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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

I watched a little bit of Hannity’s America tonight, the subject of which was “The Real Barack Obama”. Hannity spent most of the program trying (and usually failing) to reconcile two apparently contradictory notions: the right’s former favorite criticism about Obama — that he’s a demagogue who intends to bring a radical liberal agenda to the White House — with their new favorite criticism — that he’s a pandering do-anything, say-anything flip-flopper, cut from the same cloth as Clinton, Gore and Kerry.

I’ve also read Paul Krugman’s new editorial which is out in tomorrow’s Times and criticizes Obama for being too “Clintonesque”. While Krugman’s position is a little bit more nuanced than Hannity’s, it is nevertheless ironic coming from someone who had argued so fervently for four more Clinton years in the White House, albeit four from the missus rather than the mister.

All of which goes to show: if the worst thing they can say about you is that you’re the new Bill Clinton, then you’re probably in pretty good shape for November.

Certainly, there is more to the story than that. For one thing, I’m not sure that Obama’s apparent shift to the center is quite as premeditated as everyone has made it out to be. It seems to me that there are a couple of issues — like NAFTA and Israel — where Obama has moved to the center and had probably intended to do so for some time. That Obama was going to turn down public financing has also been obvious for months now. But others are more a matter of timing and circumstance. On FISA, for instance, I have argued that Obama’s hands were somewhat tied once Nancy Pelosi staked out her ground. The Obama campaign was slow to issue a position statement on FISA, and one almost senses that they did so through gritted teeth. Likewise, the Supreme Court decisions on the death penalty and the Second Amendment came down this week simply because this was when the Court decided to rule on those cases. So what might have been four or five isolated incidents stretched out over the course of the summer instead were compressed into a period of a week or two, and a meme was born.

Nevertheless, what does all of this really tell us about Obama? It tells us, I think, that Obama has a pretty keen sensibility for risk management, and tends to come down on the risk-averse side.

John McCain’s best strategy for winning this election was and possibly remains the following: seize the center, while simultaneously portraying Barack Obama as an agent of the radical left. This was not necessarily going to be easy to do, since some of the right’s favorite critiques of Democrats were likely to fall on deaf ears in the context of a poor economy and an unpopular war. Nevertheless, among a number of relatively weak strategies that McCain had to pick from, this was probably his best. Democrats have something like a 4:3 edge in party identification and they are going to turn out in November; the number of Democrats with an unfavorable opinion of Obama is no longer especially high and is likely to continue declining. That means that McCain is going to need to dominate among independent voters, something which might become more difficult now that Obama has preempted his move to the center.

Secondly, as Hannity and Krugman reveal, Obama was going to be criticized either way. Are there greater risks in being labeled a radical liberal or a flip-flopper? There are greater risks to Obama in the former. The ‘radical liberal’ caricature is more likely to bring things like Jeremiah Wright, flag pins and Obama’s race into play, whereas the caricature of the pandering politician is familiar — depressingly so to some voters, but perhaps reassuringly so to others. Moreover, John McCain is on relatively shaky ground to criticize Obama as a flip-flopper. As Obama surrogates have eagerly begun to point out, McCain’s own flip-flops have been considerable. One of the benefits to being as wrongheadedly stubborn a man as George W. Bush was is that you rarely have problems with consistency. McCain does not have that luxury, if you can call it that.

In short, Obama does not mind so much being labeled a ‘Generic Democrat’, in an election where a Generic Democrat might beat a Generic Republican by 10-15 points.

Obama’s decisions can perhaps be thought of as risk-averse. To extend Krugman’s analogy, perhaps he is less likely now to win a Reagenesque 489 electoral votes and more likely to win a Clintonesque total somewhere in the low-to-mid 300s. But whereas Clinton pulled significantly ahead of George H. W. Bush in the summer and essentially never looked back, Reagan’s move came at the last minute. He was probably inherently more likely to lose the 1980 election than Clinton was in 1992, even though he wound up winning bigger.

That does not mean that there are no risks to Obama. The flip-flopper label remains among the more damaging ones in American politics, and if Obama is not careful, it too might be used as a vehicle to bring in excess baggage: Who is this guy? What does he really stand for? So it will be up to Obama to bring the ‘change’ brand full-circle by denoting exactly what kind of change he intends to deliver. Instead of the compassionate conservative, Obama can portray himself as the principled pragmatist. Pick at least three of the four core issues I outlined the other day — health care, the economy, the environment, and Iraq — argue that they are at crisis point and that others must take a back seat, make clear that you aren’t prepared to compromise on those, and put forward some policy specifics. Public sentiment on all four issues significantly favors the Democratic position, and if Obama does not waver on those, the electorate should have no trouble perceiving his consistency.

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