Barack Obama's mad rush toward the middle

The Democrat is following a well-trod path to moderation on the political stage

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The Gazette, Wednesday, July 23, 2008

It is common practice for candidates to secure their party's base when running for the leadership, and then move to the centre where general elections are usually won. Barack Obama and John McCain are no exceptions, using the period before the Democratic and Republican conventions to move respectively from the left and right toward the centre of the U.S. political spectrum.

There's nothing remarkable about McCain's emphasis on centrist positions on everything from climate change to closing the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. As the presumptive Republican nominee for the U.S. presidency, he's leading a party with serious brand problems that cannot win the White House without moderate and independent voters. McCain is even considering former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge as his running mate, in an effort to win an important swing state. But Ridge's pro-choice views on abortion could risk the wrath of the Republican right.

It's Obama's move, indeed his lunging, toward the centre in the last month that has raised eyebrows among the pundit class, and incurred anger on the Democratic left, especially out there in the blogosphere.

There's no doubt of Obama's strategic policy shift, which is even more pronounced when viewed through a Canadian political prism. The centre of Canadian politics is way to the left of the U.S., or theirs is way to the right of ours.

Consider: When the U.S. Supreme Court voted down a ban on handguns in cities, Obama supported its decision, saying "I have always believed that the second amendment protects the rights of individuals to bear arms." That could have been written over at the National Rifle Association.

Obama then reversed his position on wiretapping, announcing his support of a sweeping foreign intelligence surveillance bill in the Senate.

As for public campaign financing, which Obama and McCain have long supported, Obama had no problem ditching his own position on it. Accepting matching public funds would have been doing things in the old way of Washington, he said. Translation: This would have capped his spending for the general election at less than $100 million, when he had no difficulty raising three times that in the primaries. With his Internet-based financing, Obama could raise as much as $500 million more for the November election.

These are just three issues on which the McCain campaign has not been alone in commenting on Obama's obvious policy flip-flops since the end of the primary season. This is the same candidate who, on gun ownership, accused Hillary Clinton of sounding like Annie Oakley.

There's a fine line between pragmatism and cynicism, and Obama runs a risk of crossing it, especially since he started out as the candidate of hope and change.

But Gil Troy, for one, perceives that Obama is returning to his centrist origins, as well as heeding the rules of post-primary positioning.

Troy, a McGill University history professor and presidential scholar, has just brought out a timely book in the U.S. on the subject of centrism in American politics, entitled Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

"When you read Obama's book, The Audacity of Hope, or when you hear his 2004 speech to the Democratic convention," Troy says, "that's a much more centrist vision than what we saw in the primaries."

From Washington, where he's a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Centre, Troy adds: "I look at it less as pandering that someone needs to do than as someone being what he's always been."

In Troy's centrist all-star lineup, Obama could fit right in with 20th-century presidents who usually found the common middle ground - Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. It was Reagan who named the first woman, Sandra Day O'Connor, to the Supreme Court.

"To the frustration of his core supporters," writes Troy, "Reagan repeatedly compromised, caring more about national unity, relative political calm and his own popularity."

Troy defines the "Great American Centre" as having "a long proud history of offering a muscular moderation, not a mushy middle."

Obama also seems to be on what Troy describes in his book as "this search for the centre, this majoritarian stance, (which) may be the quintessential democratic quest."

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