In Campaign, One Man's Pragmatism Is Another's Flip-Flopping

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 28, 2008

Last February, in the heat of the Democratic primary campaign, Sen. Barack Obama proclaimed himself "proud to stand" with Sens. Christopher J. Dodd, Russell Feingold and "a grass-roots movement of Americans" in opposition to President Bush's demand to offer telecommunications companies legal amnesty for assisting in federal warrantless wiretapping.

This week, Dodd (D-Conn.), Feingold (D-Wis.) and those same grass roots were still manning the barricades when the Senate revisited legislation governing surveillance of terrorism suspects. But the senator from Illinois was not, instead backing a new compromise that offers some additional limitations on spying but effectively grants the legal protections to phone companies he opposed just four months ago.

The switch is not without precedent. On a variety of issues, including gun control and campaign finance regulation, the presumptive Democratic nominee has shown himself willing to settle for incremental changes in the face of political reality rather than to hold out for the sweeping and uncompromising positions he initially stakes out.

To Republicans, those shifts represent classic political flip-flops, and after this week's Supreme Court ruling overturning the District gun ban, Obama's decision to opt out of public financing for the general election and his backing of the wiretapping compromise, presumptive Republican nominee John McCain and his allies have come down hard.

"It does seem to reflect a willingness . . . to change on positions, to be more liberal in the primary, to moving more conservative in the general election," said Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). "I guess I should welcome that, but it looks like, to me, either inexperience or incredible flip-flopping."

Obama allies see his malleability as willingness to compromise in pursuit of longer-term goals, a contrast to the Arizona Republican's often quixotic opposition to measures that represent smaller steps toward a goal but don't meet his broader, often rigid, goals.

"Those who accomplish the most are those who don't make the perfect the enemy of the good," said former Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle, a key Obama supporter. "Barack is a pragmatist. In that sense, he has a larger vision but oftentimes knows that we can't get there with one legislative effort. When these occasions arise, he is willing to accept progress, even marginal gain, as a step toward that vision."

But even some who should be his core constituents -- in the Democratic Party's progressive wing and the liberal blogosphere -- have taken his recent maneuvers as a wake-up call. They are warning the senator that in his quest to reach voters in the middle of the political spectrum, he risks depressing the enthusiasm of the voters who clinched the nomination for him.

"American voters tend to reward politicians who take clear stands," said David Sirota, a former Democratic aide on Capitol Hill and author of the new populist-themed book "The Uprising." "When Obama takes these mushy positions, it could speak to a character issue. Voters that don't pay a lot of attention look at one thing: 'Does the guy believe in something?' They may be saying the guy is afraid of his own shadow."

To be sure, McCain has been castigated for his own flip-flops, on President Bush's tax cuts, offshore oil drilling and terrorist detention and interrogation policies. Today, he will have to confront his own waffling when he addresses the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials and has to explain whether he still supports a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants as part of a comprehensive immigration policy overhaul or his more recent stand that the citizenship issue can be addressed only after the U.S. border is sealed.

But Sirota says there is a difference between McCain's temporizing and Obama's. When McCain changes positions, he speaks of his new position firmly and resolutely, while Obama shifts with more nuance.

Last week, realizing that he had the potential to raise more money than any candidate in modern history, Obama set aside his career-long support of public financing of elections to become the first presidential candidate to opt out of taxpayer assistance for the general election since the funding system was put in place after Watergate. The move "reinforced every bad thing wrong with politics," Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a McCain ally, said on "Meet the Press."

During his primary battle with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), Obama was unequivocal in his demands to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, but since wrapping up the nomination, he has sent signals to Wall Street downplaying his interest in reopening the trade deal, labor allies complain.

During a February debate, Obama passed up the chance to say the District of Columbia's handgun ban violated the Constitution, hinting that is could coexist with an individual's right to bear arms. But when the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional on Thursday, he hailed the decision as "much-needed guidance to local jurisdictions across the country."

Other recent legislative stands have provided a study in contrasts, as both men seek to claim the title of "reformer" in the White House race. Although McCain aides this week labeled Obama "Dr. No" for his stand against offshore oil drilling, it has been Obama who has gone with the crowd while McCain has been swept aside by overwhelming Senate majorities.

In June, by a vote of 80 to 14, the Senate overrode Bush's veto of the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, a measure backed by Obama as a sensible step forward and denounced by McCain as a profligate continuation of farm policy in need of reform. Just 12 Republicans backed McCain's position.

Last November, by a vote of 79 to 14, the Senate trounced Bush's veto of the Water Resources Development Act of 2007. Obama embraced the bill, not only for its funding of the Illinois Waterway System -- a crucial inland shipping channel for his state -- but also for long-sought environmental controls and outside reviews of Army Corps of Engineers navigation, flood-control and recreation projects. McCain condemned it as laden with pork.

In 2005, McCain was one of only six Republicans to oppose a GOP-authored energy bill that pumped $85 billion worth of subsidies and tax breaks to oil and gas, "clean coal," ethanol, solar and wind power. Republicans hailed it as a boost to energy production, especially for the kind of offshore exploration that McCain now trumpets. But Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) denounced it as "a pork-laden, lobbyist-driven dream." Obama voted for it.

Obama has shown himself to be not so much a "post-partisan" politician as a "post-polarizing" politician, projecting moderation in an era of political warfare, said Ross Baker, a political scientist and congressional scholar at Rutgers University. McCain, on the other hand, is the party scold -- "sort of tilting at windmills" and putting a "guilt trip on the rest of us because we know he's right," said former Senate majority leader Trent Lott.

"You've had enough evidence that there's no doubt, at least as I view the two senators, who is the reformer," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who has often opposed McCain on key legislative votes. "McCain is an agent for change."

But after eight years of Bush's uncompromising approach to the issues, Obama aides say they believe he can turn his subtler approach to his advantage.

"It's a shoot-from-the hip proposition to me," House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.) said of McCain's approach. "He starts out with the germ of an idea and doesn't follow through with any detail."

"After eight years of ideology driving decision making, is pragmatism reform? Yes, it is," said an Obama adviser in Chicago.

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