Every four years, the Democratic candidate embarks on a more or less subtle positioning game once he has secured his party’s nomination. Over the past two weeks, we have watched Obama’s attempts to strengthen his centrist credentials by announcing he would vote in favor of the FISA bill and criticizing the Heller decision. (I am not including Obama’s opposition to the Supreme Court’s banning the death penalty for child rapists in this list, as he had clearly taken a similar position in the past).
This week, Obama embarks on an attempt to address the perception among some voters that he somehow lacks patriotism. As I have noted previously, McCain himself has implied that he is the truer American. Most Republicans do not dare hit Obama too directly on these issues, but a vigorous online campaign to spread smears and false rumors about the Democratic nominee has had some success in influencing public opinion, so much so that Obama was confronted to questions relating to this at last April’s Philadelphia debate. Obama’s first general election ad sought to address some of these concerns by focusing on the Senator’s “Kansas values” and the Democrat continued his re-introduction today with a speech on patriotism in Missouri. Tomorrow, he will deliver on speech on faith.
Complicating the picture a bit was Wesley Clark’s statement yesterday on McCain’s qualifications to be president, a statement the McCain campaign considers an opportunity to even the playing field by portraying themselves as the victims as well. “I don’t think getting in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to become president,” Clark said. The McCain campaign has been all over this, assembling a panel of veterans to respond to Clark — including a man who appeared in the 2004 Swift Boat ads!
Note that Clark questioned the relevance of McCain’s POW years to his presidential experience claims and he did not question anything about the POW years. His argument was thus radically different from what the Swift Boat ads were doing four years ago. In fact, his line of attack is closer to the Obama camp’s argument during the primaries that Hillary Clinton’s 8 years as First Lady did not constitute presidential experience.
The Obama campaign issued a statement “rejecting” Clark’s comments today: “As he’s said many times before, Senator Obama honors and respects Senator McCain’s service, and of course he rejects yesterday’s statement by General Clark.” And today’s speech in Missouri, Obama sought to put all attacks on McCain’s patriotism, military service and POW years off-limit:
Beyond a loyalty to America’s ideals, beyond a willingness to dissent on behalf of those ideals, I also believe that patriotism must, if it is to mean anything, involve the willingness to sacrifice – to give up something we value on behalf of a larger cause. For those who have fought under the flag of this nation – for the young veterans I meet when I visit Walter Reed; for those like John McCain who have endured physical torment in service to our country – no further proof of such sacrifice is necessary. And let me also add that no one should ever devalue that service, especially for the sake of a political campaign, and that goes for supporters on both sides. We must always express our profound gratitude for the service of our men and women in uniform. Period. Full stop.
But Obama went further. First, in a move that Eve Fairbanks interprets as a nod to potential running-mate Jim Webb, Obama also attacked the 1960s “counterculture” types who refused to honor Vietnam veterans returning from combat. Obama added that this “remains a national shame to this day. Note that this kind of language is particularly new, nor is it unexpected coming from Obama, who has spoken negatively of the 1960s Left and long criticized the anti-Vietnam movement for its polarizing effects:
Some of those in the so-called counter-culture of the Sixties reacted not merely by criticizing particular government policies, but by attacking the symbols, and in extreme cases, the very idea, of America itself - by burning flags; by blaming America for all that was wrong with the world; and perhaps most tragically, by failing to honor those veterans coming home from Vietnam, something that remains a national shame to this day.
Ever since Bill Clinton denounced Sister Souljah in 1992, Democratic nominees have sought to recapture that moment to show they are not beholden to left-wing groups and to bolster their moerate credentials. While the campaign’s anti-Clark statement was dicatated by political necessity, Obama’s choice to denounce MoveOn.org’s “Betray Us” ad months after that controversy erupted is a classic example of Democrats trying to channel the Clinton of 1992. After lamenting that politics felt “trapped in old, threadbare arguments” and “caricatures of left and right,” Obama went on to say that this was
most evident during our recent debates about the war in Iraq, when those who opposed administration policy were tagged by some as unpatriotic, and a general providing his best counsel on how to move forward in Iraq was accused of betrayal.
This symbolic move was as transparent an attempt to grab Sister Souljah headlines as anything Obama has attempted over the past few weeks, and a wholly unnecessary one at that given how much time has passed since this controversy. And Obama had less definitive opinions on this subject back when it was hotly debated: Obama did not criticize MoveOn when pressed to do so and he did not participate in the Senate vote that condemned MoveOn.org back in September. The bill got 72 yeas and Clinton voted against it, though she did “condemn” the MoveOn ad. And how far can he go in criticizing a group that isnot an individual like Sister Souljah but a powerful political organization and a strong fundraising tools for Democrats down and up the ballot?
At the same time, progressive activists breathed a sigh of relief this week as Barack Obama announced his firm opposition to California’s Proposition 8 which attempts to ban gay marriage:
As the Democratic nominee for President, I am proud to join with and support the LGBT community in an effort to set our nation on a course that recognizes LGBT Americans with full equality under the law. That is why I support extending fully equal rights and benefits to same sex couples under both state and federal law. That is why I support repealing the Defense of Marriage Act and the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy, and the passage of laws to protect LGBT Americans from hate crimes and employment discrimination. And that is why I oppose the divisive and discriminatory efforts to amend the California Constitution, and similar efforts to amend the U.S. Constitution or those of other states.
This might not seem like that shocking a move, but keep in mind that John Kerry’s idea of moving to the center in 2004 was to not only declare himself satisfied that Missouri had voted to ban gay marriage weeks before the general election but also declare that he himself would have voted in favor of the ban had he been a Missouri voter! The problem with Kerry’s statement and similar attempts is how weak and pandering they sound, and it’s good to see that the Obama campaign isn’t following Kerry there.