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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

“Moving to the Middle,” or “Let Obama Be Obama”

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 today 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 TDS 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.

11 comments on ““Moving to the Middle,” or “Let Obama Be Obama”

  1. watchstop on

    Mr. Kilgore, I would LIKE to believe that you are on the right track in suggesting a way for us to see and understand what Barack Obama is doing and saying. However, I am becoming increasingly distressed, and I am finding little encouragement that is more than wishful thinking. If Obama is becoming closer to the positions of the DNC and/or of typical Democrats, this only ADDS to my distress and disappointment, and my passion is fading fast. I am afraid I am left with something all too similar to religionists who want to remind me, when I consider the suffering in the world, that God’s ways are mysterious. Oh, really. Well, stupid, uninformed me!!

  2. matt on

    I think the analysis of Obama is excellent. I would however criticize the description of the Democratic Party as progressive. I think there are some House Democrats and Senate Democrats that are progressive, but are they the majority in the party? Do they hold the power in the party? Is Obama progressive? I don’t know. When compared to John McCain and the Republicans I would say yes, but in absolutist terms or in comparison to other countries, I would not describe the party as progressive. I dont blame the party, its just the country is very very conservative. I might not like some positions Obama has taken but you have to acknowledge his political acumen, to beat both Clintons, to rise this fast and take the country by storm its remarkable and stunning.

  3. Jim on

    Ed, I’m the one who directed you to the thread at Open Left, where you received some criticism. I just wanted to thank you for having the class to appear and contribute there.
    As for the merits of your thread, I’ll just make two observations:
    First, I don’t believe Obama has consciously moved in any direction, as much as he’s just decided to adopt a safe or cautious approach. And I think this approach itself is meant to communicate something about his governing style. It is as if he is attempting to persuade the country that he will be a safe choice, as evidenced by his cautious manner of campaigning.
    Yet, at the same time, I don’t think it’s fair to condemn him as passive or weak either. He has shown the ability to be bold and break out of the mold, when necessary. I imagine that the remainder of the campaign will consist of him going back and forth between these approaches, which will probably be somewhat maddening for some of his supporters, but reassuring to others.

  4. Matthew Cowan on

    The Obama campaign bases its strategy on $300 million that hasn’t appeared yet. He’s stretched to go for tough to win states and even helped Hillary pay off her debts. Most of Obama’s planned proceeds are expected to come from his base, like the last $300 million. If Obama plans to dump the base, he won’t attract nearly enough money to run his big campaign.
    Its not just the FISA vote that is causing trouble. Obama has gone back to the brain dead strategy that Democrats have used to fail so many times before. He’s afraid of being labled by the GOP so he puts on appearances to in an attempt to make him look like the opposite of whatever the GOP is calling him. The GOP says he lacks foreign policy credentials, so Obama plans a trip overseas. The GOP smeared Obama’s patriotism, so Obama is spending the week trying to appear patriotic.
    Every time a Democrat runs away like this it backfires. The media will describe Obama’s efforts as exactly what they will be, staged shows. The media will say Obama is trying to hide a weakness with phony presentations. The fact that Obama is responding to the charges rather than refuting them will give them validity in the eyes of the voters.
    The far left isn’t demanding ideological obedience. We are demanding that our candidates fight back rather than cowering before GOP attacks. If Obama wants base money, he’s got to get in the ring. Gimmicks like dumping on MoveOn.org are just going to make him lose friends and will cause the “middle” folks to disrespect him.

  5. edkilgore on

    At the time, the Lieberman selection was generally interpreted as part and parcel of Gore’s frantic efforts to separate himself from Clinton’s legacy, not just as an appeal to “moralizers.” And Gore’s “people versus the powerful” convention acceptance speech wasn’t “centrist” by any reasonable measure.
    Gore also thought Lieberman’s Judaism would help him win Florida–which it nearly did. Gore would not have been competitive there without Lieberman on the ticket, contra the dubious if popular revisionist theory that Lieberman lost Gore the recount.
    The key message-crafter in both the Gore and Kerry campaigns was Bob Shrum, whose main distinction was that his many presidential campaigns did not include either of the Clinton bids–or any wins.
    Thanks for the comment.
    Ed Kilgore

  6. Christopher Carrington on

    I don’t understand why you think Huffington’s analysis of the Gore and Kerry efforts to pander to “centrist” voters is “counter intuitive.” I can’t think of more appropriate way to characterize Gore’s choice of Lieberman. It was a bald face pander to the moralizing tendencies of “centrist” voters. Of course, “centrist” is probably the wrong term; I believe the current euphemism for this dimwitted bunch is “low information” voters.

  7. yldoow on

    I agree with you Mr. Kilgore. Obama seems truly to be a new beast. However, I think that folks on the Left are so used to getting kicked in the teeth by politicians who purport to represent our interests and then wilt in the face of the threat of right-wing onslaught, that Obama’s recent policy pronouncements feel like they could be ‘more of the same’ — a particularly distressing development given the theme of his candidacy.
    Still, I think that I have seen sufficient nuance in his positions that I’m willing to see how this all plays out. But you have to admit that the last few weeks have been a bit startling.
    Today Obama did give cause for some reassurance today with his friendly and decisive letter to the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club in California. That was a move that cannot be construed as either politically expedient pandering or politically safe. I think it is evidence that Obama is, in fact, just being Obama and is not merely replicating a failed strategy of adopting newly “centrist” positions that microtrenders have told him poll well.
    The truth is, if Obama is true to his word to be post-partisan he will sometimes differ with his most avid supporters wherever they reside on the American political spectrum. Such a reality is both terrifically exciting and a little bit scary.
    Even so, if Obama is truly and simply acting in accordance with his political conscience, then more power to him and this new kind of principled politics — even if the principles don’t always dovetail with mine. That’s certainly the change that I signed up for, even if it’s been making me a little uneasy of late.
    You know, if Obama pulls this off, it’ll be stunning. How interesting it will be to learn to *trust* a politician.
    Incidentally, I’ve been enjoying the content here for a while. Keep it up!

  8. edkilgore on

    Patriot 451:
    Glad you know more about what I think than I do. As it happens, I don’t personally agree with most of the positions that allegedly represent Obama’s “move to the middle.” The whole point to my post is that none of us, including you or me, has some sort of divine right to speak for the progressive community or second-guess his political strategy.
    Obviously, you have every right to vote for Bob Barr if you think Obama’s wrong about something essential. But it’s beyond my comprehension to understand why anyone considering him- or herself progressive would vote for Barr, given his very long record of fidelity to really crazy right-wing causes.
    Ed Kilgore

  9. Patriot451 on

    Americans admire courage.
    Democratic candidates are so intimidated by the Right and so fearful of loss that they abandon their principles at the drop of a hat and look weak and craven.
    I thought Obama might be different. Guess not.
    The pattern of voting shows that insecure Democrats with no political courage lose….and then cooperate in their own defeat by refusing to stand up for the Constitution and the integrity of the voting process.
    The times are changing, but Democrats will not win if they don’t change with them, Ed “DLC” Kilgore. You are a has-been. ONLY the brave will win, and it’s beginning to look like Barack isn’t one of them.

  10. Patriot451 on

    Kilgore’s reference to Democratic orthodoxy is just plain silly. Democratic orthodoxy is Republican lite. We all know that Clinton represented the DLC, and NONE of them are far left. We SHOULD also know that responsible academic studies show the Congress AND the Democratic Party as having moved considerably to the right over the last 20 years, such that what we call the “center” in any other industrialized country would be called the “right,” and there is practically no “left” at all. Kilgore doesn’t like the “left” in the Dem Party, but that left is considerably more conservatiave than in any other developed nation and is perhaps the only bulwark of constitutionalism in the Democratic Party, which, along with GWB, has eschewed the Rule of Law in favor of compromise-at-the-drop-of-a-Republica-sneer. Thank God that folks like Bob Barr and Ron Paul still have enough respect for the Constitution to put the lie to the Kilgore-type claims that only the extreme left cares about freedom, torture, corporate impunity,and the Rule of Law!
    Maybe Obama has to tack to the center-right to win….but my guess is that no matter how much tacking he does, the Right will attack him so mercilessly that it will do no good. Why not take this chance to be a REAL leader, and represent what the majority of Americans DO care about…..why not TEACH us about freedom and the Rule of Law, instead of acting ashamed of those principles?
    Barack has betrayed my hopes, and I’m giving him no more money OR work.

  11. Keith Roberts on

    Good comment. Obama supporters should read his books; they are remarkably candid and sophisticated. This is an extraordinary person who really can change the game.


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