Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Where Obama Flip-Flops and Where He Doesn't

OK, I lied. I still intend to post an Enlightened Layperson's analysis of primary documents, but reserve the right to intersperse with comments on other developments. Like this column in the National Review Online by Charles Krauthammer, in which he accuses Obama of reversing himself on so many issues dear to his base that it is impossible to tell what, if anything, he stands for.

In last week’s column, I thought I had thoroughly chronicled Obama’s brazen reversals of position and abandonment of principles — on public financing of campaigns, on NAFTA, on telecom immunity for post-9/11 wiretaps, on unconditional talks with Ahmadinejad — as he moved to the center for the general election campaign. I misjudged him. He was just getting started. . . . He will use his upcoming Iraq trip to acknowledge the remarkable improvements on the ground and to abandon his primary-season commitment to a fixed 16-month timetable for removal of all combat troops. The shift has already begun.
. . . . .
Obama’s strategy is obvious. . . . He and his party already have the advantage on economic and domestic issues. Obama, therefore, aims to clear the deck by moving rapidly to the center in those areas where he and his party are weakest, namely national security and the broader cultural issues . . . — and most importantly his war-losing Iraq policy.

Several retorts are possible here. One is that that Republicans should not be too quick to criticize Obama for reversing himself considering how vulnerable their own candidate is to retaliation. Another is that Krauthammer is much mistaken if he believes that most Americans share his enthusiasm for staying in Iraq indefinitely.

But that is not the approach I want to take. I can't say how things look from the perspective of the National Review, or even of your average, low-information voter, but speaking from the perspective of a (very minor and unimportant) member of Obama's netroot base, it looks to me as though Krauthammer is confounding important and unimportant issues; major reversals and tiny matters of nuance; things that make us wonder what Obama stands for and things that do not. So let's go through Obama's supposed reversals and see what they amount to.

Wiretaps/telecom immunity. This is, from a netroots standpoint, Obama's biggest and most unforgiveable reversal. And no, voting against telecom immunity before voting in favor of the whole monstrosity, immunity included, does not get him off the hook. He promised to filibuster any bill that included immunity; he did not live up to it. And yes, this does make us wonder what he really stands for and whether he intends to reverse the super-imperial Presidency of the Bush Administration, the most important issue for us.

Flag pins. Sigh!! This is a phony issue. It has always been a phony issue. The real issue is not about flag pins but inclusion versus exclusion. Obama was objecting to people who thought he should be excluded from the company of patriots because he didn't wear a flag pin. He was not, in turn, trying to exclude anyone who did wear one. Wear a flag lapel pin is nothing but a harmless gesture to people who consider it important. More disturbing is that Obama has refused to appear on a platform with Muslim Representative Keith Ellison, or be photographed with any woman in a headscarf. Unlike flag pins, these snubs do offend the netroots because they are signs of exclusion.

Public financing. The point of public financing is to reduce the power of big money interests. Obama, instead, is reducing the influence of big money by relying on small individual donations. This is perfectly acceptable to the netroots. It has its problems, though. One is that it is unlikely to be sustainable. Another is that, instead of giving undue influence to big money, small donations give undue influence to the netroots and open us to charges of conflict of interest!

Withdrawal from Iraq. Most of this is based on speculation about what Krauthammer (and others) think Obama will say at some time in the future. Let's wait till then to announce a flip-flop shall we? In any event, most opponents of the war are not so fixated on a rigid 16-month schedule that we regard any deviation as a betrayal. Yes, conditions may extend withdrawal some, maybe even to two years. That is acceptable. What is not acceptable is constant assurances that we will start drawing down the troops in just one more Friedman unit. I suppose McCain deserves credit for not continuing this lie. He is honest enough to say that we will never draw down the troops. But Krauthammer is much mistaken if he believes this is a popular viewpoint.

Unconditional negotiations. OK, so there probably will be some conditions or at least some preparations. But once again, let's get some perspective here. We've had eight years now of an Administration that opposes all diplomacy on principle and regards it as "appeasement." Their overall position is that we'll negotiate as soon as the other side surrenders. The point on our side has never been that we must have a presidential summit with Iran within one year. It is that we should start taking diplomacy seriously and stop dismissing it as mere "appeasement," not that we must negotiate immediately at the highest level, but that we should negotiate at all. I see no evidence whatever that Obama wants to continue the Bush position of mindless intransigence.

Second Amendement. There has been something of a reversal here, as Obama defended the constitutionality of Washington, DC's ban on handguns and now is defending the Supreme Court finding that the ban was unconstitutional. Still, it seems unlikely that Obama would ever seek a complete, nationwide ban on all handguns -- or that the Supreme Court would find all restrictions on gun ownership unconstitutional. Compromise is a normal part of politics. Maybe someone should remind George Bush of this.

NAFTA. I will admit to not knowning enough about the ins and outs of Obama's position on NAFTA to know to what extent he has reversed himself.

Abortion. Krauthammer does not raise this subject, perhaps because he himself belongs to the mushy middle on abortion and perhaps because Obama's actual position on issue is hardly right-to-life. However, Obama has apparently been accused of reversing himself on abortion because he would allow late-term abortions only for the sake of the mother's physical health and not her mental health. I doubt anyone but hard-core NARAL types would consider this a big deal.

In short, Obama has sold out on wiretapping and broken his pledge to stop retroactive immunity. He has been a spineless coward in his dealings with American Muslims. But most of the other reversals Krauthammer trumpets are no more than minor adjustments.

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