Saturday, February 9, 2008

Bad Judegement! Obama Embraces Right-Wing Talking Points

From The on January 2, 2008 :
It’s been brewing for quite a while, but over the last couple of days, a lot of prominent Democratic bloggers have been hammering Barack Obama for using “conservative frames” to advance his candidacy. It’s counter-intuitive, of course, given the circumstances — Obama is a top challenger for the Democratic nomination, so one assumes he’d be running to the left, not the right.

But many, if not most, of my colleagues see a disconcerting — indeed, downright offensive — trend from the senator’s campaign. Markos summarized the concerns of many with an item yesterday.

You know, I was going to vote for Obama and even announced that a week or so ago. But this is a great example of why it’s best to wait and see how things shake out. Not being blinded by candidate worship, it’s easier to sniff out the bullshit. And you have to have your head stuck deep in the sand to deny that Obama is trying to close the deal by running to the Right of his opponents. And call me crazy, but that’s not a trait I generally appreciate in Democrats, no matter how much it might set the punditocracy’s hearts a flutter.

Now, I like to think I’m fairly sensitive to Democrats parroting Republican talking points, and I’ve certainly noticed all of the examples that have annoyed the netroots. For that matter, I’d certainly prefer if Obama were far more cognizant of these concerns, because my hunch is that it’s more carelessness than intentional strategy.

That said, I think some of these examples are more grating than others.

Here’s a closer look at the most notable recent incidents, with a patented Lieberman Rating System — 5 Liebermans for the most annoying use of conservative frames, 1 Lieberman for the least annoying.

1. “Attacking” Gore and Kerry: 2 Liebermans

According to one report, based on a person in attendance at an Obama event, the senator was making the case for his electability. He apparently said, “I don’t want to go into the next election starting off with half the country already not wanting to vote for Democrats — we’ve done that in 2004, 2000.” This has been interpreted as Obama “attacking” Gore and Kerry, calling them divisive.

It’s hardly artful rhetoric, to be sure, but I just didn’t read it the same way Obama critics did. My take was far more in line with Oliver Willis’ — as I heard it, Obama was saying that we were dealing with an evenly-divided, 50-50 electorate. Obama, in contrast, believes (rightly or wrongly) that he can move the needle, attract both Dems and non-Dems, and successfully expand the Democratic coalition. I’ve heard Gore and Kerry bashing; this ain’t it. (Also, the Obama campaign claims that the quote itself is mistaken.)

2. Health care and mandates: 5 Liebermans
Ezra noted that it’s “worrisome” that Obama would “flood the radio with ads claiming ‘Clinton would force people to buy insurance even if they can’t afford it’ and ‘Barack Obama will cover everyone.’” Point: critics.

The only major difference between Obama’s plan and that of Edwards and Clinton are mandates. But Obama’s explanation of the difference has, regrettably, used conservative frames in very unhelpful ways.

3. “Trial lawyer”: 3 Liebermans
Over the weekend, the WaPo reported, “In one of his standard riffs, Obama asserts that his career choices — community organizer, civil rights lawyer, elected official — underscores his commitment to public service and to bringing about political and social change. He always mentions the lucrative job offers he turned down, but today he added a new line. ‘That’s why I didn’t become a trial lawyer,’ Obama told the Newton audience.”

If he added the line, it was no doubt intentional, but as trial-lawyer bashing goes, this seems pretty mild. Obama’s point was that he went to Harvard Law and could have made all kinds of money, but he chose to use his law degree to advance progressive ends, not get rich. It’s hardly an unreasonable pitch for the candidate to make, though he probably could have made the same point without the “trial lawyers” crack.

4. Unions are “special interest” groups: 2 Liebermans
Clinton and Edwards have benefited from 527 groups spending heavily in Iowa on their behalf; Obama hasn’t. Because Edwards, in particular, has denounced 527s’ role in campaigns, Obama has been making a hypocrisy charge. In the process, he’s accused “special interest” groups of boosting Edwards, and because some of the groups are union-affiliated, some have accused Obama of taking a conservative, anti-labor position.

This seems like a stretch. It’s not union bashing to have a fight over 527s, and for that matter, the 527 acting on Edwards’ behalf isn’t backed exclusively with labor money.

I get the sense that Obama has developed a reputation in some circles for embracing conservative frames, so there may be greater scrutiny in this area. I also get the sense there’s some Rorschach tests at play — Obama fans see harmless comments, Obama critics see GOP talking points.

On the whole, I’d say Obama needs to be far more aware of the problem — particularly on healthcare — but some of the concerns seems overwrought.

Update: My friend Melissa McEwan asks me to tackle two more examples (which I didn’t include because they came a little further back during the campaign).

5. Social Security is facing a “crisis”: 4 Liebermans
Over the summer, Obama sought to prove that he, unlike Clinton, was willing to be candid with voters about difficult subjects. Regrettably, he chose Social Security, and described the SS system as facing a “crisis.” Dumb move.

I don’t give it the full 5 Liebermans, though, because Obama at least realized he’d messed up, and soon after backpedaled, conceding that the system faces “challenges,” not a “crisis.” Better yet, he also dropped the whole issue from his talking points, which was a big step in the right direction.

6. The McClurkin debacle: Incomplete
I wasn’t sure whether to include this one, because it doesn’t quite fit in the “conservative frame” discussion. It was a big campaign mistake, but Obama, as far as I can tell, wasn’t using (or accused of using) Republican talking points.

To briefly recap, the Obama campaign hosted a gospel event in South Carolina in October featuring a homophobic entertainer — Donnie McClurkin, a Grammy-winning singer, who claims to have been “cured” of homosexuality, and believes other gays can overcome their “curse” by way of prayer.

There were doubts, raised in some circles, about whether the campaign deliberately chose an anti-gay performer for the concert, as a way of scoring points with bigots. All evidence suggests otherwise — Obama aide Steve Hildebrand, and a prominent gay adviser, Tobias Wolff, conceded that the campaign simply didn’t do its due diligence, and didn’t realize what McClurkin had said about gays. They also stressed Obama’s “unequivocal” commitment to gay rights, denounced McClurkin’s anti-gay views, and added an openly gay minister to the gospel event. If this were an effort to “throw gays under the bus,” the campaign wouldn’t have taken those steps at all.