Choice America, defended him, pointing out that his views are fully consistent with Roe v. Wade. Flip-flop category: nonexistent.
Obama also wrote that “certain faith-based programs” could offer “a uniquely powerful way of solving problems and hence merit carefully tailored support.” Yet his recent call for an expansion of President Bush’s program came as a shock to some, including the Times, which called the program a violation of the separation of church and state. If it is, it’s a minor one, like grants to religiously affiliated colleges; in any event, this isn’t a new position for Obama. Flip-flop category: shift of emphasis.
For twenty years, nominal support for the death penalty and its partner in crime, “gun rights,” has apparently been mandatory for any Democrat wishing to have a serious chance to be elected President. Without enthusiasm, Obama has endorsed capital punishment throughout his political career. In his book, he wrote that “the rape and murder of a child” is “so heinous, so beyond the pale, that the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage by meting out the ultimate punishment.” But in demurring from last month’s Supreme Court decision banning executions for child rape alone, he went further: “and” is not “or.” As for the Court’s radical decision conferring upon an individual the right to possess guns separate from service in a “well regulated militia,” he did not, as reported, “embrace” it. But he did commend it for providing “much-needed guidance to local jurisdictions”—a distinctly Panglossian spin. Still, if Obama becomes President the practical effect of these panders will be minimal. It’s hard to imagine an Obama appointee to the Supreme Court voting with Justices Scalia and Thomas on issues like these. Flip-flop category: substantive tweak.
As for the last two items on the flip-flop list—well, it’s a fair cop, as the Brits say. Obama’s decision to refuse public funds for the general-election campaign was political hardball, a spikes-high slide at third base. He still favors public financing in principle, and he says he’ll work to modernize it in practice. In a sense, his utterly unexpected success in raising tens of millions from small, no-strings contributors has created a kind of unofficial public-finance system. But that success is a one-off, and the big contributors are still contributing big, with all that entails. He didn’t change his “position,” but he did break a promise.
Obama’s U-turn on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act last week was not so trivial. He had promised to filibuster it if it retained the provision immunizing telecom companies from lawsuits arising from the companies’ compliance with Administration requests—orders, really—to coöperate in patently illegal activity. The bill did retain that provision, and Obama voted not only for the bill but against the filibuster. Opinion is divided on the seriousness of the bill’s threat to civil liberties. In the Times last week, the Open Society Institute’s Morton H. Halperin, whose devotion to civil liberties is rivalled only by his knowledge of national-security matters, called the bill “our best chance to protect both our national security and our civil liberties.” Other civil libertarians see it as the death knell for the Fourth Amendment. But there can be little doubt that Obama’s vote—which could not have affected the outcome—was influenced by worry about being branded as soft on terrorism. Unlike FISA, the Iraq war can’t be repealed. But perhaps Obama will now take a more compassionate view of Hillary Clinton’s vote to authorize it.
Meanwhile, McCain has been busily reversing his views in highly consequential ways. He opposed the Bush tax cuts because they favored the rich; now he supports their eternal extension. He was against offshore oil drilling as not being worth the environmental damage it brings; now he’s for it, and damn the costs. He was against torture, period; now he’s against it unless the C.I.A. does it. He keeps flipping to the wrong flops. But he and Obama can both take comfort in what they’re avoiding. If they were clinging to every past position, the flip-flop police would be busting them for stubbornness and rigidity in the face of changing circumstances. Bush all over again! Flip-flops are preferable to cement shoes, especially in summertime. ?