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A False Moderate?

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By Michael Gerson
Friday, June 20, 2008

It was not quite a Roger Mudd moment, but it was close. Mudd, you might recall, posed a simple question to Ted Kennedy in 1979: "Why do you want to be president?" Kennedy's vague, unprepared answer raised serious questions about his candidacy.

Recently, Jake Tapper of ABC News asked a similarly blunt question of Barack Obama: "Have you ever worked across the aisle in such a way that entailed a political risk for yourself?" Obama's response is worth quoting in full: "Well, look, when I was doing ethics reform legislation, for example, that wasn't popular with Democrats or Republicans. So any time that you actually try to get something done in Washington, it entails some political risks. But I think the basic principle which you pointed out is that I have consistently said, when it comes to solving problems, like nuclear proliferation or reducing the influence of lobbyists in Washington, that I don't approach this from a partisan or ideological perspective."

For a candidate running as a centrist reformer, this is pretty weak tea. Ethics reform and nuclear proliferation are important issues, but they have hardly put Obama in the liberal doghouse. When I recently asked two U.S. senators who are personally favorable to Obama to name a legislative issue on which Obama has vocally bucked his own party, neither could cite a single instance.

The contrast to John McCain is stark. Contrary to some depictions, McCain is not a moderate. He is a conservative with a habit of massive, eye-stretching heresy. He has supported gun control legislation, the expansion of the AmeriCorps service program, and campaign finance and comprehensive immigration reform -- leaving many conservatives in fits of sputtering, red-faced outrage. He joined the moderate Gang of 14 on judicial nominations and supports mandatory caps on greenhouse gas emissions.

McCain has the scars to show for it. Sen. Mitch McConnell dismissed McCain's campaign finance legislation as "stunningly stupid." Another Republican senator, quoted on background in 2001, vented: "Every time McCain accuses President Bush's budget of favoring the rich or sides with Sen. Ted Kennedy on his patients' bill of rights or Sen. Joe Lieberman on more gun control or all those other Democrats on restricting the First Amendment on campaign finance reform, it's news only because he's a Republican. It's 'man bites dog,' and it hurts us far more than if he were attacking our philosophy and agenda as an independent or a Democrat."

This is not to argue that defying your party is uniformly admirable. Sometimes McCain's courage gets mixed up with his pride -- and maybe, in the end, they are indistinguishable. But the same could be said of Winston Churchill, who changed parties more than once. We tend to admire this kind of disruptive independence.

Obama's four years in the Senate have provided fewer opportunities for heresy than McCain's 22. Yet Obama draws scrutiny to this subject by making his transcendence of political categories one of his main campaign themes. He has shown occasional hints of independence on education -- supporting charter schools and merit pay for teachers. But for the most part, Obama's post-partisanship is more a matter of tone. He speaks movingly about the positive role of religion in our common life. He urges fathers to meet their moral and economic responsibilities to their children. He rejects the demonization of pro-lifers (though he refuses to oppose partial-birth abortion). He defends the good intentions of Democratic senators who voted for Chief Justice John Roberts (though he was one of only 22 senators who voted against Roberts).

These are welcome gestures, but they are not policies. Perhaps Obama is just conventionally liberal. Perhaps he has carefully avoided offending Democratic constituencies. Whatever the reason, his lack of a strong, centrist ideological identity raises a concern about his governing approach. Obama has no moderate policy agenda that might tame or modify the extremes of his own party in power. Will every Cabinet department simply be handed over to the most extreme Democratic interest groups? Will Obama provide any centrist check on liberal congressional overreach?

It is an odd thing when a presidential candidate bases his campaign on a manifest weakness. Rudy Giuliani ran on a platform of foreign policy experience while lacking it completely. Obama promises post-partisanship while doing little to demonstrate it in the Senate. And the independent voters so eagerly courted in this election may eventually ask about Obama the odd but appropriate question: What dogs has this man bitten?

michaelgerson@cfr.org


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