Obama’s Bona Fides

I’m still thinking about the results of last night’s Iowa caucus. Voter turnout was unprecented — twice as many Democrats caucused compared to ’04. And as problematic as the caucuses are, the fact that Barack Obama was able to get so many people into his camp says something. Even without the bizarre 15% threshold requirements, Obama was the first choice of more voters than any other candidate.

He proved that he could win independents, win whites, and do pretty well among union households, even though most unions threw their support to Edwards (out of conviction) or Clinton (out of a desire to back a winner).

Still, there’s this nagging doubt among most liberals and progressives that I speak with about whether or not Obama is one of them. He tends to speak of reconciliation, of “one america,” etc., at a time when many progressives would prefer Rove-style partisanship. And there’s some truth to that. When you split the difference with the Republicans, as Bill Clinton did, you end up moving the country further to the right overall. You work tirelessly to balance the budget and then Bush gets elected and runs up the credit card again, for example. This is why people like Paul Krugman have been backing John Edwards.

But there are plenty of good reasons to believe that Obama’s not the wooly-headed half-a-loaf compromiser that Krugman wants to paint him as. I’ve already noted Mark Schmitt’s persuasive theory of change article, for example. Schmitt argues that Obama wants to “own” bipartisanship for his own purposes, in much the way John McCain used it over the last few years to legalize torture (the Military Commissions Act) and nominate extremist judges (the Gang of 14 deal).

Finally, Jon Cohn recently flagged a November TNR interview with Obama, which contains this quote:

I’m not interested in good government for the sake of good government. You can make an argument that there were times when patronage politics worked pretty well for the down and out and for the immigrant end of America. And, you know, maybe the lace curtain crowd didn’t like it, but it really helped in terms of upward mobility. That’s not true any more. So when I say I want to change politics, it’s precisely because I want to make sure that people have health care, that they’ve got a job that pays a living wage, that they can send their kids to college, that they can retire with dignity and respect.

And you’re right that this notion of partisanship is also a little confused. I’m not afraid to get in a big partisan fight. But what I’m not going to do is organize my campaign around the fact that I’m not a Republican. I don’t think that gets us to where we need to go. So, look, nobody’s been fiercer in going after Republicans where I think they’re wrong. I’ve never been a centrist, middle of the road Democrat. I mean, if anything, both Hillary and John have had their moments, you know, their roles in that. That’s not a role I’ve ever taken. And I’ve never pretended to take that role. I have always taken the view that my job is to fight for people who nobody else is fighting for. And to fight hard for ’em. And sometimes that’s partisan. But sometimes it’s not. Sometimes working with Republicans is the best way to deliver for them. Sometimes cleaning up politics is the best way to deliver for them. Ultimately, my goal is to deliver for them.

Who is the “real” Obama? I’m not sure yet. But I’m increasingly convinced that he’s a committed liberal who just sort of phrases things differently and so convinces independents and Republicans to support him. Andrew Sullivan called him “dangerous” or something like that because he makes big-government liberalism so appealing. I think that’s about right. He brings you over to his side not by adopting your positions but rather by convincing you that his side is a really awesome place to be. And that’s exactly what we want in the next president.