As the Iowa caucuses approached, progressive attacks on Barack Obama greatly increased. Bloggers on the popular Daily Kos were almost beside themselves condemning Obama’s alleged wrongs, with even Kos founder Markos Moulitisas expressing disgust with Obama’s alleged “right wing” appeals for votes.
Most progressive bloggers backed John Edwards, preferring his confrontational approach to Obama’s pledge for red and blue state “unity.” But what Obama’s strong victory again showed is that most voters do not like confrontational candidates, and Edwards even finished third among presumably combative union households. Instead of celebrating a candidate whose progressive stands were winning over, rather than alienating, independent voters, bloggers were angry. Sadly, many left activists appear to view any candidate capable of attracting votes beyond the true believers as inevitably compromised. Fortunately, this premise was rejected by the new generation of voters whose backing of Obama spelled the difference.
To paraphrase John Kerry, I was right about Barack Obama before I was wrong about him. On November 20, 2006, I wrote a piece urging Obama to enter the presidential race, arguing “his candidacy would galvanize young people and many others toward getting involved in the political process.” I subsequently wrote an article on February 13, 2007 whose title --- “Barack Obama Offers Hope for America’s Progressive Future” --- expressed my view that Obama was the progressives’ best choice.
But in a May 15, 2007 piece, “Reassessing Obama,” I expressed disappointment in Obama’s apparent drift toward “Clinton-style” politics. Obama seemed to have moved away from his earlier message of inspiration and hope, and was becoming indistinguishable from his opponents. His stagnant poll numbers reflected this shift.
In November, Obama recaptured his original galvanizing presence, and became the candidate I thought he would become. But many progressives have been less than excited about Obama’s rise, believing that his message of “One America” was politically naïve.
These progressives preferred the “Two Americas” theme of John Edwards. Bloggers relentlessly attacked Obama in the week prior to the Iowa caucuses, arguing that creating real change requires Edwards’ confrontational approach, rather than Obama’s call for unity.
Ironically, while the bloggers were exercised over Obama, they seemed less critical of Hillary Clinton. But Edwards made it clear in his election night speech that he saw himself and Obama as agents of change, while Hillary stood for big moneyed interests and the status quo.
In the view of bloggers on Daily Kos and similar sites, Obama’s attempt to broaden his political base was akin to “selling out” progressive constituencies. These bloggers view partisanship and combativeness as essential for overcoming powerful constituencies, and look skeptically at Obama’s goal to try to win Republican support for universal health care, strong climate controls, or the many other progressive measures “Red State” congresspersons have long fought.
But as Obama himself has begun pointing out with regularity, the broader his base entering the White House, the broader his mandate for change. While 40% of Bush voters in 2004 may be irrevocably right wing, winning over the other ten percent could prove essential to enacting a progressive agenda in 2009.
Further, it is the responsibility of Obama’s core progressive base, not the independents that voted for him for president, to hold him politically accountable after the election. Bill Clinton was able to break his “Putting People First” campaign promises in 1992 because core Democratic constituencies refused to hold him politically accountable in 1993 and 1994; activists have learned from this mistake, and will not hesitate to mobilize against Obama should he weaken his resolve on progressive issues as the bloggers fear.
These bloggers also pay insufficient attention to the type of campaign messages necessary to win broad support. One gets the impression that these hard-core politicos think that most voters act like they do, carefully parsing through the candidate’s stands on dozens of issues and backing the one with whom they most frequently agree.
But progressive activists who work with disenfranchised or overlooked constituencies on a day-to-day basis know that is not what happens. And, since at least 1976, the winner in U.S. presidential elections has prevailed through big picture themes like “unity,” rather than being the candidate voters most agreed with on a laundry list of issues.
Progressives have long been frustrated by the ability of candidates like Ronald Reagan to win working-class voters. But nobody suggested that Reagan, or Bush for that matter, would be inhibited in pushing their pro-wealthy, pro-corporate agenda by securing working-class votes.
Yet bloggers are suspicious at Obama’s appeal to independent voters. Some take a giant leap in concluding that Obama’s attempt to broaden the Democratic base is a sign that he will allow such backers to water down or “co-opt” his policies as President.
When filmmaker Michael Moore was appointed editor of Mother Jones magazine in the early Reagan years, he challenged progressives to more effectively communicate with the “average” American. Now we have a self-identified progressive candidate who has found almost unprecedented success in reaching independent voters, and the left blogosphere is upset about this.
While the progressive attacks on Obama focus on his non-confrontational rhetoric, his race is often ignored. I’ve heard a number of progressive backers of Edwards discount Obama’s race, arguing that Clarence Thomas and Condoleeza Rice show that race does not dictate one’s politics.
But the American people elected neither Thomas nor Rice, nor Colin Powell.
And given that the United States was founded on slavery and prospered for years through vicious race discrimination against blacks, Obama’s election as President would be not only a profoundly progressive victory, but also a landmark achievement for the nation.
Obama is careful not to highlight his race, but it is safe to say that few among us ever believed that the United States would elect an African-American president. And the only reason this is now possible is because of a new generation that is less racist than their forebears, just as polls show them to be less homophobic and more politically liberal.
If attendance at the Yearly Kos convention is indicative, the progressive blogoshere is overwhelmingly white. Diary entries only rarely address such racial issues as affirmative action or school re-segregation, and even the immigration issue tends only to be discussed as part of political campaigns.
So the historic opportunity to elect an African-American President --- and this is truly unprecendented, as neither Shirley Chisolm in 1972 nor Jesse Jackson in 1988 were ever considered likely Democratic nominees --- has been subtly erased from many progressive bloggers political calculus. And Obama’s remarkable ability to attract white voters --- 96% of Iowa voters were white --- is downplayed, and for some confirms that he lacks the racial “authenticity” of Jackson or Al Sharpton.
John Edwards tried his best, but as Tom Hayden pointed out last week, it’s unclear which if any primary state he can win. So his withdrawal of the race should come sooner rather than later, and his backers in the blogosphere will shift to Obama.
There is no question that Edwards moved the entire Democratic campaign to the left, and he would be a great choice for Obama’s running mate (or future Secretary of Labor.) But young voters particularly saw Obama’s vision as broader and more inclusive, and the son of a Kansas mother and Kenyan father now awaits only a New Hampshire victory to become the nominee.