When the Base Revolts
Tuesday, August 19, 2008 at 11:11 pm
RALEIGH, N.C.–It seemed so right just two weeks ago. This was in Elkhart, Ind., and Sen. Evan Bayh, mentioned as a possible running mate of Sen. Barack Obama, the presumed Democratic nominee, seemed more than a long-shot possibility for the vice-presidential slot. That day, Bayh was more than probable. He was the one.
It made too much sense. Outside the packed high school gym, one couldn’t help but understand why Bayh would be a perfect sidekick to the man. Here, from the nation’s heartland, was a contemporary of Obama, who could help him take perhaps not only Indiana but also surrounding states — maybe even Ohio. Bayh, son of a respected senator, had been a governor and had extensive foreign-policy experience.
More important, at least that day, Bayh seemed to share Obama’s boyish energy and fervor, speaking with eloquence as he introduced his fellow junior senator from the neighboring state. Bayh could help Obama run the table through the Midwest, even those still considered red states, or so I thought. Moreover, as men born of the same generation, they would make for a matched pair in the same vein of William Jefferson Clinton and Al Gore. Here were two handsome, erudite men who would stand for the next era in the Democratic Party.
Then came the vacation. While Obama took a much-needed rest with his family in Hawaii, the howl from the left grew louder and louder. Within days of the event and people talking about the probability of an Obama-Bayh ticket, the same people who had championed Obama during the Democratic primaries turned on him — or, rather, his would-be running mate.
They set up websites and blogged nonstop, cursing Bayh as unworthy — far too conservative to serve as second-in-command for the man whom the Democratic base considered heir to the great, unfinished dreams of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. As a result, as of this writing, most of the chattering class and thementioners have generally dismissed Bayh’s chances for vice president as all but dead. The base, it seemed had roared and been heard.
But Bayh’s apparent fall was only the most recent show of liberal muscle. In the past few months, Obama has taken some degree of heat for clinging to the yellow line of the middle of the road on everything from voting for the FISA bill to agreeing to offshore drilling as part of an overall energy bill. The question now seems to lurk near Obama like a tripwire: Has he forsaken progressive ideals to win the center? And if he hasn’t, should he?
It is, of course, conventional wisdom that he must. Those of us who chronicle politics understand that, in the primaries, a candidate needs to appeal to the steadfast party base, the loyalists who want to see their ideals reflected in you. But it is also a truism that, after a candidate has done just that, a move to the center is essential. That’s where general elections are won.
Yet, in today’s environment, with a highly mobilized party base that has the rapid-response technology to fight vociferously against any such moves, one is left to wonder: Can Obama even attempt that center-shift if he must fear the wrath of his base. Can he claim the vital center if the base won’t let him?
This question was in full view Monday in New Mexico, when Obama, his sleeves rolled as usual, scanned the 1,800 people gathered at a town hall in the gymnasium of Rio Grande High School in Albuquerque, N.M. It was a balmy afternoon. That morning, Obama had admitted to 43 women he’d convened to talk about equal rights and gender issues that he was suffering from a cold — actual proof of the chosen one’s mortality. Memories of the primary season, of his ultimate victory over Sen. HillaryRodham Clinton and her well-heeled bickering machine, had begun to slip into memory. The Democratic National Convention was less than a week away, and, with it, his official entry into the general election. Now, as the Q-and-A period began, he readied himself for questions that all seemed to follow the same vein: Why the hell should we elect you?
Looking to the bleachers, he called first called on Dallas Timmons. Timmons, a woman with short-cropped hair and the ward chair of the local Democratic Party, didn’t take much time to express both admiration and concern. She spoke about how she and others in the party had celebrated his stand against the war in Iraq. But, she said, they all now felt, on issues like his vote for the recentFISA bill, he had “peddled and compromised.”
“As president, you set the agenda for this country,” Timmons said. “Are you gonna set an agenda of change or one of compromise of what the Republican minority is gonna allow you to do in the Congress?”
After praising Timmons’ for being feisty, and addressing the issue of troop withdrawal and FISA, Obama finally said, “Even if we do well, there’s still gonna be almost half the country that votes for somebody else. So one of the things that we have to understand is that there’s nothing wrong with compromise — as long as you understand what your core principles are. And my core principles are that I’m fighting for ordinary Americans to make sure that they can live out their American dream and I am fighting to make sure that our values and ideals enshrined in our Constitution and our Declaration of Independence are upheld.”
The next day, David R. Gergen, director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, who has served as a White House adviser to Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Gerald R. Ford, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, put the matter into some learned light.
“Winning elections and governing in America is a complex undertaking — and it takes some recognition that most of the country is more moderate,”Gergen said. “More people identify themselves as moderates than either liberal or conservative. I think he’s a moderate — but a liberal moderate. And he’s not running as an ideologue, which I think is important. I do think, though, he has to sharpen his message so that those moderates are comfortable with his values.”
“I don’t think he’s changed positions,” Gergen pointed out. “He’s changed the emphasis in which he talks about things. He’s in for a hard fight and there are large swatches of the country that are waiting to see if he’s pretty close to them in terms of values. This hasn’t been easy for Democrats to do. There’s a reason Democrats have lost seven out of the last 10 elections for president. WithObama you’ve seen an emphasis on things like faith-based initiatives, which have always been part of his platform, but wasn’t a major emphasis in the primary campaign.”
What the candidate from either party finds on emerging from the internal bickering of the primary season is an electorate that’s not only larger but, in many ways, almost the opposite of the party base that gave you the nomination. Primary voters are hyper-focused on the candidates — parsing each word they say because they want someone who will best represent their party’s beliefs to the country and the world. They rabidly seek out information about the candidates.
But the independent voter in the general election is someone who does not seek out a candidate. Rather, he or she is someone a candidate needs to find.
Bill Carrick, a Democratic strategist in California, explained this dichotomy. “There’s always been this tension about whether you run a populist campaign — geared towards middle-class voters, their needs, their angers.”Carrick said, “or do you run a moderate, DLC [Democratic Leadership Council] model. The truth is we’ve come out of this hybrid of the two.”
“He has to show people who don’t live in Seattle or New York City that he’s real,” said the Democratic strategist Liz Chadderdon. “Campaigns aren’t about issues. They’re about emotions. Raw emotions. And he has to spend a lot of time speaking to people in the middle of America. He has to broaden his voice.”
But broadening his voice might come with certain consequences in this Internet-triggered election.
The stark differences between Obama and McCain extend out to the relationship they have with the bases of their respective parties. Rising from the 10-car pileup that was the GOP primary process, McCain emerged the candidate, yes, but also as a man in many way at odds with the social conservatives and evangelicals that formed the base of the modern GOP.
By contrast, it was the liberal base, whose ideals remain rooted in the ideals of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John and Bobby Kennedy, who helped power the turbine ofObama’s miraculous primary run. Just as McCain must win the trust of those within his party, Obama must do the opposite. He must reassure them that he will not give up their big causes and run straight to the center, that he will retain the ideals that have embodied his primary campaign.
Is this a genuine concern? Just ask Tony Coelho, the former House Majority whip who served as chairman of Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign. He thinks that the liberal wing of the party yawned at the thought of Gore — viewing him as a too much of a centrist, running straight to the middle.
“I remind a lot of Democrats who didn’t vote for Al Gore — because he wasn’t liberal enough — that we got George Bush,” Coelho said. “How did that help the liberal cause? Al Gore would not have gotten us into Iraq, and he wouldn’t have appointed Supreme Court justices like JohnAlito and John Roberts. I am not one of those who sits back and says you’re either 100 percent with us or you’re against us. It doesn’t make sense.Obama might be something you might not like to win in Pennsylvania or somewhere else. Governing is more important than purity. You’ve got to keep your ideals == but you have to be a realist.”
Listening to Coelho speak, his words evoked a scene early in the run of “The West Wing.” Sitting with an associate Supreme Court justice ready to retire, Martin Sheen’s President Bartlet suddenly found himself under fire from the elderly jurist, who barked, “You ran great guns in the campaign. It was an insurgency, boy, a sight to see. And then you drove to the middle of the road the moment after you took the oath. Just the middle of the road. Nothing but a long line painted yellow….I wanted to retire five years ago. But I waited for a Democrat. I wanted a Democrat.Hmmph! And instead I got you.”
The day after Timmons’ challenge, Robert Gibbs, Obama’s communications director was standing in the aftermath of another town hall, this one at the the North Carolina State Fair Grounds. He, along with the candidate and the press corps had woken early, attended an event in Orlando, and now faced the bright prospect of a few hours off from the trail. With his suit jacket flung over his left shoulder, and his tie slightly undone, Gibbs began to address the question of whether the campaign was moving to the center and the complexities of holding onto the Democratic base that broughtObama his historic nomination.
“If you look at where the American people are, we’re where the American people are on issue after issue after issue,” Gibbs said. “Whether it’s getting responsibly out of Iraq; or forming an energy independence plan — I think Sen.Obama’s where the American public is.
“If you look at polling,” Gibbs continued, “Democrats are two, three times more energized about their nominee than Republicans are about theirs. The great thing is that the base wants change and independents in this country want change. As a matter of fact, moderate Republicans want change. I think we’re fortunate that we have a message that carries across all of those platforms.”
Walking out soon after, one was enveloped by the darkness of the grounds. It was one of those moments on the campaign trail where one is suddenly returned to the quiet rhythms of American life. It is in such a physical and emotional space that you come to the important, if not obvious, realization that, beyond the walls you write and report in, is a whole country — where this campaign is bigger than guessing who the vice presidential nominee will be.
It is about the future of this country, of the next chapter in our shared American story. It is a country Obama must draw to his cause — as he has the foot-soldiers of the Democratic Party. Should he hope to win out in this razor-close race,Obama will do so as a candidate who can gain the trust of newcomers who’ve just now come to his message and story, while keeping the aspirations and dreams of the true-believers who’ve brought him this far more than just alive. They must be electric.
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