Barack Obama has been getting a lot of attention since winning the Iowa caucuses. I think I understand what's going on with a lot of his popularity. Both parties are unpopular right now, and both the president and Congress (each controlled by different parties) have very low approval ratings. Obama seems like an outsider to many. He doesn't sound like a politician, some say. I understand that the way he speaks sounds different when compared with career politicians of an older generation. But what baffles me is that many, including a number of Republicans, insist on describing him as moderate. What exactly is it that gives people this impression?
Whatever makes him a moderate, it has little to do with his views. His views on abortion and pretty much any other social issue are indistinguishable from those of Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, his main competitors. If anything, he is more liberal than the others. Edwards, for instance, has some resistance to the idea of gay marriage. On foreign policy, Obama is far more resistant to moderate views than Clinton. On fiscal issues, he's at least as far in the direction of Western European-style democratic socialism as the other two. So in the three main categories of issues, there seems to be nothing about his views that would make them more moderate than Hillary Clinton or John Edwards. So if he's so far to the left then why is he attracting Republican voters who think of him as a moderate they can support ?
I think what's going on is that he uses language that sounds moderate. He speaks like a Booker T. Washington on race issues to draw in white voters while advocating policies indistinguishable from those Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton support. He speaks optimistically about the future and change instead of being constantly critical of the status quo, as John Edwards does. He doesn't use Edwards' class warfare motifs but supports the same views. He doesn't associate himself in an identity-forming way with feminism and abortion the way Hillary Clinton does while endorsing pretty much the same views. The one identity-forming class he could emphasize is his blackness, and he downplays that in the same way most black Republicans would, while not endorsing the views black conservatives think should result from their general attitude toward race. In other words, he tries to use language and rhetoric that sounds moderate to conservative while endorsing very liberal views, and voters are fooled into thinking he's a moderate.
The interesting question is whether this is deceptive. I think it is if he's trying to pretend he's a moderate. I don't know if he is. I don't think it's dishonest if he's genuinely optimistic and from principle distancing himself from the mindset of class warfare, liberal identity politics, and secularist opposition to religious conservatism. I don't know his intentions. I suspect that his campaign advisers have got to be aware of this effect and that he's nowhere near as moderate as he comes across. I have to wonder if he himself realizes that he's far to the left of most moderate voters. He may well not, because most of his friends are probably as liberal as he is.
So it's hard to form a moral judgment against him on this, at least without assuming motivations we can't really know about and a level of higher-order understanding of himself as compared with the voting populace that he may not have (although perhaps that level of ignorance should count as negligence in a presidential candidate). But it does seem to me that the general public is impatient enough with serious policy issues and ignorant enough of his actual views that they're being misled. The most moderate candidate in the Democratic lineup is Hillary Clinton. Perhaps Joe Biden is in the same category, but he's out of the race now. People pretend Bill Richardson is moderate, but it's really only gun control that makes them think this. The real moderate in this race is Rudy Giuliani, and I suppose John McCain might count also, at least if Hillary Clinton does. Both stand more toward the middle of their party than most of the other candidates, even if both hold positions that are decidedly not moderate. But because many people looking for a moderate are very much not moderate on the war, they're not going for Giuliani or McCain. Instead they're picking someone decidedly not moderate, and that strikes me as highly irrational.
Update: I have found one policy issue where Obama is more moderate than Clinton and Edwards. As factcheck.org puts it:
It quotes yet another newspaper saying Obama's plan "guarantees coverage for all Americans," neglecting to mention that, as the article makes clear, it's only Clinton's and Edwards' plans that would require coverage for everyone, while Obama's would allow individuals to buy in if they wanted to.
What's funny about this one in light of my thesis here is that he's trying to make his more moderate position sound more liberal rather than the reverse.