Wednesday :: Dec 12, 2007

The Titanic: The Obama Campaign Tries to Preemptively Self-Destruct (in the General Election)

by eriposte

Yesterday, the Politco ran a story on Sen. Obama's past titled "Liberal views could haunt Obama". I'm going to reproduce a few sections of the story and then comment on the implications of the story (emphasis mine, throughout this post):

When Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) was seeking state office a dozen years ago, he took unabashedly liberal positions: flatly opposed to capital punishment, in support of a federal single-payer health plan, against any restrictions on abortion, and in support of state laws to ban the manufacture, sale and even possession of handguns.

Filling out a 12-page questionnaire [part 1 of questionnaire, part 2 of questionnaire] from an Illinois voter group as he sought a state Senate seat in 1996, Obama answered “yes” or “no” — without using the available space to calibrate his views — on some of the most emotional and politically potent issues that a public official can confront.
A week after Politico provided the questionnaire to the Obama campaign for comment, an aide called Monday night to say that Obama had said he did not fill out the form, and provided a contact for his campaign manager at the time, who said she filled it out. It includes first-person comments such as: “I have not previously been a candidate.”

The campaign said his views have been consistent, and points out that his positions have always been more nuanced than can be conveyed in yes-or-no answers.

Obama, who makes an issue of his opponents’ consistency in the presidential race, has tempered many of those 1996 views during his quick rise to the pinnacle of American politics. He now takes less dogmatic positions many of those hot-button issues — in the view of some Democrats, he abandoned the stands as he rose through the ranks.
Regardless, the blunt statements of his earlier views, preserved on a questionnaire he filled out for an Illinois voter group that later endorsed him, would allow a Republican opponent to paint him as being way to the left of the nation’s electorate on questions that have historically been potent wedge issues.
But Obama has never faced a serious Republican electoral challenge. And as the reality that he could be the Democratic nominee sinks in, party analysts are assessing the risks of a career that — unlike that of New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, his chief rival for the nomination — has not been spent carefully anticipating and avoiding GOP attacks.

So electability questions that once were directed at Clinton may now be asked about Obama.

Put more bluntly, Republicans think his high-minded approach to issues could make him a sitting duck....

There are multiple issues raised by this story - but nothing is more disturbing about the story than the Obama campaign's astoundingly inept responses to the questions it raises. Let me comment on the various issues in turn.

1. The Sitting Duck

Without a doubt, Sen. Obama has not faced any real Republican opposition in his career and Republicans will have a field day with questionnaires of this sort. Jerome Armstrong at MyDD has it right in response to the Obama campaign's contention that any questions about his electability are really just "spin" from the Hillary campaign:

Obama has never faced a serious Republican challenge. Not one. Obama has no experience of the hostile and polarized political environment that he'd enter were he to win the nomination, and he has distanced himself from partisan Democrats during his campaign for the nomination. I don't think it's spin to question how Obama might actually do once he confronts Republicans on the campaign trail, instead of across the table in those bipartisan negotiations he longs for making happen.

My guess is that, once he's personally experienced the confrontation of the Republican machine, it would totally transform the way Obama views campaigns. Rather than viewing partisan progressives as something to Sister Soulja while he appeases the non-partisan media machine, he would come to realize the value, in today's partisan environment, of engaging partisan Democrats as part of his campaign. He'd prepare to battle with us, rather than trash us as tokens of the past.

2. It Wasn't I

Sen. Obama also denied having responded to the questionnaire himself, blaming a campaign "aide" for it. As Jerome notes:

LOL, predictably, another pitiful staffer goes under the bus instead of Obama taking responsibility for having changed some positions:

REALITY: As evidence of Obama's "unabashedly liberal positions," the reporter points to a questionnaire that Obama never saw or approved. It was filled out by an aide who has conceded she never got Obama's sign-off. Some of the answers accurately reflect Obama's position. Others do not.

The "aide" was actually the Campaign Manager, writing such first-person comments as: "I have not previously been a candidate."

Now, let's give Sen. Obama the benefit of the doubt and assume for now that he may not have written the responses himself. This scenario has its own problem. What it suggests is that Sen. Obama was running a campaign where his campaign manager was freelancing and saying whatever was needed to help him win the election, whether it was true or not (hmmm) and that he had no checks and balances in place (the group that got the responses from the Obama campaign ended up endorsing him).

3. Didn't You Know, We Are All About Nuance?

As the Politico article notes, even though the questionnaire had space for nuanced responses, many of the responses from the Obama campaign were "yes" or "no" type responses. What did the Obama campaign say to that?

The campaign said his views have been consistent, and points out that his positions have always been more nuanced than can be conveyed in yes-or-no answers.

Really! I would never have known:

Obama spokesman Bill Burton issued an even tougher rebuke of the Democratic front-runner. "It's absurd to compare a simple yes or no question about immigration that Senator Clinton still won't answer seven days after the debate to the despicable Republican attacks against John Kerry and Max Cleland's patriotism," he said. "Senator Obama believes that to truly stand up to the Republican attack machine, we have to be honest and straightforward about where we stand on the major issues facing America."

4. Didn't You Know Mandates are Great, in Principle?

As Taylor Marsh observed:

Of course, Mr. Obama no longer holds these beliefs about guns. I know, you're shocked. But if that doesn't get you this one sure will.

Obama said he would support a single-payer health plan for Illinois “in principal” [sic], “although such a program will probably have to be instituted at a federal level; the long-term objective would be a universal care system that does not differentiate between the unemployed, the disabled, and so on.” The campaign says Obama has consistently supported single payer health care in principle.

Single-payer health plan? It's Dennis Kucinich. And Mr. Obama is carping at Hillary about mandates? His prior beliefs actually include the mother of all mandates...

According to the Obama camp, he still believes in single-payer healthcare - which requires a universal mandate - in principle. Now, the Obama camp knew about this questionnaire for at least a week and they must have known that they would be asked about his support for single-payer healthcare "in principle". In the middle of all this, they took the time to publish their deliberately misleading attack on Paul Krugman - who was criticizing Sen. Obama's healthcare plan for the lack of a mandate and criticizing Sen. Obama for falsely attacking Sen. Clinton from the right because her plan has a mandate. Clearly, it was the Politics of Hope, Change and OptimismTM at work.

P.S. After all of their attacks on Sen. Clinton and Paul Krugman, the Obama campaign seems to have quietly backtracked to "universal access" now, rather than "universal healthcare".

5. The Practice of Principle

As Taylor Marsh observed, the next statement makes no sense whatsoever.

The campaign responds within the Allen-Smith article:

For instance, Obama says he supports the death penalty in limited circumstances, such as an especially heinous crime. The campaign says Obama has consistently supported the death penalty “in principle” and opposed it “in practice.”

Delicious. Mr. Obama "consistently supported the death penalty 'IN PRINCIPLE' and opposed it 'IN PRACTICE.' How clear. How perfectly, well, groovy for the the other guys.

This is deeply embarrasing and much worse than what Sen. John Kerry got completely trashed over. It just gets worse from there on. This is the kind of stuff that will very likely derail his quest for the Presidency from day one, if he wins the Democratic nomination. This has Titanic written all over it, especially given that Sen. Obama has never been really tested in the past with strong Republican opposition and what we are seeing now is just the tip of the iceberg.

6. Talk is Cheap and Bipartisanship May Trump Principle

The other substantive point that this questionnaire brings to the fore about Sen. Obama is the fact that his campaign claimed he had extremely liberal stances and his actual record in the Illinois State Senate, while quite progressive, was clearly not as liberal as the stances reflected in the questionnaire. Nothing surprising or bothersome about this per se, but this is a key point I've been trying to make about elections. Candidates, especially in primaries, will seek to pander by saying what they need to say to get people's votes. Sen. Obama's pitch on Iraq is almost entirely that he opposed it when he was not in the U.S. Senate. While his opposition was smart, it does not convince me that he would have voted no on the Iraq war resolution in 2002 if he had been in the U.S. Senate then. Another example is Sen. Edwards' pitch of populism when he was running for the Senate in 1998 and his repeated claim that he would not let the special interests dictate his votes once he was in the Senate - because he took no special interest money. The reality? His voting record was not exactly what you would expect from that populist pitch. The moral is that there are limitations to running campaigns promising pleasingly wonderful things to voters to get them to vote for you.

Let me state this in a slightly different way. It's easy to be for or against things in a very black and white way when you are not in Congress or not likely to face a strong opposing noise machine aiming to bring you down (whether it is your Senate seat or the Presidency). It's much harder to have such black and white views once you are in office. It will be particularly hard for Sen. Obama because, in addition to the usual pressures of the office, his pitch is based on the politics of personality and friendship (with the GOP) aka "bipartisanship". When you value bipartisanship or friendship so much, there is an added risk that you will sometimes end up compromising your principles in order to not upset your "friends". That is exactly what happened with Sen. Obama and Joe Lieberman in the 2006 CT-Sen race.

When you combine this story and the campaign's egregiously inept response to it, with everything else we know about Sen. Obama, it's pretty obvious that Sen. Obama is dangerously and suicidally unprepared for primetime (i.e., the general election). Like I said, I will support him if he's the eventual Democratic nominee for President, but he will have a massive barrier to surmount in the general election, much more so than many of his opponents. So, I will reiterate my earlier comment that he will definitely not be my #1 choice for the Democratic nominee.

eriposte :: 12:07 AM :: Comments (24) :: Digg It!