What is supposed to be so moderate about Obama?

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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.

11 Comments

Do you mind if we coin the word "immoderate"?

This is an example of how rhetoric tends to win the day over actual policies and principles. People (led by the overly simplistic media, in my opinion) tend to be won over by speech rather than actions (voting record). What do you think?

For what it's worth, here's Andrew Sullivan trying to explain how he, as a conservative (at any rate, someone who takes himself to be a conservative)that widely disagrees with Obama's positions, nonetheless supports Obama's candidacy.

http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2008/01/bainbridge-asks.html

I believe 'immoderate' is already in play. It gets 291,000 Google hits. But it doesn't mean "not moderate", which is compatible with being in the mainstream of either party. Someone who is immoderate will be pretty extreme, and I think it's misleading to call someone immoderate who is extreme in views but not in rhetoric. Mike Gravel is clearly immoderate. I think more people would resist calling Ron Paul immoderate despite his immoderate views, merely because he's not as impolite as Gravel. Obama is much more polite than either of them.

I don't think this is a media-fostered misimpression. What I've seen from the media has been pretty honest that he's well to the left of Hillary Clinton, pointing out that many on the far left who hate Hillary are happy to support him. Whatever's going on is leading people to ignore even that source of information.

I have a hard time seeing what Sullivan sees. Obama isn't really all that even-tempered, as evidenced in any debate when he's been asked hard questions. He gets frustrated pretty easily. He frequently answers questions with his gut and then discovers that the answer doesn't play well at all with anyone intelligent and informed. I would say that he's a pragmatist of sorts, but the principles behind his pragmatism are anything but conservative. His view on Iraq does not amount to anything like prudence. He doesn't favor the slow kind of withdrawal that Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden have been talking about. As for sound judgment, compare Obama to Clinton on Iran and North Korea. He just comes across as inexperienced and prone to quick, uncareful judgments.

I also can't see how it's prudent for him to ignore fiscal views. He loathes the current administration's spending habits. Even if he's convinced that we need to weaken our national security position and abandon the Iraqi people whose current plight is partly our responsibility, I don't see how a libertarian can in good conscience do so by supporting a candidate who wants to move us much closer to the democratic socialism of Canada and Western Europe.

It's true that hardly anyone would give Sullivan what he wants. Huckabee probably doesn't go far enough away from Bush on Iraq and the war on terrorism, even if he's closer to Sullivan than any of the other Republicans besides Paul. Only Giuliani among the Republicans would satisfy Sullivan on social issues, and he's too close to Bush on terrorism and Iraq. All of the Democrats except Mike Gravel are too close to democratic socialism on too many issues. Even Ron Paul is too pro-life for him, and he has no interest in supporting gay marriage, one of Sullivan's most crucial concerns. So maybe he should support Mike Gravel, who is actually a moderate on many domestic issues. (Update: Only I suspect Andrew Sullivan thinks the U.S. has enemies.)

I don't think I realized that "immoderate" is a word. I would have put it up there with words like "irregardless." Thank you, I have learned something new today.

While not supporting his policies, I can not criticize his character. I think he is authentic and what is appealing is his positive rhetoric. He doesn't seem hyper-partisan. That is refreshing. He also seems willing to dialougue with Republicans.

While I am a Huckabee supporter and registered Republican I have often said, that he is my favorite Democratic candidate.

Regardless of what you think of him, you have to admit that his victory speech after the Iowa Caucus was inspiring and he has run a very good campaign.

Take a look at his rhetoric over Bush's judicial appointees. It's hard for me to see that as anything except hyper-partisan. Most of his judicial appointees have been exceptionally qualified, and Obama's resistance is purely ideological.

Huckabee is a lot more mainstream a Republican than his opponents are letting on. He's a fiscal moderate, much like the current president (whom half of the country thinks is ultra-right wing). But Huckabee's view is actually more like the compassionate conservatism as Bush presented it in 2000 than what we actually got from Bush. Since I align with the George Will view on this issue, I have no problem with Huckabee in principle, even if I might not like a few of the things he's done in practice.

Yes, I was under the impression that Huckabee was perceived as more right-wing than McCain but I guess I was wrong. It might be hard to get past initial impressions. I don't know much about Mitt Romney but what do you think of voting for a Mormon? Is he electable in evangelical circles?

Huckabee is more conservative than McCain on immigration and on social issues. He may be less conservative in terms of spending and compassionate conservatism's willingness to have government programs promoting goodness (including promoting the fostering of good character, not just bestowing good things on people). McCain is often fiscally like a libertarian. But then he does things like McCain-Feingold, and he just comes across as insincere about it or at least inconsistent. A lot of conservatives felt betrayed by that, and a lot see him as wishy-washy and insincere about social issues. He's generally voted in a pro-life way, but then he's left of Bush on stem cells. Huckabee takes the Bush position, as do most of the GOP candidates (although several have pretended others are left of them on that issue, which isn't true except for Giuliani and McCain).

As for Romney, it's hard for me to be charitable to those who oppose him. It just smacks of hypocrisy. The issue for most people isn't that he's a Mormon. It's that he changed his mind in the right direction on abortion. The other issues they pretend he changed his mind on largely are insubstantial or in many cases weren't even real changes (e.g. he always opposed gay marriage and always favored anti-discrimination laws in the workplace and housing for gays). It's abortion that's the real issue for many who oppose him, and although they hold up Ronald Reagan as their hero they can't support someone who, like Reagan, changed positions on abortion later in life. They don't trust Romney, they claim, because he changed his mind on abortion too soon before the presidential election.

But the problem with that argument is that Romney changed his mind while in office as governor, and he implemented his pro-life views while governor. Reagan never had that chance. People just had to believe him with no record to support it. So if they trusted Reagan (or would have trusted him), why can't they trust Romney? It seems inconsistent to me, and it strikes me as simple resistance to the possibility of someone abandoning a false view and coming to the right side on an issue. In other words, it's the older brother in the Prodigal Son parable refusing to accept the younger brother (except here it's on a political position rather than the family of God).

There are people who wouldn't vote for him because he's a Mormon. But those are people who wouldn't vote for most Republicans anyway. They're Constitution Party types, and most of them are racists, nationalists, or at least very narrow-minded on most issues. I doubt that group will have a huge sway on the vote. It's mostly this narrative about Romney being untrustworthy because he changed his mind. I suspect most of what's driving the Mormon issue is the media reading bigotry into everything evangelicals do without exploring the real reasons. They then go find some evangelical who really thinks that way (and the people who do are real, just not as high in numbers as some are claiming) and take that to be typical of evangelicalism. I'm not buying it. Romney couldn't have done as well as he did in Iowa if evangelicals were largely opposed to him because of his membership in the LDS.

Jeremy

Thanks for your comments on my blog.

I think the appeal of Obama and Huckabee is the ability to inspire, one with soaring rhetoric and the other with a quiet manner.

I understand the need for deeds to go along with words. That will be played out in time. But, having grown up during the birth of the New Frontier I also believe that there are times when words matter more than we can possibly imagine. If that weren't the case, then the words of the prophets, Jesus, the apostles, the Church fathers, the abolitionists, Lincoln, T.R, F.D.R, Kennedy, and King wouldn't hold such important places in our hearts.

I'm an evangelical, a Mike Huckabee supporter. But I'm not what the R.N.C. has assumed me to be. I'm one of those evangelicals who is tired of Rush Limbaugh and the R.N.C. determining what our philosophy and theology should be. I'm an economic populist because I see the impact that too many years of greed have done to things here in Middle America. I'm ready to sit down with Americans of all stripes and try to find some common ground. I'm not in lock step any more.

Thanks for your response on the 3 candidates I asked you about.

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