Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Flip-Flop Flap

Though I find campaign news interesting, I know it to be mainly a string of pseudo-events, so I normally refrain from covering it. This will be my first post on the subject for some time.
The main trope of recent weeks is that Barack Obama has repeatedly "flip-flopped" (it's frustrating to hear adults say that) thus proving himself to be "just a politician". It shows what a good politician Obama is that we keep forgetting that he is one at all. No one needs to be reminded that, say, Hillary Clinton is a politician, it's obvious. Being a politician doesn't disqualify someone from being president. I'd point out that FDR, Churchill and Lincoln were "just politicians" too.
The attack that Obama is a "flip-flopper" seems crass and derivative, especially coming from John McCain, who has himself completely reversed himself on Bush's tax-cuts, the "religious right", torture (McCain now supports allowing the CIA to torture) etc.
Aside from being accused of inconsistency and Machiavellianism, Obama is being accused by the left of selling out progressive causes for political expediency.
Every presidential politician runs to the center during the general election. However, there is a difference between emphasizing one's centrist views and inventing new views. Which is Obama doing. Let's examine the issues.
Obama disagreed with the Supreme Court's majority decision disallowing the death-penalty for child rape. I disagree with Obama's stance: the death penalty should not be part of the arsenal of our judicial system. Jeffry Rosen found a passage in The Audacity of Hope in which Obama explicitly came out out in favor of the death penalty for child-rape.
Obama has also long believed in the right to own a gun, subject to reasonable restrictions, so his support of the Supreme Court decision overturning the hand-gun ban should have been no surprise. While I think this interpretation gets the Second Amendment's intent wrong (whether it does is argued interestingly on bloggingheads). However, from a public-policy position, I see nothing wrong with this: our gun restrictions are strict enough, the only problem is lobbing from the NRA makes them hard to enforce.
On FISA, I opposed the compromise (though I thought the real travesty was letting the government off the hook, not the telecoms.) On the other hand, I agree with Larry Lessig's comments on the issue.
Obama has not shifted in his opposition to immunity for telcos: As he has consistently indicated, he opposes immunity. He voted to strip immunity from the FISA compromise. He has promised to repeal the immunity as president. His vote for the FISA compromise is thus not a vote for immunity. It is a vote that reflects the judgment that securing the amendments to FISA was more important than denying immunity to telcos. Whether you agree with that judgment or not, we should at least recognize (hysteria notwithstanding) what kind of judgment it was. The amendments to FISA were good. Getting a regime that requires the executive to obey the law is important. Whether it is more important than telco immunity is a question upon which sensible people might well differ. And critically, the job of a Senator is to weigh the importance of these different issues and decide, on balance, which outweighs the other.

This is not an easy task. I don't know, for example, how I personally would have made the call. I certainly think immunity for telcos is wrong. I especially think it wrong to forgive campaign contributing telco companies for violating the law while sending soldiers to jail for violating the law. But I also think the FISA bill (excepting the immunity provision) was progress. So whether that progress was more important than the immunity is, I think, a hard question. And I can well understand those (including some friends) who weigh the two together, and come down as Obama did (voting in favor).

I'd also point out, hopefully Obama will be able to get to the bottom of this when he becomes president.
To summarize: Obama has started running to the center, but he has not really changed positions (as far as I can tell, his position on Iraq remains the same, despite the media narrative). While the right, the left, and the media all seem to think Obama has shifted far to the right, I see no evidence of this, at least not yet.


Matt S said...

I agree too. I'll believe in a serious flip-flop when he changes a policy paper on his web site.

and sigh, my stepdad still doesn't think the media (other than FOX) is that biased.

Sage said...

A few thoughts:
1) I don't think changing your position on things is a bad thing. I think it's kind of an essential skill to have as a politician - you have to be open to new ideas and information. I think people get excessively concerned with it during election season and it becomes blown out of proportion. I can somewhat understand the concern, since you want to vote for the person who will stand up for what you believe in. I'm still confident Obama will do that.
2) I have no problem with him reframing things so as to appeal to a broader base of people. Which is what I think he's doing, and which I think is a politically savvy move. I understand it's a necessary and important step at this point in the process. Although I wish he didn't have to emphasize centrist aspects of his platform, he obviously does to get elected.
3) My only objection to his shift (in expression) to the center is the way he discussed the issue of late-term abortion. That had more to do with my overly sensitive feminist sensibilities than any real concern over his pro-choice position. And considering Bush's latest attack on birth control, it seems relatively trivial.

So yeah, I agree with you, but I still don't ENJOY the fact that he has to express himself this way. But he does, so I accept it.

I also think we just need to reexamine whether the whole notion of "flip-flopping" is such a bad thing. I wish Bush had "flip-flopped" on Iraq years ago, rather than stubbornly "staying the course". Don't we all?