Monday, March 31, 2008

Obama the uniter

Obama's "arrival" on the national stage came with his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Amongst his memorable lines:

Even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us, the spinmasters and negative-ad peddlers who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well, I say to them tonight: There's not a liberal America and a conservative America - there is the United States of America.

Call me cold, call me cynical, but this sort of thing doesn't really move me. According to the National Journal, Obama was the most liberal Senator in 2007. When you consider that there are 100 Senators, this 1st place showing is significant. John McCain, meanwhile, was, between 2002 and 2006 (he did not receive a rating in 2007 because he missed too many votes) the 45th, 44th, 49th, 45th, and 46th most conservative Senator. In 2004, only two Republicans were considered more liberal than McCain, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Olympia Snowe of Maine, and those two were ranked 1 and 2 in Human Events' list of the "Top 10 RiNOS [Republicans in Name Only]" in 2005.

Some asides:
- Mitt Romney was #8 on the Top 10 RiNOs list
- although DiNO would be the presumptive term for a Democrat on the right wing fringe of his or her party, some sources indicate that "Fox News liberal" or "Fox Democrat" is the preferred term, especially when the context is the extent of agreement with or deference to their conservative and/or Republican counterparts in media fora like TV talk shows.

Given that Chafee, who voted against the Iraq War authorization when Hillary Clinton voted for it, has subsequently left the party and even endorsed Obama, one can argue that Snowe is the only Republican Senator consistently to McCain's left, meaning that McCain is to the left of more than 95% of his party colleagues in the upper house. Although that might be overstating it, keep in mind that Chafee was the only Republican to vote against Samuel Alito's Supreme Court nomination (Alito was confirmed by a 58 to 42 vote), and McCain, in turn, has stated, disapprovingly, that Alito "wore his conservatism on his sleeve". Elsewhere, when asked if "Wouldn't it be great if you get a chance to name somebody like Roberts and Alito?" McCain replied "Well, certainly Roberts" (John Roberts, current Chief Justice of the US, was confirmed 78 to 22). Certainly McCain is not conservative on immigration (even libertarians would have reservations about his vote against an immigration bill amendment putting more weight on job skills than on family ties).

Should it be any surprise that both parties are nominating candidates on the left fringe of their respective parties (as evidenced by voting records, which I suggest is far more predictive than rhetoric)? Of course not: everyone knows that 2008 should be one of the best years ever for left leaning (on the US spectrum) candidates. But the Democrats are in serious danger of over-reaching here. McCain is already far more competitive in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Florida than Democrats should be comfortable with.

If Obama's support should significantly change, I think it is more likely to go down than up. Not because of anything Obama does in 2008 or because of past ethical concerns, but because of stories that suggest Obama's more distant history is relatively out of step with the American mainstream. Obama gave a great speech re Jeremiah "a lot of his Jewish support will dry up quicker than a snowball in hell" Wright (photo above) but that doesn't change the fact Obama joined and remained with a church whose leader was most definitely on the fringe.

Who else might come out of Chicago to say that, since going national, Obama is using uniting rhetoric to cover an activist past (and inclination)? Charles Lipson identifies several possibilities. Of particular note is the observation that while Obama, bomber-turned-professor Bill Ayers, and leading Palestinian activist Rashid Khalidi served on the board of the Woods Fund, the Fund gave $40 000 to the Arab American Action Network. Obama's real attitudes with respect to the Middle East conflict may, indeed, become a major issue. Ali Hasan Abunimah, an advocate of the single state solution (in which Jews in the region would likely lose political power by virtue of becoming a minority) and a co-founder of the Electonic Intifada, writes:

... I met [Obama] about half a dozen times, often at Palestinian and Arab-American community events in Chicago including a May 1998 community fundraiser at which Edward Said was the keynote speaker. In 2000, when Obama unsuccessfully ran for Congress I heard him speak at a campaign fundraiser hosted by a University of Chicago professor. On that occasion and others Obama was forthright in his criticism of US policy ....
The last time I spoke to Obama ... [h]e responded warmly, and volunteered, "Hey, I'm sorry I haven't said more about Palestine right now, but we are in a tough primary race. I'm hoping when things calm down I can be more up front." He referred to my activism, including columns I was contributing to the Chicago Tribune critical of Israeli and US policy, "Keep up the good work!"

Abunimah's piece includes a photo of Obama talking with Chicago scholar and Palestinian activist Edward Saïd, a "good friend" and fellow traveller of Noam Chomsky.
Now just as Stephen Harper has a history of association with various "right wing" outfits, Obama's connections with leftist Chicago preachers and/or Palestinian activists may not preclude him from the highest office in the land, were it not for the fact that so many Obama advisors of 2008 have butted heads with the "Israel lobby".

Barack Obama's military adviser and national campaign co-chairman Merrill "Tony" McPeak, former US Air Force Chief of Staff, told the Oregonian that the "problem" is in "New York City. Miami. [where there is] a large vote in favor of Israel. And no politician wants to run against it." Robert Malley, another Obama foreign affairs advisor, has come under attack for what are claimed to be anti-Israel views. Same goes for advisors Zbigniew Brzezinski and Samantha "[Hillary] is a monster" Power. Ditto for Susan Rice and donor George "anti-Semitism is caused by Israel and the US" Soros.

Naturally all this makes many voters even more enthusiastic about Obama. And it might ultimately say more about the power of the "Israel lobby" than about Obama if the issue becomes a deal breaker for him. But the people who oppose Israel are not swing voters. According to Gallup, Americans sympathize with Israel over the Palestianians by more than a 3 to 1 margin. Even if Israel is indeed the primary problem causer over there, Obama will end up seriously offside with the US swing voters in the north-east if it should come out that everything besides his national campaign speeches (i.e. his pre-Senate, Chicago days and the background of his advisors) suggests he's with the Palestinians, or, more generally, America's victims.

When I first arrived in Ottawa six years ago my immediate supervisor was a speechwriter for Paul Martin. Martin was so scripted even his apparent asides were scripted! There was plenty of doubt within the Finance Department that Martin would have a sense of direction after he left our people, in particular our policy experts, in Finance to surround himself with his own yes-men in the PMO. I don't doubt that Obama is genuinely skilled at giving speeches. But I do have my doubts concerning how much campaign speeches say about a politician's real inclinations.

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