Friday, June 27, 2008

Barack Obama is No Michael Dukakis!

In 2007, Barack Obama racked up the most liberal voting record in U.S. Senate, according to National Jounal's report, "Obama: Most Liberal Senator In 2007."

Now, however, folks are noticing
a shift in Obama's campaign rhetoric toward greater centrism.

The lurch to the middle is a regular feature of presidential politics. After wrapping up the nomination, the party standard-bearer needs to heal the party wounds from the primaries and then tailor the campaign's message to voters in the general electorate.

How far to the center can Barack Obama go? Is he a traditional liberal, perhaps like Michael Dukakis, who lost in 1988 to G.H.W. Bush? Or is he further to the left, in radical territory?

A look at
Obama's campaign platform indicates an extremely left-wing agenda, on fiscal policy, social issues, and the war in Iraq. Yet as the recent debates over FISA have shown, the Illinois Senator's not far enough to the left for the most implacable forces of the hardline Democratic Party base.

Well, Nate Silver, at 538, argues that Obama's no liberal in the Michael Dukakis mode: "
Why Obama isn't like Dukakis":

As several observers have noted recently, including yours truly, June polling has not been a particularly good predictor of November results. In four out of the last five elections, the candidate leading in the polls in June went on to lose the popular vote. The largest discrepancy was in 1988, when Michael Dukakis, 8.2 points ahead in June, would eventually lose the election by 7.8 points -- a catastrophic 16-point swing against the Massachusetts governor.

This election too could move in any number of different directions. While Obama can presently be regarded as the healthy favorite, think of what a 16-point swing would mean in this year's election. If that swing were in Obama's direction (giving him a 21-point victory when added to his current lead of about 5 points) we would project Obama to win all states except Alabama, Idaho, Oklahoma and Utah. If it were in John McCain's direction instead, giving him an 11-point win nationwide, we would have him winning 42 out of 50 states.

The way that the Republicans achieved that big swing in 1988, assisted by a couple of significant gaffes from the Dukakis campaign, was to portray Dukakis as too liberal for the American mainstream. The same basic strategic template was employed against John Kerry in 2004. However, this strategy is unlikely to work in 2008. How come? Barack Obama is already perceived as being very liberal.
Silver goes on to elaborate his argument further, but the conclusion caught my attention:

There is also a school of thought that voters in Presidential elections tend to base their decisions less on the ideological attributes of a candidate and more on the personal ones. Obama's favorability rating presently stands at a +25. By contrast, John Kerry rarely did much better than even on this metric, depending on the specific wording of the question.

Either way, this is a significant problem for the Republicans. If their strategy is to say "Hey! Hey! Barack Obama is a liberal!", the American public's reaction is likely to be "Well, no shit! We're voting for him anyway."

This is not to say that McCain can gain no traction at all by trying to seize the political center. In fact, in an election in which the Democrats have something like a 4:3 edge in party identification, McCain absolutely has to find some way to win a majority of independent voters, and perhaps a fairly substantial one. Moreover, while the voters appear to be ready to elect a President they perceive as liberal, they surely won't be ready to elect one they perceive as radical, and so we can expect the Republicans to continue to play up Obama's associations with figures like Jeremiah Wright and William Ayers. This remains relatively dangerous territory for Obama.

However, if the Republicans attempt to recycle the 1988 or 2004 playbooks, they will probably not find the results to their liking. And if McCain at any point refers to Obama as a "Card-carrying member of the ACLU", you can be pretty sure that this election is over.
Actually, I think the issue's more complicated than that.

Obama is liberal, extremely so. But as Silver notes, he's also an extremely unusual candidate in his genuine ties to a range of ideological elements on the left-wing fringe - extremist radical factions, essentially, groups whose views and history are highly unfamiliar to rank-and-file Americans.

As Andrew McCarthy has demonstrated, in his essay, "
Mr. Obama's Neighborhood," Barack Obama has emerged out the Hyde Park political environment - a place unlike any other neighborhood in America, where '60s-era bombers live a few doors down.

Obama's associations became a legitimate issue of the Democratic primaries, and it's foolish to think that Republican voters won't be interested in knowing that William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn are considered "pillars of the community."

Barack Obama may well be the next president of the United States, but if his past associations with radical ideologues - not to mention black liberationists - are not better explained and repudiated, he won't be accepted by moderates making up a large swath of the electorate.

No, Obama's no Michael Dukakis - unless he fully clarifies his past associations, he just might make the former Massachusetts governor look positively center-left.

(Side Observation: Silver's using the term "radical" in the appropriate fashtion: to denote the ideological elements of the extreme left-wing, currently popluated in American politics by the Democratic party "
progressive" of the netroots establishment.)