We appear to be entering a new phase of the campaign season. Let's call it the Age of Disillusionment (with Barack Obama). The New York Times capped a week of head-scratching over Obama's positions on FISA, gay marriage, the death penalty, and troop withdrawal by publishing a scathing editorial called "New and Not Improved." Yesterday Frank Rich, who was an Obama enthusiast throughout the Democratic primaries, compared the nominee unfavorably to Wall-E, a cartoon robot. Today E.J. Dionne writes that Obama is showing signs of "unsteadiness" in responding to the McCain campaign's goading on Iraq.I think this is right, though I would add that the race does not exist for anyone's personal amusement. I realize that "storylines" attract viewers, so inevitably reporters will invent the drama. We shouldn't forget to shame them for it though.
And let's not forget the continuing faux outrage from editorial boards over Obama's decision to privately fund his campaign; Republicans have more 527 funding groups, so Obama's choice ensured he can compete with McCain on even financial ground. The Hartford Courant, though, declared the decision "Mr. Obama's Flip-Flop" and called him a "hypocrite," all without mentioning conservative 527s.
Are we experiencing a genuine shift in Obama's issue positions and campaign strategy, or just a self-perpetuating media narrative? Obama's position on FISA does appear to represent a real capitulation. But his statement that he'd assess conditions on the ground before implementing his promised Iraq troop draw down is just common sense. Meanwhile, social liberals who profess to be surprised by Obama's stances on the death penalty, guns, and gay marriage have not been following either his writings on these topics or the campaign itself.
Political analysts and reporters are entering a phase of boredom and frustration with this campaign. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were the two most interesting people in the 2008 presidential contest; for many of us writing about the race a lot of the fun ended when Clinton dropped out. And because of how long the Dem primary went on, people seem particularly disappointed and annoyed by the shift in tone to the general election, in which candidates, naturally, appeal to the center.
Is Obama's position on Iraq shifting? (vid)
E.J. Dionne Jr:
Obama needs to be careful not to cede the high ground on Iraq. Because Obama's strongest argument for himself on foreign policy rests on his sound judgment in opposing the war from the beginning, any appearance of waffling on the issue is especially dangerous.
Republicans are pressing Obama on Iraq because they know that any new moves he makes will be interpreted, fairly or not, as a change in position and that this will hurt him with two groups: the antiwar base of the Democratic Party and independent voters, many of whom are just tuning in to the campaign.
Painting Obama as a shameless shape-shifter is a way for his opponents to dull the enthusiasm (and inhibit the campaign contributions) of the war's staunchest foes. And if this image stuck, it could also hurt Obama among independents. They might vote for a hawk or a dove, but not a chameleon.
Over the past week, Obama has been crafty in the way he has sought the political middle ground. He has emphasized his "values" and touted his patriotism, his call to service and his faith, as he did Saturday at a conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. That is quite different from backing off his core promises.
Voters accept that a president may alter the details of campaign promises. What they expect is a clear sense of the direction he will take. At the moment, voters know that John McCain is far more likely than Barack Obama to continue the war in Iraq indefinitely. Obama would be foolish to blur that distinction.
As noted yesterday, despite the AP's sloppy reporting, Obama has been quite consistent on proposing a 16 month timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. But let's back up and come at the question another way. If 16 months is no good, is there anyone out there ideologically committed to 12 or 20 months. Or for that matter, since few of us in the general population have a good understanding of the operational details of how you withdraw well over 100,000 military personnel from a country like Iraq, why is it not enough for a presidential candidate simply to say, I'll change the policy on the day I get into office. And that means I'm going to begin an orderly and considered withdrawal of our troops and have it done as soon as possible.
Now, I can already hear a lot of people rising to the bait and saying, 'No, we need specifics, a timetable, a date certain, because we've been hearing this for years -- that we'll be out as soon as we can, as soon as this that or the other happens.'
And I'd agree.
But this makes the point. Most people who are so keyed into specifics and hard deadlines are that way because we've had five years of a policy of deliberate deception in which vague promises of bringing the troops home in the pretty near future are hung out in front of the public's collective nose as a means of obscuring the real policy of keeping American troops in Iraq permanently as a way of securing oil reserves and projecting US power and in the region.
And that brings us squarely to our other point. What McCain's offering is exactly the same thing -- vague suggestions about troops coming home to toss dust in people's eyes about his real policy (which he's occasionally candid about) which is keeping US troops in Iraq permanently.
Also from JM:
Today John McCain is getting lots of press for his new plan to balance the budget during his first term -- what can only be called an extraordinarily ambitious promise. The first pick was from Mike Allen's piece late last night in The Politico.
Now, the general routine is the face of this kind of candidate announcement is that journalists and economists look at the numbers to see if they add up. In most cases, the exercises generates fairly unsatisfying contradictory opinions, with some experts saying one thing and other experts another.
But here's the thing. McCain doesn't have any numbers. None. Not vague numbers of fuzzy math. He just says he's going to do it. Any other candidate would get laughed off the stage with that kind of nonsense or more likely reporters just wouldn't agree to give them a write up. But this is all over the place.
The simple truth is that given his foreign policy promises in Iraq and tax cut promises at home there's really no way McCain could come up with even a fuzzy plan to balance the budget in his first term. So he's decided instead just promise it. Included in his white paper is just the standard hocum about cutting waste, fraud and abuse in government and making sure we have "reasonable economic growth."
Remember, this is the guy who's riding on his reputation for 'straight talk'. And he's just promised that he'll balance the budget in his first term. For any serious reporter covering this campaign that should immediately lead to a request for actual numbers to back up how he's going to accomplish that.
John McCain is attacking Barack Obama in well-worn terms: As a flip-flopper, an elitist and a typical politician. But in a year when polls show a generic Democratic candidate easily taking the White House, the Illinois Senator has little reason to fear being defined by his party—or as anything typical.
"There has never been a major party candidate less relevant in an election than John McCain," said Democratic strategist James Carville. "It's all about Obama."
Obama's campaign at present is mostly an exercise in assurance. While there's little he can do to sway those who simply won't support a black politician, trailblazing African-American candidates at the state level advise that many voters need to be convinced that they can relate to Obama and feel comfortable with him in the White House before they will lend an ear to his views on the issues confronting the nation.
Indeed, a recent CNN poll found that a quarter of all registered voters said Obama lacks patriotism.
Many observers, therefore, believe that the election hinges on a simple question: whether in a year that overwhelmingly favors the Democrats, Obama is culturally palatable to the white swing voters who have provided the margin of victory recent national elections.
Longtime Democratic consultant Doug Schoen said that for many voters questions about Obama's identity, faith and patriotism are metaphors for a broader doubt and uncertainty about somebody who, until four years ago, was an unknown even in much of the political community.
"It's Obama against Obama—and Obama's narrowly winning,' Schoen said. "He's only five points ahead running against a shadow when he should be up 15."
"If he's acceptable, he's president. It's that simple."
McCain could have a problem on his hands:
Conservative activists are preparing to do battle with allies of Sen. John McCain in advance of September's Republican National Convention, hoping to prevent his views on global warming, immigration, stem cell research and campaign finance from becoming enshrined in the party's official declaration of principles.
McCain has not yet signaled the changes he plans to make in the GOP platform, but many conservatives say they fear wholesale revisions could emerge as candidate McCain seeks to put his stamp on a document that currently reflects the policies and principles of President Bush.
"There is just no way that you can avoid anticipating what is going to come. Everyone is aware that McCain is different on these issues," said Jessica Echard, executive director of the conservative Eagle Forum. "We're all kind of waiting with anticipation because we just don't know how he's going to thread this needle."
McCain has spent the past year and a half trying to straddle the philosophical schism in the modern Republican Party. In primaries, he stressed his conservative credentials, but since clinching the nomination he has often reminded voters of his more moderate stances while professing his fealty to conservative positions.
A platform fight at the convention could disrupt that carefully choreographed effort by highlighting the stark differences in vision for the party separating McCain from some of the GOP's most dedicated activists.
The battle may not be avoidable. The current GOP platform is a 100-page document, and all but nine pages mention Bush's name. Virtually the entire platform will have to be rewritten to lessen the imprint of the president, who has the highest disapproval rating of any White House occupant since Richard M. Nixon.
It is the prospect of a total rewrite that worries some.
McCain is "really out of step with the strong majority of his party," said Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which opposes McCain's positions on climate change. "He might get what he wants. And he might get a change. But I don't think it's going to sit well with a lot of Republicans."
This is certainly encouraging
A look at some of Obama's favorite books
Obama reads Cow-Calf Weekly (who knew!?)
Obama meets with Military Times
Obama's organizing years
Meet Janet Napolitano, probable member of an Obama administration (aka the other "other woman")
Abbreviated Pundit Round-Up