June 15, 2008
The Obama campaign has a sharp-eyed political operations team tasked with seeking out prominent endorsers “on both sides of the aisle”, according to a campaign official. It came tantalisingly close to securing one of the biggest names in politics when Colin Powell, secretary of state during President George W Bush’s first term in office, said last week that he might vote for Obama.
Powell said Obama and John McCain, his Republican opponent, “have the qualifications to be president, but both of them cannot be”. He added that he would neither vote for Obama because he was African-Ameri-can nor for McCain because of his military service but for the individual who “brings the best set of tools to the problems of 21st-century America . . . regardless of party”.
His argument was echoed by Peggy Noonan, a conservative commentator who wrote woundingly in The Wall Street Journal last week that: “Mr McCain is the old America, of course; Mr Obama the new.” Although she did not explicitly back either candidate, she said: “America is always looking forward, not back, it is always in search of the fresh and leaving the tired. That’s how we started.”
The long war in Iraq, the curtailment of civil liberties and enhancement of executive power in the guise of fighting terror and profligate public spending by Bush and Congress have turned off a number of high-profile Republicans. Richard Nixon’s daughter Julie Nixon Eisenhower, who is married to a grandson of President Dwight Eisenhower and co-chairs her father’s presidential library, has donated the maximum $2,300 to Obama’s campaign.
Susan Eisenhower, her sister-in-law, is another lifelong Republican and Obamacon. “I think everybody has different reasons but I think he’s seen as a fresh start for this country, and people like what they see,” she said.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showed Obama pulling into a lead of 47%-41% over McCain – a significant margin but not enough to constitute a huge postvictory bounce after Hillary Clinton’s endorsement last week.
Obama officials predict more high-profile endorsements from Republicans in the weeks and months before election day on November 4. A prized catch would be Chuck Hagel, the Republican senator for Nebraska, who said last month he was “very upset” with his old friend, McCain.
Hagel, who is tipped as a vice-presidential running mate for Obama by some campaign insiders, spoke almost proprietorially last month about the Illinois senator’s willingness to negotiate with Iran. “I am confident that if Obama is elected president that is the approach we will take,” he said.
The Obamacons are not blindly loyal. They suspect Obama is too left-wing for their taste on matters of tax and spending and have listened with alarm to his antifree market criticism of Nafta, the North American Free Trade Agreement, in the course of an often-heated primary campaign. But their support is a useful riposte to the findings of the nonpartisan National Journal that Obama has the most liberal voting record in the Senate, a frequently repeated Republican line of attack.
Bruce Bartlett, the author of Impostor, an influential critique of Bush’s overspending and “betrayal” of Reagan’s legacy, said many conservatives were attracted as much by Obama’s temperament as his policies.
“He just seems like a thoughtful guy,” he said. “John McCain is not getting a lot of enthusiasm from Republicans – there is feigned enthusiasm, but there are not a lot of pure McCain Republicans out there.”
Professor David Friedman describes himself as a “classic liberal”, who had a lively intellectual upbringing as the son of Milton Friedman, Margaret Thatcher’s economic guru.
“I hope Obama wins,” he said. “President Bush has clearly been a disaster from the standpoint of libertarians and conservatives because he has presided over an astonishing rise in government spending.”
Friedman believes Obama’s economic advisers, such as Austan Goolsbee and Jason Fur-man, a new appointee who has defended the giant Wal-Mart superstore chain for supplying cheap goods to the poor, “have new ideas about what it means to be on the left in a free market economy”.
He suspects that Obama is sympathetic to school vouchers, a key demand for supporters of a free market in education, although the Illinois senator kept quiet about them while wooing Democratic activists in the primaries.
Obama was clearly “uncomfortable” about compelling people to buy health insurance, Friedman noted, unlike Clinton, who attacked him mercilessly on the subject in the course of the Democratic election campaign.
Friedman has also been appalled by the erosion of civil liberties under Bush and remains a harsh critic of the Iraq war. So was his father, who died in 2006 at the age of 94. “I was under the impression he was not very happy with the Bush administration and, like me, thought the Iraq war was a mistake,” he said.
Jeffrey Hart, a former speechwriter for Reagan and editor of National Review, a leading conservative journal, predicted that Obama could win the election “handily”. It was time to lift the “curse” that had befallen America after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, he argued. “I don’t regard Bush as a conservative, but as a radical and an incompetent one at that,” Hart added. “Conservatism is fact-based, prudent and com-monsensical.”
Reflecting on Obama’s similarities to Reagan, he said, “Both men can give a public speech which comes over on television as if they are speaking directly to you.” Hillary Clinton, Hart added, lacked their charm: “She pushes people away.”
Brink Lindsey of the Cato Institute, a libertarian free market think tank in Washington, said he was “seriously thinking of pulling the lever” for Obama in November. Although he is lukewarm about some of his policies – particularly on free trade and tax and spending – he believes that “the post-partisan, postcultural war rhetoric of Barack Obama is deeply appealing”. There is also the question of pay-back for eight years of Republican mismanagement.
“There is a good chunk of people, like myself, who believe the Republicans ought to go down in flames,” he said. “They have made a complete hash of things and they deserve to pay.”