Barack Obama's surge toward the middle

Posted: Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Until recently, one of the biggest raps against Barack Obama from conservatives was his delicate dance around any issue that might upset his core constituents. How can he claim a break from "politics as usual," they said, if he wasn't willing to upset the left? They can't say that anymore. Now they say he's flip-flopped.

That's OK. If you want to please everybody, you don't belong in politics. Obama's bigger worry is the old slogan of liberal commentator Jim Hightower, a former Texas officeholder: "There ain't nothing in the middle of the road but a yellow line and dead armadillos."

In recent weeks the likely Democratic presidential nominee has taken that risky road. He has softened or abandoned his earlier positions on a parade of issues, including wiretaps, abortion, trade with Mexico and Canada, gun control and public funding of his own campaign.

Liberal bloggers like Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post have howled that Obama's selling out the left. But, viewed another way, he's buying into the middle. He's reaching for what Colin Powell has called the "sensible center," that big, broad terrain in the political middle where most American voters live.

Ironically, his best ally in this venture is his presumptive Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain, whose supporters have cast Obama as a "flip-flopper" as they branded Sen. John Kerry in 2004.

"He's a calculating politician," Sen. Lindsey Graham, a McCain ally, said of Obama recently. Yet McCain's got his own easily remembered flip-flops. He opposed extending President Bush's tax cuts before he more recently favored them. He's softened his opposition to offshore oil drilling. He's shifted to a more punitive stance on immigration after a bill he favored failed to pass.

But Obama is different. McCain can say his shifts came in response to new information or changed conditions. Obama's shifts appear to have come mostly because of one change, his clinching the Democratic presidential nomination.

That's not quite fair. Much of Obama's perceived shift in positions comes because he was not pressed on the issues that much earlier. He navigated the primaries as a Rorschach candidate, an inkblot test in which Democratic voters tended to see what they wanted to see, not always where he actually stood on various issues.

On Iraq, for example, he told NBC's Tim Russert last September that his Iraq pullout plans would be subject to changing "conditions on the ground." That's sensible. A candidate who is unwilling to consider changing conditions would be castigated as too stubborn.

On another hot-button issue, Obama said he did not think "mental distress" should qualify as a threat to "the health of the mother" in late-term abortions. Yet there's no question that he's a bigger ally of abortion rights than McCain, an avowed opponent.

But the issue that filled the e-mail bag on the Obama campaign's social networking site, MyBarackObama.com, Obama's reversal of his promise to filibuster against the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, that was passed by the House last month.

The biggest objection by Obama and other critics is a provision that would allow federal judges to grant immunity from civil lawsuits to the large telecommunication companies that cooperated with the National Security Agency's now-defunct warrantless wiretapping program.

Obama invited critics to object on his Web site and many eagerly -- and angrily -- wrote in. Yet as Morton H. Halperin, executive director of the Open Society Policy Center, argued in a New York Times op-ed, "the alternative to Congress passing this bill is Congress enacting far worse legislation that the Senate had already passed by a filibuster-proof margin, and which a majority of House members were on record as supporting."

Halperin knows the dangers of too much executive wiretapping power. As a member of the National Security Council staff, he was bugged without a warrant by the President Richard Nixon's administration. Like Obama, he isn't totally satisfied with the current bill. But Obama can argue that, if elected, he has a chance to improve it.

That's why Obama appears to be following Nixon's old dictum: Run toward your party's base in the primaries, then move back to the center for the general election. Bill Clinton did the same, calling it "triangulation." Obama's taking a risk by following the same strategy, but he's smarter to lurch to the middle of the road in mid-summer than to risk becoming road kill in the fall.

• E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com,



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