Back in January when Barack Obama pulled off his stunning win in the Iowa caucuses, and people were lining up in the cold and snow for hours just to get a glimpse of him, there was a wide and growing belief — encouraged to the max by the candidate — that something new in American politics had arrived.
His brilliant, nationally televised victory speech in Des Moines sent a shiver of hope through much of the electorate. “The time has come for a president who will be honest about the choices and the challenges we face,” said Senator Obama, “who will listen to you and learn from you, even when we disagree, who won’t just tell you what you want to hear, but what you need to know.”
Only an idiot would think or hope that a politician going through the crucible of a presidential campaign could hold fast to every position, steer clear of the stumbling blocks of nuance and never make a mistake. But Barack Obama went out of his way to create the impression that he was a new kind of political leader — more honest, less cynical and less relentlessly calculating than most.
You would be able to listen to him without worrying about what the meaning of “is” is.
This is why so many of Senator Obama’s strongest supporters are uneasy, upset, dismayed and even angry at the candidate who is now emerging in the bright light of summer.
One issue or another might not have made much difference. Tacking toward the center in a general election is as common as kissing babies in a campaign, and lord knows the Democrats need to expand their coalition.
But Senator Obama is not just tacking gently toward the center. He’s lurching right when it suits him, and he’s zigging with the kind of reckless abandon that’s guaranteed to cause disillusion, if not whiplash.
So there he was in Zanesville, Ohio, pandering to evangelicals by promising not just to maintain the Bush program of investing taxpayer dollars in religious-based initiatives, but to expand it. Separation of church and state? Forget about it.
And there he was, in the midst of an election campaign in which the makeup of the Supreme Court is as important as it has ever been, agreeing with Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas that the death penalty could be imposed for crimes other than murder. What was the man thinking?
Thankfully, a majority on the court left the barbaric Scalia-Thomas-Obama (and John McCain) reasoning behind and held that capital punishment would apply only to homicides.
“What’s he doing?” is the most common question heard recently from Obama supporters.
For one thing, he’s taking his base for granted, apparently believing that such stalwart supporters as blacks, progressives and pumped-up younger voters will be with him no matter what. A taste of the backlash this can produce erupted on the candidate’s own Web site.
Thousands of Obama supporters flooded the site with protests over his decision to support an electronic surveillance bill that gives retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies that participated in the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretapping program. The senator had previously promised to filibuster the bill if it contained the immunity clause.
There has been a reluctance among blacks to openly criticize Senator Obama, the first black candidate with a real shot at the presidency. But behind the scenes, there is discontent among African-Americans, as well, over Mr. Obama’s move away from progressive issues, including his support of the Supreme Court’s decision affirming the constitutional right of individuals to bear arms.
There’s even concern that he’s doing the Obama two-step on the issue that has been the cornerstone of his campaign: his opposition to the war in Iraq. But the senator denied that any significant change should be inferred from his comment that he would “continue to refine” his policy on the war.
Mr. Obama is betting that in the long run none of this will matter, that the most important thing is winning the White House, that his staunchest supporters (horrified at the very idea of a President McCain) will be there when he needs them.
He seems to believe that his shifts and twists and clever panders — as opposed to bold, principled leadership on important matters — will entice large numbers of independent and conservative voters to climb off the fence and run into his yard.
Maybe. But that’s a very dangerous game for a man who first turned voters on by presenting himself as someone who was different, who wouldn’t engage in the terminal emptiness of politics as usual.
Time flies and the Iowa caucuses seem a very long time ago.