Morning Cheat Sheet
Obama and the L-Word
By Peter Baker
It may no longer be surprising to watch so many young people, African Americans and well-off Democrats fall so hard for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama as he battles for the Democratic presidential nomination, but it has been fascinating to see so many conservatives swooning over him lately.
Peggy Noonan, the Reagan-Bush speechwriter, calls him "thoughtful" and praises his "classy campaign." George Will, the columnist and television pundit, describes him as "an adult aiming to reform the real world rather than an adolescent fantasizing mock-heroic 'fights' against fictitious villains in a left-wing cartoon version of this country." Peter Wehner, the former Bush White House aide, calls Obama "a well-grounded, thoughtful, decent man" whom Republicans "would find it hard to generate much enthusiasm in opposing."
And that goes to the heart of Obama's appeal -- the notion that he is "post-partisan," somehow above the ideological wars that have consumed the last few decades of American politics. Yet when the infatuation wears off, if Obama gets the nomination, will Republicans still think so highly of him? If Obama delivers the knockout blow to the Clinton dynasty, the bete noire of so many conservatives, would they still find reason to think of him as a knight in shining armor? Lost amid all the dramatic primaries and debates of recent days have been a few moments that voters are likely to hear more about in the fall should Obama win the nomination, moments that will remind Republicans that in many ways he is a pretty conventional liberal.
First, of course, was the endorsement of Sen. Ted Kennedy, a powerful moment for Democrats longing for a new-generation Camelot but also a picture that no doubt will be recycled in the fall by Republicans whose base ranks the Massachusetts senator in the same league of despised lefty scoundrels as the Clintons. Less noticed was a vote compendium by National Journal last week that ranked Obama the most liberal United States senator in 2007, more than Kennedy, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Chuck Schumer and even Bernard Sanders, the independent socialist. And then there was the endorsement of Obama by MoveOn.org, a group that has reenergized the American left and become a force loathed by the American right. Republicans have found MoveOn.org to be a useful rallying point -- and fundraising draw -- for their base.
So how will Obama's post-partisan style match up against his liberal record? If he wins the nomination, how would Republicans use that record against him without appearing too negative against a man even their own find hard to dislike? That phrase, "most liberal," is a handy television advertisement, and Republicans skillfully used it against Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry in 2004 after he earned the same rating from National Journal. And yet how would Republicans navigate the tricky racial shoals in mounting a case against Obama? Would the sobriquet "too liberal" be interpreted as code for "too black"? Even Bill Clinton, once dubbed America's first black president, found it hard to attack Obama without crossing lines that touched off charged emotions within the Democratic Party.
For the moment, Obama's appeal does not seem especially ideological. Exit polls from key Super Tuesday states found no strong pattern of philosophical support. In Missouri, for instance, Obama earned 58 percent of the vote among self-described liberal Democrats compared with 48 percent among moderates. But he also got 58 percent among conservative Democrats. In New Jersey, he did better among conservatives than among liberals -- 51 percent compared with 42 percent. But in Massachusetts, he was much stronger with liberals than conservatives -- 46 percent compared with 31 percent. Intriguingly, though, he racked up wins in many states that tend to go Republican in general elections, while Clinton won traditional blue states such as California and New York.
If Obama were to face off against Arizona Sen. John McCain in the fall, of course, it would be a contest between two political figures who have defied easy labels and whose appeal has crossed the normal boundaries. McCain, in his own way, was post-partisan before the term was invented, often working across the aisle on important legislation. But in his case, as he forged bipartisan compromise, he adopted positions more commonly associated with the left, at least on issues such as immigration, campaign finance and climate change. Obama has some bipartisan partnerships to point to as well -- including with McCain -- yet he has no similar examples of defying party orthodoxy. Instead, on substance, he has hewed closely to the Kennedy-MoveOn ideological line.
It may not matter. It may be that Obama has captured that magic moment when politics changes. It may be this is the year the old rules no longer apply. But maybe not. The only Democrats who have won the White House in the last four decades have done so by running away from the liberal label. And Obama is certainly a student of history.
Posted at 11:45 AM ET on Feb 7, 2008
Morning Cheat Sheet
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