The Lurch

by digby

Commenting on Obama's unexpected fund raising problems, Atrios observes that with the exception of FISA, Obama's "run to the center" is not substantial but that such theatre can affect fundraising. (Obama's fundraising has gone down significantly.)

I think that's technically true, but it's even more problematic when the storyline is designed to distance yourself from your fund raising base and your campaign was based not upon issues but personal commitment to the candidate. You'll recall that the Obama campaign explicitly made its pitch based on something other than the issues:

In a storefront on Q Street in Sacramento, Kim Mack told a crowd that spilled out onto the sidewalk how she came to back Barack Obama.

With a son serving in the Iraq war, which she opposed, Mack was looking for a like-minded presidential candidate. She was impressed by the Illinois senator's books.

But the clincher came on March 17, when she met the Democratic contender face to face. She describes how he lit up the room with his wide smile, shook her hand and thanked her for volunteering.

"He looked at me, and the look in his eyes was worth 1,000 words," said Mack, now a regional field organizer. Obama hugged her and whispered something in her ear – she was so thrilled she doesn't remember what it was.

Then Mack brought home the point of her story for the crowd of 100 or so eager volunteers, sipping coffee and watching a PowerPoint presentation in the Obama campaign office on a recent Saturday.

"Did that make more impact on you than if I had talked about his health care plan or his stance on the environment?" she asked.

On the verge of a hectic few weeks leading to Super Tuesday, the crucial Feb. 5 multistate primary including California's, Mack wanted to drill home one of the campaign's key strategies: telling potential voters personal stories of political conversion.

She urged volunteers to hone their own stories of how they came to Obama – something they could compress into 30 seconds on the phone.

"Work on that, refine that, say it in the mirror," she said. "Get it down."

She told the volunteers that potential voters would no doubt confront them with policy questions. Mack's direction: Don't go there. Refer them to Obama's Web site, which includes enough material to sate any wonk.

The idea behind the personal narratives is to reclaim "values" politics from the Republican Party, said Marshall Ganz, a one-time labor organizer for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers who developed "Camp Obama" training sessions for volunteers.

When people tell their stories of how they made choices and what motivates them, they communicate their values, Ganz said in an interview.

"Values are not just concepts, they're feelings," Ganz said. "That's what dropped out of Democratic politics sometime in the '70s or '80s."

Many people assumed those values were their own, and without a detailed analysis of his policies and his books, they were unlikely to think they were anything but orthodox liberal. This was, after all, a Democratic primary. So, when Obama did the predictable (although surprisingly clumsy) turn to the right and began to speak in somewhat unprogressive terms on things like the death penalty and faith based programs and FISA and abortion, they felt betrayed. The campaign had actually encouraged them not to know but rather to place their faith in Obama on a personal level.

I don't think you can have it both ways on things like this. If you are going to base your campaign on "personal conversion" and feelings, you have to assume that people are going to relate to it on those terms. He's asking his ardent followers to be practical now and accept that their man is going to flirt with the other side. That's caused some disillusionment, as it always does when you find out that someone for whom you had deep feelings turns out to be different than you believed him or her to be. People feel foolish, duped, furious.

I am not personally temperamentally inclined to that kind of politics so I was never much interested in the "yes we can" aspect of Obamamania. I was aware of his moderate record and it seemed good enough to me to vote for, although I knew I would be at odds with him as often as not if he failed to seize the opportunity to substantially pull the country's center of gravity to the left. As I've written before, I was hoping that his appeals to those outside the Democratic faithful would not be based on the same old paradigm of social conservatism and national security, but instead seek to find some other ways to signal to people who didn't know him that he was a thoughtful, principled politician who understood their needs and could advocate for the whole country on the basis of shared values. Instead, he's working overtime to reassure voters that he's not a liberal. That's as predictable, old fashioned politics as you can get.

It pays to remember that Obama is being advised by all the usual suspects, Democratic consultants who believe in their bones not only that this is a "conservative" country but that conservative means what the Republicans say it means. There are a few original thinkers, but as you can see from the past few weeks, the campaign is not truly inclined to go against conventional wisdom to win this thing. And conventional wisdom says that a party long out of power is so desperate that they are willing to dramatically compromise in order to win, while the party in power sticks to its guns until it suffers embarrassing losses.

I don't read this election that way, but it's obvious they do. And that's where we're going. They will recalibrate once the idea takes hold among the chatterers and gasbags that Obama has vastly disappointed liberals. (And they undoubtedly believe he's dealing with some historical baggage that makes this even more necessary.)The congressional and senate candidates are going the same way:

House and Senate Democrats are taking a centrist path this election-year summer, following the lead of Barack Obama, who has increased his coordination with congressional leaders.

Democrats have decided to focus on economic and security issues designed to appeal to a wide range of voters, especially independents who are concerned about soaring gas prices and the slumping stock and housing markets.

The centrist strategy reflects the thinking of Obama, the Illinois senator who has tacked toward the middle of the political spectrum since clinching the Democratic nomination in early June.

The most prominent example is an overhaul of the nation’s intelligence surveillance laws that Senate Democrats passed Wednesday with Obama’s support. Many liberals staunchly oppose the bill, which would grant legal immunity to telecommunications companies that shared customers’ private data with intelligence authorities.

As I said, this is the most predictable conventional wisdom in the world. The out of power party, hungry for a win, compromises its principles. But interestingly, rather than clinging to Republican principles beyond their expiration date, McCain is defying the CW --- or at least the press is portraying him as doing so:

The symmetry between Obama and congressional Democrats contrasts with Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the presumptive GOP presidential nominee who has broken with his party on several high-profile issues. An economic plan McCain unveiled this week included a proposal to allow cheap prescription drug imports from other countries, something that most Republicans oppose.

McCain has split with the majority of his party by favoring immigration reform that would create a path to citizenship for illegal residents. McCain is also at odds with his party over drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.


As they begin to march in lockstep with Obama, Democrats have eschewed tactics designed to rev up their political base for the fall election. Specifically, they have jettisoned the strategy favored by Republicans in recent election years of scheduling highly political votes during the summer in order to energize base voters.
In the summer before the 2006 elections, the Republican majority voted on a long-shot proposal to amend the U.S. Constitution to prohibit flag burning. They also voted on legislation to ban “fetal farming” and to protect gun owners during national emergencies, as well as proposals to stem the flow of immigration from Mexico — all initiatives popular with their conservative base.

“Our base is just fine,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who said Democrats are concentrating instead on bills with broad appeal among Democrats, independents and centrist Republicans.

Clearly, the Democrats believe they have their base secure and are tacking to the right without worry. But the Republicans, rather than nominating a staunch defender of the faith, as the CW would predict, nominated someone known for flouting GOP orthodoxy. (Of course on most of the important issues, McCain is right there with Bush, but the perception matters.) And this actually makes sense considering that Republican orthodoxy has been very badly discredited. Bush's massive failure (like Carter's)should change the normal calculation.

This is not an ordinary year. The Republican brand is badly damaged and they recognized that it was nearly impossible for them to win, but the only slim chance they had would be if they had someone could credibly make a case for being a different kind of Republican. I think that was smart and it also validates my instinct that the Democrats needn't hew so closely to the conventional wisdom either.

Clearly they're going to, however, and we might as well accept that:

In addition to throwing his support behind the compromise intelligence bill, Obama has spoken out on the importance of personal responsibility and family values and emphasized his patriotism, all themes that Republicans tend to sound during election years. Obama has also called for federal assistance to faith-based social programs and recalibrated his rhetoric on the Iraq war.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said the congressional agenda reflects Obama’s pragmatic approach.

“These are all addressing practical problems, which is very much his style,” said Conrad, citing a bill designed to reduce home foreclosures, the so-called Medicare payment fix, extended tax incentives for energy production and the intelligence overhaul.

Durbin said that Senate leaders are talking to Obama about his policy priorities, specifically about his energy policy proposals.

Durbin added that Democratic leaders and Obama are beginning to feel that they “can speak with one voice as a party about our agenda for November.”


Hoyer outlined the House agenda for July and September during a Wednesday meeting with reporters. House Democrats will focus on legislation designed to ease broad concerns about the economy instead of liberal hot-button issues. Hoyer cited legislation designed to address the price of energy and the mounting federal deficit, an issue popular among so-called Blue Dog Democrats.

They're playing it very safe. As I have written before, Barack carries some unusual heuristic burdens, and the fact that the Republicans managed to make more than 10% of voters believe he's a Muslim simply through a whisper campaign gives some understanding as to why his campaign and the Democrats all believe they should run as risk free a campaign as possible. But it represents a lost opportunity and it carries some risks of its own. Barack does need his supporters to be enthusiastic and intensely engaged, not just for fund raising, although that's important, but for his campaign message and GOTV operation in the fall. His message of change has taken a severe blow with this somewhat crude lurch to the right and embrace of conventional wisdom and he's going to need it back to appeal to those who haven't yet fully engaged.

The rationale for his campaign is almost entirely based on the message of change and I doubt that they can make a credible case that he's a steady-as-she-goes, practical, engineer type who makes the trains run on time, as Kent Conrad seems to be saying in that quote above. I just don't think anyone's going to believe it or even wants to believe it. His appeal is that he sees the country in more holistic terms than others do and can find new angles and different approaches to our problems. Being a technocratic, "centrist" fixer isn't the same thing at all and misunderstands the mood of the country.

Indeed, at this point, I think McCain gets that better than Obama. If he weren't an undisciplined, doddering fool he could be a formidable opponent, even with the Bush albatross tied around his neck: he gets that people are in the mood for someone who breaks the rules. At this point, Obama is following them all to the letter, much to the chagrin of everyone on the left who expected something more and much to the delight of the Republicans who know how to run against cautious and prudent Democrats in their sleep. (And make no mistake, they are barely awake, but it's only because they are so full from feeding at the trough that they can barely raise their somnambulent heads long enough to run this campaign.)

These are the dog days of the campaign and this kind of positioning is done with tactical intent. I expect Obama to stop lurching at some point soon and find his groove for the general. I don't think Obamamania will ever be revitalized, however, although a successful convention could go a long way to getting people revved up again. And I would definitely predict that the minute the really dirty stuff starts flying from the right --- remember, they have an entire industry that makes millions doing that stuff --- everyone will re-engage in a hurry. I still believe he will win, just perhaps not on the terms that everyone would have liked. But then I never thought he would.

The question for all progressives remains what it always has been, in my view, from before and during the primary season and beyond. To the extent the American two party system allows, assuming we can get the most liberal politician available elected to the white house, what do we plan to do to make him actually govern progressively? I don't think our movement has thought enough about that and I think it's the only question worth asking.

Update: Newsweek just released a new poll which they characterize this way:

A month after emerging victorious from the bruising Democratic nominating contest, some of Barack Obama's glow may be fading. In the latest NEWSWEEK Poll, the Illinois senator leads Republican nominee John McCain by just 3 percentage points, 44 percent to 41 percent. The statistical dead heat is a marked change from last month's NEWSWEEK Poll, where Obama led McCain by 15 points, 51 percent to 36 percent.

Obama's rapid drop comes at a strategically challenging moment for the Democratic candidate. Having vanquished Hillary Clinton in early June, Obama quickly went about repositioning himself for a general-election audience--an unpleasant task for any nominee emerging from the pander-heavy primary contests and particularly for a candidate who'd slogged through a vigorous primary challenge in most every contest from January until June. Obama's reversal on FISA legislation, his support of faith-based initiatives and his decision to opt out of the campaign public-financing system left him open to charges he was a flip-flopper. In the new poll, 53 percent of voters (and 50 percent of former Hillary Clinton supporters) believe that Obama has changed his position on key issues in order to gain political advantage.

More seriously, some Obama supporters worry that the spectacle of their candidate eagerly embracing his old rival, Hillary Clinton, and traveling the country courting big donors at lavish fund-raisers, may have done lasting damage to his image as an arbiter of a new kind of politics. This is a major concern since Obama's outsider credentials, have, in the past, played a large part in his appeal to moderate, swing voters. In the new poll, McCain leads Obama among independents 41 percent to 34 percent, with 25 percent favoring neither candidate. In June's NEWSWEEK Poll, Obama bested McCain among independent voters, 48 percent to 36 percent.

I think that embracing Hillary and courting big donors is a negligible cause. It's because the media has adopted the flip-flop narrative and his embrace of these social conservative stances seem calculated and insincere. Again, I think he should have picked something else to appeal to non-Democrats than old tropes like the death penalty and government authority and faith based programs. He looks unprincipled, even if it's true that he has held many of those positions in the past.

But perhaps most puzzling is how McCain could have gained traction in the past month. To date, direct engagement with Obama has not seemed to favor the GOP nominee. McCain has announced major initiatives on energy and the economy but failed to dominate the conversation on those issues. Last week's shake-up of the campaign's senior management did little to halt calls from Republicans for a major overhaul in McCain's message. Nor did it quell the lingering suspicion among Republicans that 2008 is simply destined to be a Democratic year. (Only 28 percent of voters in the new NEWSWEEK Poll approve of the job George W. Bush is doing as president.) McCain's biography still appears to be his greatest asset, with 55 percent of voters saying they have a favorable opinion of the Arizona senator, compared to 32 percent who have an unfavorable opinion. (Obama's favorable/unfavorable gap is virtually identical at 56 to 32.)

Nonsense. McCain simply benefits from a press that insists that his maverick, war hero past makes his character and leadership skills unassailable.

The new poll suggests white voters continue to be a challenge for Obama, with McCain leading the Democrat in that category 48 to 36 percent. Some of Obama's lag in white support may be explained by continual confusion over his religious identity. Twelve percent of voters surveyed said that Obama was sworn in as a United States senator on a Qur'an, while 26 percent believe the Democratic candidate was raised as a Muslim and 39 percent believe he attended a Muslim school as a child growing up in Indonesia. None of these things is true. Finally cracking the code with less-educated whites could have a big payoff for Obama: 85 percent of undecided voters are non-Hispanic whites and only 22 percent of those undecideds have a four-year college degree.

That's crazy time and it explains why he is hitting the religion theme so hard. But I can't imagine that national security nuance and FISA and the death penalty actually do much with those among these folks who might vote Democratic. Railing on gas prices and corporate rip-offs might though. And if they were allowed to go after McCain's integrity, his history in the Savings and Loan scandal and current corrupt lobbyist ties might make some headway too. I would suspect the greatest gift he's given the Democrats with these voters is Phil Graham's utterly braindead comment about a nation of whiners and his own comments saying that Social Security is a "disgrace."

Forget the gasbags. McCain's making at least one gaffe a day.

Update II: Also keep in mind that this poll could very well be macaca.