Thursday, July 03, 2008

Obama's 'flip-flops' are greatly exaggerated.

A lot has been made about Barack Obama's supposed 'flip-flops.' First there was the campaign finance issue, when he reversed a pledge to accept public financing because he can raise a lot more on the internet. Then on each of the Supreme Court rulings last week he came down on what could be considered the conservative side (disagreeing with the ruling outlawing executing child rapists and agreeing with the ruling that the District of Columbia can't ban all handguns.) Then he said he will vote for the latest incarnation of the FISA bill despite it giving telecom companies immunity, and today while campaigning in North Dakota he made a statement that he would withdraw troops from Iraq on a pace subject to the safety and security of the troops and the need to maintain stability.

There is a lot to say here. First, most of the supposed 'flip-flops' are greatly exagerrated when put in the context of what he has said in the past. And where they aren't, so what? No one is suggesting that Barack Obama isn't a politician. Would you rather have John McCain, who if elected pledges to continue virtually all of the Bush administration's policies? What makes Barack Obama special is his ability to inspire millions of people. That is not contradictory to also being a politician. Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were politicians to the core, but that was not contradictory to their also being inspirational leaders.

The most clear flip-flop is on the campaign finance issue, so let's start with it. A long time ago, during the primary season, Barack Obama did pledge to take public financing in the general if his Republican opponent did likewise. That is true. But he did reverse himself. However, let's be clear here-- there is little doubt that he can raise as much as three or four times as much on the internet as the $84 million he would otherwise get in general election financing. For that matter, do you honestly believe that if John McCain had a way to raise hundreds of millions of dollars he wouldn't take it? That is the reason why Mitt Romney is still on McCain's list as a veep candidate. So for Obama to limit himself to a third of the resources he would otherwise have would be stupid. He proved he isn't stupid. Next issue?

The FISA bill. It gives most of us on the left heartburn that Obama will vote for it. The bill puts into law immunity for telecom companies that broke the law (at the request of the Bush administration) when they violated your privacy and gave access to government snoops to your telephone calls without a warrant (you don't actually know for sure than nobody did listen to your calls, now do you?) It's true that he had pledged to vote against this earlier. He is saying that the new bill is an improvement, which is true, but the big issue, the immunity for the telecom companies is still in there. So while he can use the cover provided by the changes in the bill to say he didn't flip-flop, yeah he did. However this is hardly a reason to vote for John McCain. You know darn well he will vote for the FISA bill enthusiastically (assuming he bothers to show up at all-- his absentee rate is worse than Obama's in the U.S. Senate this year, negating an issue Republicans once thought they could use.)

Let's discuss the two Supreme Court rulings. I don't consider these to be flip-flops at all. Regarding the first, Obama has said in the past that he supports the death penalty for particularly heinous crimes. He never said whether he considered the rape of a child to qualify, until it became a valid question in the wake of last week's SCOTUS ruling. So if it's the first time he's commented on it, where is the flip-flop? I happen to disagree with him (I actually think the Supreme Court ruling is right-- if we have the death penalty at all then it should be used as an 'eye-for-an-eye' punishment, exclusively for murder) but there is no flip-flop in this case.

Then on the gun case, the Supreme Court ruled against the D.C. gun ban. The justices interpreted the Second Amendment as guaranteeing an individual right to bear arms, not just a collective right. Obama, who in the past has supported gun control laws, agreed with this interpretation. Again, there is no flip-flop. The court ruled the D.C. ban went too far in banning all guns of a certain type, but that isn't contradictory to jurisdictions regulating them. Senator Obama's past statements and his current support of the D.C. ruling are not contradictory in that regard.

For that matter, I agree with both Supreme Court rulings. This puts me in opposition to Senator Obama on the first, but not the second, and in opposition to some liberals on the second, but not the first. Proving what? Proving that in the Democratic party we can have disagreements on issues and still remain united.

OK, what about today's Iraq statement? It is no secret that Senator Obama has pledged to get us out of Iraq. So today he said,

"I’ve always said that the pace of withdrawal would be dictated by the safety and security of our troops and the need to maintain stability. That assessment has not changed. And when I go to Iraq and have a chance to talk to some of the commanders on the ground, I’m sure I’ll have more information and will continue to refine my policies.”

Again, where is the flip-flop? Look at this quote from a Democratic debate in 2007:

We must get out strategically and carefully, removing troops from secure areas first, and keeping troops in more volatile areas until later, but our drawdown should proceed at a steady pace of one or two brigades each month.

Which according to the article led to his taking some heat from some of the other candidates in the debate, particularly John Edwards and Bill Richardson.

That was last September. So what he said today is completely consistent with what he said then. Again, it isn't like he is talking about anything other than withdrawal. He is talking about using information he gathers (i.e. from his upcoming trip to Iraq) to develop a more informed plan for withdrawing. That in itself is a refreshing change from our current executive, who when he began talking about Iraq had his mind already made up what to do and ran an administration that cherry picked intelligence reports to only pick out any which supported their pre-drawn conclusion. I'd much rather have a President who is capable of adjusting the specifics of his policy when and if he receives new information.

Of course then John McCain isn't talking about withdrawing at all, he's talking about staying there for a hundred years. And while we are debating this the Bush administration is feverishly twisting arms in Iraq to try and get them to sign onto a 'treaty' that will involve our building and maintaining as many as sixty military bases in Iraq. What do we need sixty bases there for? Only if we plan on using Iraq as a base from which to exert military control throughout the middle east. Barack Obama opposed George Bush's stupid and criminal war in Iraq from the beginning and he is the only candidate talking about withdrawing from Iraq soon. That's a plain fact. What he said today is in no way contradictory to what he said then.

That said, the attempt by the right-wing media to paint him as a sellout is an attempt to drive a wedge between him and his supporters. And it's met with some success. Markos Moulitsas (Daily Kos) already announced that while he will endorse and vote for Obama, he has torn up the check he was writing him. And as Moulitsas goes so go many supporters. For Obama to realize his goal of raising $250 million online he needs that support.

To a degree Obama also is creating part of the problem by his attempt to 'seize the center.' That doesn't work. He is blessed with the ability to articulate policy positions. Look at what a couple of good orators who can speak directly to the people (mainly, Socialist Bernie Sanders but also Howard Dean) were able to accomplish in Vermont. It was such a Republican state for generations that it even voted against FDR in 1936. Jimmy Carter and Massachusetts neighbor Michael Dukakis couldn't crack it either. But by the late 1980's then-congressman Sanders had laid out such an articulate vision and in terms that anyone could understand that the whole state moved to the left. And unlike, for example, California, it was not an immigration-driven change. Most Vermonters were born and raised in Vermont. But the majority of them are now among the most liberal people in the country when a generation ago they were among the most conservative. Obama could make the same kind of change for America, and I believe it is a mistake for him not to do so.

In fact, exhibit A is Obama himself. He beat Hillary Clinton largely because she had spent six years in the Senate staking out the center, and a lot of activists (who especially were unhappy with her continuing support for the Iraq war long after it became clear to everyone else that it was an unnecessary mistake) by that time were ready to support anybody else who could beat her.

However, while I may have some concerns about Obama's small steps towards the center, let's be clear here-- they have been greatly exagerrated by those who attempt to paint him as a 'flip-flopper.' Those people have the ultimate goal of electing John McCain. And that would be a horrible mistake and a disaster for the country.


Anonymous said...

You're right, the flip-flops are overblown, but this strategy doesn't work. Obama's doing precisely what Gore did, and what Kerry did after sealing the nomination. Leaning to the center to pick up swing votes never works, because they lose as many votes as they gain. And the ones they gain are fence-sitters while the ones they lose were potential donors who are more likely to go Green, or to vote for Nader again, or to just stay home.

Eli Blake said...

I hope that doesn't happen.

Although it is worth remembering that (as you note) a lot of progressives chose to withhold their vote from Al Gore in 2000 (claiming there was little difference between him and Bush) and later it turned out that Gore was in fact a progressive (and further, that even if he were not, there still would have been miles between him and Bush)

Zach said...

I have to agree with your post for the most part. I think that most of Obama's flip flops were not really that big of flip flops. And, if they were flip flops, they were based on changed circumstances. I think that Hillary, John Kerry, etc. actually flip flop. I think that the mistake people make with Obama is seeing disagreeing with the party line as flip flopping. Yes, Obama is a fairly liberal Dem, and McCain is a fairly conservative Republican.

BUT, what makes them both unique, helps them both appeal to independent voters, and, in my opinion, makes this a win-win election, is their ability to think independently and speak out based on independent thoughts.

In my mind, Obama not being 100% in line with the party is a good thing, not a bad thing.

BUT, I will say the one issue that concerns me is the campaign finance issue. It's not a question of whether any candidate would have done the same. It's a question of integrity. If you specifically say you won't do something, as a principal, and then you do it anyway, it makes me doubt your integrity, your honesty, and your commitment. All of which I think are important for a President.

Eli Blake said...


I'd like to point out something then. Thomas Jefferson sent a delegation of three ministers headed by James Monroe to Paris in 1803 with authority only to negotiate with the French for the east bank of the Mississippi river (since owning even a narrow strip of land there would have guaranteed shipping access to the Gulf of Mexico.) That was all they were specifically authorized to agree to, and were even specifically told not to enter into any other agreements since there was a worry that Napoleon might try to trick America into doing his bidding, such as de facto defending French settlements against the British. This was pledged by President Thomas Jefferson to Congress, before they agreed to fund the delegation who also told they could agree to pay no more than $5,000,000 for the narrow strip of land.

Napoleon however made them an offer to sell all French claims on the North American continent for $15,000,000. Of course saying 'yes' (which they did almost immediately, not even wanting to negotiate the offer at all in case Napoleon reconsidered) violated 1. the scope of their mission, 2. the charge which they had not to enter into any other agreements, 3. Jefferson's promises to Congress and 4. their budgetary authority.

They had to make that decision without consultation with Washington since Napoleon might well have changed his mind had they taken the time to get on a ship, sail to America, explain it to Jefferson and to Congress, and then sail back to France.

However when they got back with the agreement, they were hailed as heroes, Jefferson praised Monroe for being smart enough to realize the opportunity he'd been handed and seizing the moment, and Congress quickly appropriated the money to pay for all of it.

Now, the two situations are not comparable except in one way-- Obama has an opportunity to raise an historic sum of money, and to say 'no' (for whatever reason) would be stupid, just as it would have been stupid for James Monroe to say 'no' to Napoleon. Right now I'd rather have a President who reniged on a pledge than one who has proven himself less than capable in the first test of a candidate's leadership ability-- how well he runs his campaign. Our electoral system is not set up to reward rectitude, but rather to reward competence, intelligence and leadership.

Like Leo Durocher said, "Nice guys finish last."