June 30, 2008

Obama Takes the Center, Perhaps Florida

After the American Century

In the last few weeks Senator Obama has performed the classic manouevre required of successful presidential candidates. He has moved toward the center. During the primaries the voters are all in the same party, but to win the general election, a candidate usually shifts policy positions a bit. In 2000 George Bush managed to convince some Democrats and many Indepndents that he was a "compassionate conservative." In 1992 Bill Clinton likewise danced a bit toward the middle.

When candidates do this, ideologues become upset, because the candidate no longer seems a person of principles, but an opportunist. However, I have become somewhat more tolerant of these policy position changes, which also suggest pragmatism and flexibility. Candidates thereby suggest to the public that they listen to the popular will. Obama has recently endorsed private gun ownership, for example. Personally, I wish he had not taken that position, but if he wants to win in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, and many western states, this is a good idea. In any case, the president will not likely be able to change the liberal laws on gun ownership., which have just been supported by the Supreme Court. It overturned a Washington DC law to control carrying handguns. There was little point in Obama attacking the Court, and he will focus on the battles he can win.

Obama likewise made clear his support for Israel, which is important to carry certain key states, notably Florida. This support should be balanced, however, by his repeated declaration that he would seek an open dialogue with many groups and governments that the Bush Administration has refused to talk to, including many in the Arab world.

Less predictably, and far more interestingly, Obama has made a sharp break with the hard-liners on Cuba. For fifty years the US has enforced an economic embargo against Castro's regime. Support for that policy is weakening, however, due to several factors. First, Fidel Castro is now too ill to run that country, and his more pragmatic and reform-minded brother has made many small steps in the direction Americans would like to see, giving a modicum of democracy to the country. Second, the hard-liners themselves are dying off, and the second and third generation Cuban-Americans can see the potential economic and personal benefits in re-engaging with Cuba. Third, the EU does not have an embargo against Cuba, and the US is cutting itself out of a market. When Obama spoke to Cuban-Americans in Florida last week, they applauded his call for dialogue and economic engagement. Since the Bush White House apparently has little historical memory, it is worth emphasizing that the Cold War was "won" without a shot being fired, because of constructive engagement.

In short, while Obama is moving to the center, he is not simply repeating old policy positions. His approach to Cuba seems far more sensible than McCain's, who has embraced the old hard-line view. Obama is going after the younger Cuban voters, making himself the candidate of the future and of change. Coupled with his more moderate views on immigration, this should play well with the Hispanic voters generally, who are less prone to be hard-liners on Cuba in any case.

If Obama can successfully hold Jewish voters and pull some of the Cubans away from the Republicans, he will have a much better chance to win Florida, and with it, the White House. He is being adventuresome where it can pay off, but not on gun control, an issue where the Supreme Court has spoken, and one that will drive the white working class into the arms of McCain.

Will it work? During April and May every poll on Florida put McCain ahead, often by as much as 15%. But in the middle of June, even before Obama announced his new Cuban policy and support for Israel, two polls put him ahead of McCain. Even if Obama ultimately loses the state, if he can force McCain to use time and money to defend it, he will have fewer resources to put elsewhere.