Whenever Obama moves "to the middle," it is not to stay there, but to collect new voters and bring them back with him to the left. Toward this end, he engages in a constant stream of throat-clearing rhetoric heavy with slow and solemn qualifiers, lest his liberalism appear too stark and off-putting.
The windier Obama gets, the more obvious it becomes that he is trying to triangulate liberal positions without changing them. He likes to load his statements with something for everyone, but insert just enough liberal substance in them to make sure that his base knows where his true position lies.
The pattern so far seems to be: He makes an ostensibly bold and new statement, suggesting to moderates and conservatives that he is a "post-partisan" Democrat open to compromise, followed by a day or two of mop-up work designed to reassure anxious liberals that he hasn't moved to the middle at all.
This style of misdirection works in his favor for the most part. Many voters aren't interested in unscrambling tedious, what-exactly-did-he-say? controversies, and they are likely to take away from the first day's headlines the impression that he is a less unyielding liberal than previous Democratic nominees.
Moreover, the "Obamacons" are so eager to catch whatever moderate morsel falls from his lips that they help him advance the best possible construction on his position. To take one example, in Obama's speech to Planned Parenthood last July, he said baldly, "The first thing I'd do as president is sign the Freedom of Choice Act." "Obamacon" Doug Kmiec read the speech and thought it irenic.
Some of the "values voters" that Obama hopes to poach from the Republicans are probably still under the impression that he wants to "expand [the] role of religious groups," as one fatuous headline put it last week after he appeared to endorse President Bush's faith-based initiatives program. The truth is that he wants to strangle and secularize them in government tape.
The headlines suggested that he was not only endorsing the program uncritically but planned to bolster it, and one early story managed to garble his position on the hiring practices of these groups, suggesting that he would respect their religious precepts. He had said the exact opposite. (In his faux-magnanimous style, he did say that it is "important" to let groups hire for mission when not on the government dole, a grand concession from the state for which they should apparently be deeply grateful.)
This "move to the middle" was convincing enough to get cranky secularists grumbling. So Obama had to begin the repair work and remind them to look at the fine print of his position: that faith-based groups would only receive funds from his administration if they in effect suspended their faith, nixed any moral concerns in hiring, and restricted their mission to "secular" purposes. The real headlines should have been: "Obama seeks to dismantle Bush's faith-based initiatives program."
Now this week Obama finds himself in another controversy useful to softening up the religious vote, but also confusing enough to leave a few liberals dismayed. The media reported that he gave an interview last week to a Christian magazine, objecting to mental-health exceptions to the ban on late-term abortions.
At first blush it appears to signal a slight tightening in the party's position. But Obama quickly told pro-choicers that he wasn't trying to break any new ground, that he still believed in "well-defined" mental-health exceptions. In his back-pedaling, quasi-retraction, he emphasized that pro-choicers have always interpreted the mental-health exception under Roe v. Wade and related rulings in his interpretive light.
The only notable dimension to this controversy is that a few feminists see in it not a new position but an old personality trait: Obama's condescension and mild strain of sexism in their eyes. They don't care for his dismissive phrase "feeling blue" as a description of a reason for late-term abortion. But as one of them noted, what do you expect from a candidate who calls female reporters "sweetie"?
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