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Playing Down the Middle
Posted on Jul 7, 2008
Politics is a cruel and disappointing business. This year, Democratic liberals gambled on a young man who offered hope and change. But after those wondrous primary days, they are furious over Sen. Barack Obama’s understandable effort to reach out to an electorate that is, and long has been, planted firmly in the middle of the road.
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Smart Democrats understand that this is the only way to win. The smartest of them all, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was an expert at dumping the left, as his most liberal supporters learned early in his presidency.
In 1934, Upton Sinclair, a Socialist who had won the Democratic nomination for governor of California, thought he had a promise of help after a conversation with Roosevelt. But no help came. Under vicious Republican attack, he appealed to FDR. Greg Mitchell, in his book “The Campaign of the Century,” gave a chilling account of the Roosevelt White House’s political cruelty. Sinclair got no further than presidential aide Marvin H. McIntyre. “I wasn’t in the conference you had with the president,” McIntyre said, “but I really don’t think it should be classified as a promise. He doesn’t make promises of that kind.”
Sinclair, of course, should have heeded something else the charming and ambiguous Roosevelt told him: “I cannot go any faster than the people will let me go.”
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Obama is showing this now with two important issues—withdrawal from Iraq and legislation concerning the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
He has handled Iraq with an ambiguity that Roosevelt would have admired. From Iowa on, he boasted of his 2002 vote against the war, which separated him from Hillary Clinton and his other senatorial foes. But he left a huge loophole, almost overlooked by the wildly enthusiastic crowds and media.
He said he would withdraw combat brigades in 16 months but would leave a residual force of undetermined size. When he discussed this at a press conference last week, the residual force sounded as if it could be substantial—enough troops to train Iraqi soldiers and police and maintain “a counter-terrorism strike force in Iraq that assures that al-Qaida does not regain a foothold there.”
This looks like an open-ended commitment to me, and the left has some justification for reacting as it did. But while Obama’s plans may be open-ended, they are consistent.
Not so with the debate over the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a terrible law that legalized our current electronic police state by firmly enshrining secret wiretapping in the law. It set up special FISA courts, which meet in secret. Government must have FISA court approval for wiretapping, but it is usually granted. In 2005, The New York Times reported that the Bush administration conducted electronic surveillance without FISA court permission.
The FISA court system is a phony process, but in the manner of Washington, the Democratic Congress has been at work trying to “improve” it by nibbling around the edges. One provision, insisted on by the Bush administration, would exempt the phone companies from being sued for cooperating with federal wiretappers. Obama at first opposed this, but now he goes along with a compromise worked out by congressional Democrats. It would exempt the phone companies from lawsuits over past wiretapping and make the government-phone company combine get approval from the sham FISA courts for future snooping.
The outcry from the liberal blogosphere was overwhelming. Admirably, Obama invited comment on his own Web site, my.barackobama.com. And he replied on the site: “The ability to monitor and track individuals who want to attack the United States is a vital counter-terrorism tool, and I’m persuaded that it is necessary to keep the American people safe. ... Given the choice between voting for an improved yet imperfect bill, and losing important surveillance tools, I’ve chosen to support the current compromise. ...”
It was a move to the center, which prompted The New York Times to attack Obama for supporting “a classic Washington deal that erodes the power of the special court. ...”
What power? The FISA courts have demonstrated very little. But that’s not the point.
The point is that Obama is being criticized for being what he always has been, a tough, exceedingly practical politician, able to hide his many ambiguities behind his charm, intelligence, charisma and oratorical skill.
He’s ahead in the polls, but he has a difficult challenge. You think it’s easy for a black man to be elected president?
I don’t want to see him locked in a bunch of doctrinaire positions that will scare away moderate Democratic and independent voters who don’t yet know much about him and who are likely to approach their historic vote with hesitancy.
I don’t give a damn what The New York Times thinks, after its disgraceful pre-Iraq war performance. Nor do I care about the left and its love of glorious defeat. Obama’s conduct is not disappointing. It’s the right thing to do. “I cannot go any faster than the people will let me go,” said FDR. Obama knows that’s the way he can win.
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