Archive for August, 2012
Former Democratic Alabama Rep. Artur Davis, who introduced President Barack Obama in 2008 at the Democratic Convention in Denver, appeared before the Republican National Convention in Tampa on Monday and fired up the crowd with a powerful speech.
The following was penned by Reihan Salam and originally published by Reuters:
If you’ve been watching the Republican National Convention at home, you probably missed the speech former Representative Artur Davis of Alabama gave on Tuesday night. Sandwiched between Ted Cruz, the Tea Party darling who won an impressive come-from-behind victory in Texas’s GOP Senate primary, and Nikki Haley, the strikingly youthful Indian-American governor of South Carolina, Davis was overshadowed in most of the media coverage. MSNBC decided not to air Davis’s speech at all, which was a noteworthy omission given that Davis had cut his political teeth as a Democrat and indeed as an enthusiastic early backer of President Obama.
But on a star-studded night, before hotly anticipated speeches by Ann Romney and conservative action hero Chris Christie, it was Davis who gave the most effective performance. It was so effective, in fact, that I heard many of the assembled participants speculate about which office he’d run for next.
Party switchers are a staple at these quadrennial affairs. They dramatize the case against the opposition by offering dispatches from within the belly of the beast and signal that it’s safe for voters to forswear their old allegiances. And so they serve the double function of rallying the base and wooing the center.
Perhaps the most notable party switcher in recent memory was Zell Miller, the then-U.S. senator and former governor of Georgia, who gave a spellbindingly zealous speech at the 2004 Republican National Convention. Having once been the centrist Democrat par excellence, practically inventing Bill Clinton’s Third Way playbook, Miller let loose a torrent of rage at Democratic nominee Senator John Kerry that delighted rock-ribbed conservatives everywhere — and may well have frightened small children.
Miller’s fiery address foreshadowed the results of the 2004 election. White southerners, many of whom had retained some vestigial loyalty to the Democratic party of their forefathers, flocked to George W. Bush and the GOP, which helped the party make significant gains in the U.S. Senate. This consolidation of the South has had a deep and profound impact on our politics, in part by sparking an equal and opposite reaction that has driven much of coastal urban America into the arms of the Democrats.
Which is why Democrats have had their own bumper crop of party switchers. This year they’ve pulled off a coup by including Charlie Crist, the ex-Republican former Florida governor once known as “Chain Gang Charlie” for his draconian law-and-order enthusiasms, on their roster of speakers for the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. It’s almost as though the Democrats took a look at Artur Davis and said, we’ll see you your congressman and raise you a governor.
Among the cynical journalists whose tweets I had the distinct displeasure of reading that night, there was a derisive, sneering tone toward Davis, with many observing that the former Alabama congressman, an African American raised by a single mother, was unlikely to sway black voters.
What the critics failed to understand is that Davis’s address, unlike Zell Miller’s, was not about making an ethnic or regional appeal. Rather, he served as a stand-in for a kind of upwardly mobile, aspirational voter you’ll find in many American communities. Davis was raised in humble circumstances in West Montgomery, Alabama. But he also attended Harvard College and Harvard Law School, where he proved an academic success. He later returned to Alabama to serve as a prosecutor. In those years, he embraced the moderate wing of the Democratic Party, and in particular the pragmatic centrism of Bill Clinton. Unlike most elite-educated professionals of his vintage, he didn’t embrace a hard-edged social liberalism. He tried to find ways to reconcile left and right and white and black, and he saw Clinton’s message of hope, growth and opportunity as the right way to do it.
Now, however, having served as a Democrat in Congress under President Obama, and having lost a bruising, ideologically charged Democratic gubernatorial primary in his home state, Davis has changed teams. Not surprisingly, his erstwhile allies have been notably unkind. Once feted as the new face of black Democratic politics and as the “Alabama Obama,” various fair-weather friends have condemned him as an opportunist.
The simple truth is that as the Obama years wore on, Davis found himself agreeing more and more with right-of-center figures like Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. Their tough-minded, whatever-works pragmatism resonated with his experiences, while the Obama administration’s highly ideological approach did not. Davis anticipates, in his words, “the rise of a reform-oriented center-right that is bent on restoring accountability and market principles to public systems” over the next decade.
The really interesting question about Davis’s political future is whether the GOP will become the party of Daniels and Christie and Jeb Bush or, as its critics allege, something narrower, angrier and more ideological. Davis has made it clear that he believes conservatives should seek to reform and improve government as well as contain its growth. This is a conviction widely shared among real-world Republicans. Yet apart from the aforementioned governors, all of whom have their idiosyncrasies, it has few convincing champions in the Republican political class, least of all in Congress.
If Mitt Romney is elected president, he will have a brief window of opportunity to seize this ground and to make the GOP the party of reform, aspiration and inclusiveness. If he pulls that off, Artur Davis will be the harbinger of a much bigger, more consequential shift.
The following was penned by Kerry Picket and originally appeared in the Washington Times:
Former Democratic Alabama Congressman Artur Davis, a now recent member of the Republican party, gave a stunning speech to RNC convention attendees on Tuesday night. Mr. Davis, who seconded President Obama’s nomination at the DNC convention in 2008, began his speech with:
Some of you may know, the last time I spoke at a convention, it turned out I was in the wrongplace.So, Tampa, my fellow Republicans, thank you for welcoming me where I belong.We have a country to turn around. This week you will nominate the most experienced executive to seek the presidency in 60 years in Mitt Romney.He has no illusions about what makes America great, and he doesn’t confuse the presidency with celebrity, or loftiness with leadership.What a difference four years makes.The Democrats’ ads convince me that Governor Romney can’t sing, but his record convinces me he knows how to lead, and I think you know which skill we need more.
“People always appreciate a little bit of humor in the speeches. There’s a tendency sometimes, people get to a convention and then you got to be so serious when you wander up there,” Mr. Davis told me on Wednesday when I spoke with him about the part in his speech that referenced the 2008 DNC Denver convention that was adorned with Greek columns. ”People appreciate humor and I think it’s appropriate. Obviously, the Democrats built up expectations in 2008 that have not been realized and it’s perfectly appropriate to point that out.
In his speech Mr. Davis said:
The Democrats’ ads convince me that Governor Romney can’t sing, but his record convinces me he knows how to lead, and I think you know which skill we need more.Now, America is a land of second chances, and I gather you have room for the estimated 6 million of us who know we got it wrong in 2008 and who want to fix it.Maybe we should have known that night in Denver that things that begin with plywood Greek columns and artificial smoke typically don’t end well.Maybe the Hollywood stars and the glamour blinded us a little: you thought it was the glare, some of us thought it was a halo.But in all seriousness, do you know why so many of us believed? We led with our hearts and our dreams that we could be more inclusive than America had ever been, and no candidate had ever spoken so beautifully.But dreams meet daybreak: the jobless know what I mean, so do the families who wonder how this Administration could wreck a recovery for three years and counting.
The former Alabama congressman says he is getting a “gracious response” around the RNC convention.
“There’s been a very nice response walking around. I’m honored to be here,” he said. “It’s a great chance to meet Governor Romney and Mrs. Romney after the speech last night for the first time.”
However, individuals within his former political affiliation, according to Davis, are reacting differently. “I don’t pay a lot of attention to people who start the conversation with, ‘We always thought we hated you now we know we do,’” Mr Davis said.
This transcript first appeared on Real Clear Politics on August 28, 2012. The speech was delivered at the Republican National Convention on August 28, 2012.
Ladies and gentlemen, thank you.
Some of you may know, the last time I spoke at a convention, it turned out I was in the wrong
So, Tampa, my fellow Republicans, thank you for welcoming me where I belong.
We have a country to turn around. This week you will nominate the most experienced executive to seek the presidency in 60 years in Mitt Romney.
He has no illusions about what makes America great, and he doesn’t confuse the presidency with celebrity, or loftiness with leadership.
What a difference four years makes.
The Democrats’ ads convince me that Governor Romney can’t sing, but his record convinces me he knows how to lead, and I think you know which skill we need more.
Now, America is a land of second chances, and I gather you have room for the estimated 6 million of us who know we got it wrong in 2008 and who want to fix it.
Maybe we should have known that night in Denver that things that begin with plywood Greek columns and artificial smoke typically don’t end well.
Maybe the Hollywood stars and the glamour blinded us a little: you thought it was the glare, some of us thought it was a halo.
But in all seriousness, do you know why so many of us believed? We led with our hearts and our dreams that we could be more inclusive than America had ever been, and no candidate had ever spoken so beautifully.
But dreams meet daybreak: the jobless know what I mean, so do the families who wonder how this Administration could wreck a recovery for three years and counting.
So many of those high-flown words have faded.
Remember the President saying of negative politics and untrue ads, “not this time?”
Who knew “not this time” just meant “not unless the economy is still stuck and we can’t run onour record?”
Remember, too, when he said, “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal?”
Who knew the plain English version of it was, “middle America, get ready to shell out 60 bucks to fill up your car?”
And in terms of their crown jewel legislative achievement: who knew that when asked, “will government impose a new federal mandate requiring middle class Americans to buy health insurance whether they can afford it or not?”
The answer would be “Yes we can!”
So, this time, in the name of 23 million of our children and parents and brothers and sisters who are officially unemployed, underemployed, or who have stopped looking for work, let’s put the poetry aside, let’s suspend the hype, let’s come down to earth and start creating jobs again.
This time, instead of moving oceans and healing planets, let’s get our bills in order and pay down
the debt so we control our own future.
And of course, we know that opportunity lies outside the reach of some of our people.
We don’t need flowery words about inequality to tell us that, and we don’t need a party that has led while poverty and hunger rose to record levels to give us lectures about suffering.
Ladies and gentlemen, there are Americans who are listening to this speech tonight who haven’t always been with you, and I want you to let me talk — just to them – for a moment.
I know how loaded up our politics is with anger and animosity, but I have to believe we can still make a case over the raised voices.
There are Americans who voted for the president, but who are searching right now, because they know that their votes didn’t build the country they wanted.
To those Democrats and independents whose minds are open to argument: listen closely to the Democratic Party that will gather in Charlotte and ask yourself if you ever hear your voice in the clamor.
Ask yourself if these Democrats still speak for you.
When they say we have a duty to grow government even when we can’t afford it, does it sound like compassion to you — or recklessness?
When you hear the party that glorified Occupy Wall Street blast success; when you hear them minimize the genius of the men and women who make jobs out of nothing, is that what you teach your children about work?
When they tell you America is this unequal place where the powerful trample on the powerless, does that sound like the country your children or your spouse risked their lives for in Iraq or Afghanistan?
Do you even recognize the America they are talking about? And what can we say about a house that doesn’t honor the pictures on its walls?
John F. Kennedy asked us what we could do for America. This Democratic Party asks what can government give you. Don’t worry about paying the bill, it’s on your kids and grandkids.
Bill Clinton took on his base and made welfare a thing you had to work for; this current crowd guts the welfare work requirement in the dead of night.
Bill Clinton, Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson reached out across the aisle and said meet me in the middle; but their party rammed through a healthcare bill that took over one-sixth of our economy, without accepting a single Republican idea, without winning a single vote in either house from a party whose constituents make up about 50 percent of the country.
You know, the Democrats used to have a night when they presented a film of their presidential legends: if they do it in Charlotte, the theme song should be this year’s hit, “Somebody That I Used to Know.”
My fellow Americans, when great athletes falter, their coaches sometimes whisper to them “remember who you are.” It’s a call to their greatness at a moment when their bodies and spirit are too sapped to remember their strength.
This sweet, blessed, God-inspired place called America is a champion that has absorbed some blows.
But while we bend, we don’t break.
This is no dark hour; this is the dawn before we remember who we are.
May it be said of this time in our history: 2008 to 2011: lesson learned.
2012: mistake corrected.
God bless you, God bless America. Thank you
The following ‘Your World’ interview was held at the Republican National Convention and can be viewed in full by clicking here:
This article originally appeared in National Review on August 16, 2012.
There has always been a measured slickness in how Barack Obama’s political operation has handled race, the third rail in politics. They have taken the guards off the rail and made an old obstacle an instrument of fashion. And they have done so with an instinct for the genuine and legitimate guilt surrounding race in American life. As political maneuver, it is a thing of grace in some ways.
At least until the thing turns shameless and expedient. Bill Clinton got the first dose of the treatment, when he protested that Obama’s credentials as an anti-war stalwart were “the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.” That comment was then shape-shifted from a hard political jab at Obama’s rhetorical dodges on the Iraq War to an insinuation that the notion that Obama could win the presidency was wishful fantasy. No dispassionate observer who saw the video and heard Clinton in full cry would have arrived at the seamier interpretation, but with the nudging of Axelrod and Co., and with a little help from South Carolina’s congressman Jim Clyburn, the idea that Clinton meant much worse took hold.
The punch that Clinton absorbed was uncocked repeatedly. Sometimes on defense — when the Jeremiah Wright tapes surfaced, for example, the reasonable question of what drew Obama to a church with a history of incendiary rhetoric was cleverly converted to a teaching moment about an older generation’s fixation with race. When questions about the link between Obama and his old neighbor and fundraiser William Ayers started to burn, the line of inquiry was brushed off as an indirect method of raising fears about black radicalism, and it soon faded.
More often, the blow was an offensive one. The “Yes We Can” mantra always carried the insinuation that Obama’s primary wins were a triumph over the color line. Hillary Clinton’s campaign never found a way to channel that kind of power, even with another glass ceiling at stake. To the contrary, the Clintonites only added fuel to the fire through their observations about Obama’s struggle to connect with working-class whites — and through their lament that he was lucky to “be who he is,” in the words of the late Geraldine Ferraro. To desert Obama in the final throes of the 2008 primaries, Democrats would have had to break faith with their most loyal base and with their party’s identification with the civil-rights era. That was the cloud hovering over Hillary’s furious rally in the final quarter.
The transcendent moment of Obama’s triumph can’t be diminished. But one would have to be blinkered to deny that Obama’s race in 2008 likely empowered him much more than it weakened him — or to assume that Obama’s strategists and their acolytes in the press don’t recognize the power of recapturing race as both an offensive and a defensive weapon.
Enter Joe Biden in Danville, Va., on Tuesday, before a crowd with a large African-American presence. In forced colloquialisms, the vice president warned the audience that Republicans would “put y’all back in chains.” In the hours since, Team Obama has scratched hard to find a different subtext to his statement, but their mincing of words has only added insult to injury: Every African American in the room knew full well whom “y’all” referred to, and what chains meant — it’s one of the clearest codes in racial politics in the black community and has been for a while. At worst, the word “chains” signifies a retreat to a society where a person’s skin color amounted to a prison. At the least, the word bluntly and outrageously equates ordinary conservatism with racial viciousness.
Biden brought this rawness to a place the Obama campaign and its allies have spent much time cultivating this year. It is visible in David Axelrod’s breathless assertions about a decidedly innocent, non-political moment: a small black child touching Obama’s head in an Oval Office photo-op. It is visible in Eric Holder’s deployment of the Justice Department to a series of battles over state voter-ID laws, and in the New York Times’ editorial-page crusade against all manner of alleged race-baiting by Republicans. (Including one writer’s remarkable, if side-splitting, assertion that Mitt Romney’s blandness is a calculated ploy to invoke memories of a Fifties-era, pre-multicultural America. Who knew?) It is an unmistakable, unapologetic argument that to defeat Obama is to suspend progress on race.
Of course, there are different kinds of progress. There is the inconvenient fact that Obama has governed while black unemployment and the level of child hunger in the black community have risen to the highest rates in the modern era, and while educational achievement among African Americans continues to bottom out at appalling levels. This record is one that the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus said last summer would lead blacks to march outside the White House if it had a different occupant.
The Obama message, implicitly, is that the conditions on the ground, including in the black community, are small, grudging details when weighed against the epic fact that a black man occupies the Oval Office. It’s a point of view. But that argument is too charged, too at odds with Obama’s official de-emphasis on race, to be made out loud and in the light of day. Better to work through the hidden-hand approach, through surrogates who create plausible deniability and through commentators who can be disavowed. Interesting that the Sixties-era figure whom the Obama reelect campaign conjures up is neither a Kennedy nor a King but that great hidden-hand stone thrower, Richard Nixon.
— Artur Davis served four terms in Congress representing Alabama’s 7th district.
Written by David Fahrenthold, this article appeared in The Washington Post on August 16, 2012.
Former congressman Artur Davis, who officially seconded President Obama’s nominationat the 2008 Democratic convention, said Wednesday that he will cap a remarkable political metamorphosis by addressing the Republican convention this month — calling for Obama’s defeat.
Davis, 44, who served in the House as a Democrat from Alabama from 2003 to 2011, said in a telephone interview that he has been given a speaking slot at the Aug. 27-30 Republican convention in Tampa. He said he was not sure yet of the day on which he would speak.
I will offer the obligatory caveat: I know Paul Ryan from serving with him on two congressional committees during the eight years I spent in the House. It is not fair to call him a friend, at least not in the way human beings who aren’t politicians use that term, but I liked him a great deal. I liked the little things–when he engaged you in conversation, you had his attention and his eyes didn’t drift in search of a more powerful member, or a potential donor–and I admired the more consequential things, like his genuine smarts and the fact that when he spoke on the floor or in hearings, you heard the product of an active mind that didn’t need ghostwriting or lobbyist drafted talking points.
Frankly, I don’t know the politics of the pick. The Obama campaign is way too thrilled at this announcement to attribute it just to gamesmanship or wishfulness: they know that the Ryan budget plan has not polled well, that its realignment of Medicare unsettles seniors, and that to some independents (and at one point, Newt Gingrich) it looks more like ideological engineering than a response to our current bout of economic stagnation. A campaign whose allies just wrapped a woman’s death around Mitt Romney and Bain Capital, facts be damned, will not shrink from painting Ryan as a cold-blooded, Ayn Rand inspired radical who puts theory over people. (If you have never heard of the libertarian writer and polemicist for whom Ryan has expressed admiration, Democratic opposition researchers will endeavor to change that.)
My guess (and hope) is the Democratic attack will be so undisciplined that it is excessive and that Ryan, an imminently decent and pleasant man, looks to Americans nothing like the caricature that Democrats are about to paint. The campaigner who has won easily in a district Barack Obama carried has the raw ability to make a case that his budget really is a blueprint for a shared prosperity. He has flourished making that argument in settings more rigorous than the ritual anchor sit-downs that are coming, and he will not be intimidated by the skeptical, arched eyebrows of his interrogators, or by Joe Biden’s put-downs.
I also think Ryan can and will point out that an entitlement structure built for a population that rarely lived past seventy has to be refitted for a future where octogenarians are the fastest rising age demographic; that universal, one size fits all Medicare coverage has always been more a political bribe to sustain support than some solemn moral commitment; that government overpromising its capacities is itself immoral; and that the first casualties of an entitlement train-wreck would be the poor and the vulnerable, who most need the current compact to be amended so its best parts can survive.
My other hopes are that Paul Ryan’s reformer instincts aren’t just built around budgets. Conservatism needs to adopt education reform as a cause, not just as a wedge against the selfishness of teachers unions, but as the most effective instrument to reduce inequality. Conservatism needs not just to repeal Obamacare but to replace it with a market based correction to the inadequacies of the status quo. The political right has to reclaim legal immigration as a point of pride and to distance itself from overheated claims about “us” losing “our” culture: that means much less talk about “self-deportation” crusades against illegal immigrants, much more confidence in assimilation, much more focus on an immigration regime that privileges individual responsibility and families.
The guy I admired from across the aisle and sometimes chatted with gets all of the above, and may provide the center-right its most artful and effective political advocate. I think that Ryan knows that his party’s survival rests on conservatism growing and adapting to a changed economic world in a way that liberalism never has.
So, without minimizing the risk in claiming a space that Democrats have effectively attacked for years, I felt inspired seeing Paul Ryan rise from obscurity to the epicenter of politics in 24 hours. It’s an ascension that is well-earned: not one of his generational peers has used time as a lawmaker more seriously or more assertively. (The contrast with Obama–whose 12 uneventful years in the state and national Senate were spent running for, or exploring runs for, higher office–is palpable). If this ends well, a campaign that has been accused of running a prevent defense without being ahead has just made a serious down-payment on its party’s future.
A version of this essay originally appeared in the Recovering Politician on August 13, 2012
For the most part, Bill Clinton’s reconstruction of the Democratic Party is a masterpiece that did not survive the consummate political artist’s time in power: balanced budgets seem like a relic of a bygone era; the pro-growth, business friendly wing of the Democratic Party has given way to Elizabeth Warren style populism; and modulated stances on social issues have been replaced with legal fights against Catholic hospitals, rhetorical battle cries about a “War on Women”, and a place in the party’s platform for a fifty state right of same sex marriage.
The exception, the one preserved centrist jewel from that era, had been (until last week) the 1996 reform of welfare. As a policy instrument, the conversion of welfare from an entitlement to an earned benefit conditioned on work, job training, or secondary level education like a GDE program rested on decades of data about the perils of dependency in poor communities. As a political instrument, coupling public assistance with a work requirement achieved a stunning result: a benefit program that had been deeply controversial, and racially polarizing, was re-crafted as a bipartisan amalgam of left-leaning altruism and right-leaning notions of personal responsibility.
As a result, one of the most contentious ideological disputes between seventies and eighties era conservatives and liberals all but disappeared as a flashpoint. It has been Social Security and Medicare–not welfare–that movement conservatives have sought to redesign in the past eight years, and the most provocative expenditure of public dollars in the last four years has been the transfer of nearly a trillion dollars to the banking and automobile industries rather than any form of public assistance.
Given that run of success, and the fairly indisputable social theory behind it, the Obama Administration’s about-face on welfare policy last week is one of its more curious leftward movements. It’s a policy thrust that didn’t surface in the context of the stimulus in 2009 and its entirely defensible expansion of unemployment benefits, and gutting the work requirement has not been a subject of agitation even in liberal circles despite abysmal levels of African American and Latino youth unemployment. Then there is the inconvenience of the Obama camp having to explain away his enthusiastic defense of the 96 law in the last campaign, when the Illinois Senator volunteered his belated support of the work requirement as the single area of public policy where his views had shifted most dramatically.
A shift that makes so little substantive sense–and carries obvious election year risks–begs explanation. One suspicion is that the move is campaign bait to lure Republicans into a round of welfare-bashing that could galvanize elements of the Democratic base. (presumably, those parts of the base who remain unmoved by fear-mongering around voter ID laws and a steady drumbeat on black radio about the racial backlash that is alleged to be at the core of GOP efforts this fall).
The broader prism, however, may be that Obama presidency is simply doubling down on its inclinations about the limited usefulness of bipartisanship. An administration that declined to bolster healthcare reform by cutting a deal with moderate Senate Republicans on tort reform or health saving accounts, and that refused to break its 2011 jobs bill into individual components that might attract Republican votes, may be similarly unmoved by the value of a welfare program that has substantial Republican buy-in.
It may also be that Obama is not “evolving”, but reverting back to the kind of liberal combativeness that was essential for an aspiring state senator trying to rise in left leaning Chicago, and that characterized Obama’s 2008 jabs at the Clinton presidency’s lack of “transformative” firepower.
Either reality underscores that for all of its political imaginativeness, the Obama camp is engaged in an entirely different kind of enterprise than those “non-transformative” Clintonites. Rather than co-opt Republicans by snatching selected policy goals of theirs, rather than shoring up broader public support by giving Republicans partial ownership of his agenda, Obama’s energies appear focused on reviving liberalism as a coherent, unapologetic governing philosophy. It’s the sentiment of a liberalism that views conservatism not as a genuine rival, but as a discredited, weakening force that may not survive the country’s shifting demographics.
The troublesome part for Obama is that the long-term is no substitute for the short-term fact that his campaign has done precious little to salvage its standing with the white blue-collars and socially conservative independents that swung sharply to the right in 2010. And if the bloc-of-the month maneuvers of this year pay off with a nose-length victory, the middle-term looks unappealing too: a government that has tuned out roughly half the country, more stratification in American politics, and a return to a scorched earth debate over what we owe the poor and what they owe themselves.
It’s tempting to wonder how candidate Barack Obama would have performed in 2008 if he had campaigned on President Barack Obama’s agenda in the first seven months of 2012. Imagine if the Illinois Senator had gone on record favoring a rewrite of federal regulations to mandate Catholic institutions to cover contraceptives in their insurance plans; if he had endorsed same-sex marriage; if he had pledged to dismantle the work requirement at the centerpiece of welfare reform; and if he claimed the executive authority to alter federal immigration laws on his own without waiting for congressional approval.
The likely result is that the base of his party would have been thrilled at such a thoroughgoing progressive vision, but that Obama would have hardened his image as a Kerry/Dukakis like cultural liberal with a tin ear for Middle America. The McCain campaign certainly would have had ammunition fresher than the obscure William Ayers to cast Obama as an ideological risk and, perhaps, a path to divert conservative independents and blue collar Hillary Clinton voters from the crevasses in the economy.
In the real universe, and not this parallel one of progressive fantasies, Obama campaigned as someone quite different from the liberal warrior Republicans would have relished running against. To the extent Obama ventured into cultural politics at all, it was with the measured nuance of a Clintonian moderate: tolerant of civil unions, but opposed to gay marriage on religious grounds; respectful of the public divide on reproductive rights, and virtual silence on an immigration proposal that had dominated congressional debate just two summers earlier. Obama even described the welfare reform that he had opposed as a rookie legislator as an unmitigated success and its work requirement as a “centerpiece of any social policy.”
One possibility is, of course, that the ideologically unbound Obama of this calendar year is the genuine article and that 2008 was a carefully cultivated pose. Another is that Obama is less the closet leftist, more the artful dodger who lifts up or discards hot-button issues based solely on how they affect the electoral calculus.
But even taking Obama’s moves charitably, as “evolution” or a response to changed circumstances, two variables are impossible to ignore. Even Obama’s defenders would be hard-pressed to deny that at least his latest flip-flop on welfare and the abrupt lurch to unilateral action on immigration are outright concessions to failure: in the welfare context, an acknowledgment that the labor market, especially for minorities, may be abysmal enough to justify abandoning a bipartisan consensus on whether welfare is an earned benefit or an entitlement; in the case of immigration, an admission that even a Democratic Congress couldn’t produce a solution.
The second irresistible conclusion is that Democrats have reverted to a strategic approach in which maintaining a foot in the cultural center of American politics is not much of a Democratic priority. An administration that is in court tangling with faith-based institutions over the tenets of their doctrine, and that has explicitly declared those same tenets as a wedge in a “war on women”, and a president who equates resistance to same sex marriage with Jim Crow and pre-civil rights era bigotry has staked out very different, more deliberately polarizing ground than either candidate Obama or the last Democratic president.
Whether the Romney campaign can make a meaningful case about Obama’s sharp break from the political center on social issues remains undetermined. To date, the Romney camp has steered clear of picking fights that are “off message” from its relentless focus on jobs and spending. And as maddening as it is to conservatives that the mainstream media brandish Romney’s shifts of position as a character flaw while ignoring Obama’s, the flip-flop allegation is always more damaging for a still vaguely defined challenger like Romney, much less so for a fully defined incumbent whose personal likability remains high.
But for both culturally conservative swing voters and moderate independents, Obama’s own policy choices and the directions he has been pushed into out of a position of political and economic weakness may make a more telling point: that one of the central promises of his original campaign, a kind of lofty, consensus minded renewal of national unity, is a thoroughly discarded possibility at this point. An Obama reelection means instead a resurgence of a Mondale-Dukakis-Kerry model that successful national Democrats tried hard to distance themselves from: interest group dominated, socially liberal, partisan to the core. Who knew that when Obama pledged to turn the page he meant backward, to the section the losers ran on?