You Know What They Say About Assumptions, Right?

Glenn Greenwald urges us to examine the “moving to the center” assumption:

Republican Nancy Johnson of Connecticut was first elected to Congress in 1982, and proceeded to win re-election 11 consecutive times, often quite easily. In 2004, she defeated her Democratic challenger by 22 points. The district is historically Republican, and split its vote 49-49 for Bush and Kerry in the 2004 presidential election.

In 2006, Rep. Johnson was challenged by a 31-year-old Democrat, Chris Murphy, who ran on a platform of, among other things, ending the Iraq War, opposing Bush policies on eavesdropping and torture, and rejecting what he called the “false choice between war and civil liberties.” Johnson outspent her Democratic challenger by a couple million dollars, and based her campaign on fear-mongering ads focusing on Murphy’s opposition to warrantless eavesdropping. …

The result? Johnson was crushed[.]
[…]
Despite continuing to represent a tough, split district, Rep. Murphy — as he runs for re-election for the first time — recently voted against passage of the FISA/telecom amnesty bill, obviously unafraid that such Terrorism fear-mongering works any longer.

So why is Obama embracing a losing political strategy? Libby is thinking that maybe he’s not as savvy as she thought.

One of the biggest reasons I voted for Obama was because he had energized so many young people and new voters and I believed he would be able to keep them engaged through the general. Glenn is right. The reason he was so appealing to this demo was because he was willing to push back against the false memes. That apparent courage to defy the media narrative and redefine the middle was the embodiment of the “change they could believe in.”

People like me will still vote for him, but the more Obama shrinks back from his former boldness and embraces the same old conventions, the more likely it becomes that he will lose the enthusiasm of those new voters. That’s not what they signed up for and they may well just keep their wallets in their pockets and sit it out in November.

Anonymous Liberal thinks Obama’s reasoning has more to do with the Democratic leadership than with voters:

… With over two thirds of the members of his own party prepared to vote in favor of the bill, he has no political cover. If he opposes the bill, the question posed to him by every reporter and debate moderator would be: if the bill was so bad, why did over 2/3rds of the members of your own party think it was necessary to keep America safe?

The problem that national Democratic candidates like Obama face is one of collective action. The Democratic party is, as Glenn points out, filled with politicians who believe that the only way to be taken seriously is to “move to the center,” wherever that center happens to be on any given day. As a result, it is very hard for a national Democrat to take a stand on any significant issue without looking like a fringe figure or someone far to the left of even his own party. Obama is already (thanks to the National Journal’s widely-cited “analysis”) described as the “most liberal Senator in the country.” Were he to oppose a national security bill that is supported by 85% of the Senate, Republicans would likely be able to use that against him fairly effectively this fall.

Again, I say this not to defend Obama’s capitulation, but to point out that his actions are not as politically irrational as Glenn’s analysis would at first suggest. To put it another way, so long as Democrats in Congress continue en masse to seek out the mythical political center, national Democratic candidates must choose to do the same or risk looking completely out of touch with even their own party.

I do not agree with this at all. That hypothetical reporter’s question strikes me as a very easy one to answer. All he has to do is turn the question around. Why the assumption (that word again!) that a bill or a policy is sound because it gets a lot of votes? Didn’t the AUMF passed September 18, 2001, get a lot of votes (a lot, as in only one member of Congress voted against it)? Didn’t a majority of Democrats vote yes on the Patriot Act (the original one, in October 2001)? Was that a good piece of legislation?

I don’t see how the status quo that A.L. describes is ever going to change unless someone decides it needs to change.

Cross-posted at Liberty Street.

2 Responses to “You Know What They Say About Assumptions, Right?”

  1. Mark says:

    Shameless self-promotion, here, but I honestly think that the “move to the center” demonstrates that the Democrats need a swift quick in the patootie this election, otherwise they’ll wind up controlling both houses of Congress and the Presidency while governing like Republicans on civil liberties and foreign policy. My proposed short-term solution is here:

    http://publiusendures.blogspot.com/2008/06/liberal-case-for-bob-barr.html

  2. Matt says:

    Wow, it sure looks as though Glenn is milking this one for everything it’s worth. I mean hell why not? I mean he virtually made a name for himself lambasting the right, now that it looks like we may have a Democrat in power, why not get an early jump on things ya know.

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