The last two months have been rough for Barack Obama. He’s been left-baited, race-baited, red-baited and tarred as an "elitist." Perhaps that’s why he finally consented, after 772 days of holding out, to be interviewed by Chris Wallace on Fox News. It was a strong move from a defensive position, and Obama gave an agile performance on the whole, deftly parrying Wallace’s efforts to nail him on Rev. Wright, Bill Ayers and the infamous oft-missing American flag pin. But what’s up with Obama’s shout-out to Republican ideas?
Pressing Obama on his credentials as a "uniter" and measuring his record against the alleged bi-partisanship of John McCain, Wallace asked: "As a president, can you name a hot button issue where you would be willing to cross Democratic party line[s] and say you know what, Republicans have a better idea here?"
Obama’s response: "Well, I think there are a whole host of areas where Republicans in some cases may have a better idea…on issues of regulation, I think that back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a lot of the way we regulated industry was top down command and control. We’re going to tell businesses exactly how to do things. And I think that the Republican party…came with the notion that you know what, if you simply set some guidelines, some rules and incentives for businesses, let them figure out how they’re going to for example reduce pollution."
Obama’s comments echo remarks he made back in January to the Reno Gazette-Journal when he said that he thought Ronald Reagan "changed the trajectory of America" in a way that Bill Clinton had not. In that interview, Obama said that Republicans have been "the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time" and that Reagan "put us on a fundamentally different path because the country…felt like with all the excesses of the 1960s and 1970s and government had grown and grown but there wasn’t much sense of accountability in terms of how it was operating."
John Edwards and Hillary Clinton jumped all over him for that one, and Obama’s supporters leapt to his defense, claiming that "Obama didn’t really say that Republicans had better ideas than Dems," and that he was being merely descriptive about recent political history.
Well, there you have it. Unequivocally, Obama has now said that "there are a whole host of areas" where Republicans have better ideas. What are these ideas? And what game is Obama playing?
In the Fox interview, Obama went on to advocate a cap and trade system for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, saying that it’s a "smarter way" than "dictating every single rule that a company has to abide by" (read: carbon tax and direct regulation) which would create "a lot of bureaucracy and red tape" (read: FAILED, BIG government).
Then, unprompted, Obama took a nick at teacher’s unions (who have endorsed Hillary Clinton) and advocated for charter schools and a version of merit pay for teachers.
In a response to a question from Wallace about judicial nominations, Obama touted his defense on Daily Kos of his Democratic colleagues who voted to confirm John Roberts (Obama voted nay). Obama then cited his support of a ban on "late term abortion" or "partial birth abortion," as long as there are "provisions to protect the health of the mother," as an example of his ability to cut through "polarizing debate."
But in this instance, Obama doesn’t overcome the polarization of issues so much as try to play it both ways. NB: his use of both "late term abortion" and the right-wing slang "partial birth abortion" in the same breath. Obama describes Republican efforts to eliminate any consideration of the mother’s health as a strategy to "polarize the debate" so that they could "bring an end [to] abortions overall" (true). But in the same sentence he says that he doesn’t "begrudge that at all" and claims that anti-choicers have a "a moral calling to try to oppose what they think is immoral."
The fact is, on these and most issues Obama is little different than Hillary Clinton. Both of them are mainstream Democrats who are, in the case of abortion, trying to sidestep a contentious, culture wars issue. They both voted against the Roberts nomination–but Obama provided cover for his colleagues who voted the other way. Like Clinton, who lamented abortion as a "sad, even tragic choice," Obama adopts the language of right-wing anti-choicers, even as they both support pro-choice policies broadly. Both Obama and Cinton eschew a more stringent carbon tax and direct regulation plan in favor of a market-based cap and trade system that provides wiggle room for corporate polluters. Both support charter schools, but in one of the few policy differences between them, Clinton is against merit pay for teachers.
But it’s not really Obama’s positions on these issues that I find troubling, though I disagree with most of them. It’s the political framework of his crushed-out props to the GOP (and to be perfectly clear, I find Clinton’s history of triangulation even more worrisome). Both of them are pro-corporate, centrist Democrats trying to position themselves to win a general election. But while Obama’s rhetoric of bi-partisanship, unity and reconciliation may help him win over stray Republicans and independents in November, he appears to have embraced the anti-big government paradigm that Republicans have used to strip regulations and roll back the welfare state. How much will Obama concede to this logic? This is a question that ought to worry progressives, not in 2009, but now.
This magazine has endorsed Barack Obama, a decision I agreed with then and still do now. But it defies logic and evidence to think that Obama is–as some conservatives fear and some progressives hope–a secret leftist in moderate’s clothes. In helping Barack Obama get elected, the left must also create leverage within his grand coalition to advance its own agenda. As Obama pivots to a general election contest against McCain, the pressure on him to drift rhetorically and substantively towards the right will only increase–as does then our own duty to be a dry-eyed and pragmatic left. Hopeful, yes. But also free of illusions.