The Problem

Many of us in this community are angry and felt royally betrayed after Claire McCaskill voted for cloture for the FISA Amendments bill last week, and although the final vote has not yet been taken, few of us have any real expectations that she will redeem her past votes to gut the 4th amendment.

There has been lots of soul-searching because she is  fine on some issues, just not the most important issues like protecting the rule of law.  Many of us, myself for sure, have tried to figure out how she can be made to suffer some consequences so that she will maybe think more carefully before she betrays Democratic principles in the future.

However, I havn’t heard much about Barack Obama’s volte face on the FISA issue here, grievious as it is–especially to those of us like me who supported him enthusiastically during the primary.  Many suspected that he would moderate his rhetoric and make the move to the so-called “center” as part of his reelection strategy, we just didn’t expect it on this particular issue since he had seemingly addressed it so emphatically earlier; and, of course, the Constitution just seems too important to provide a Sistah Souljah moment.  

So if we’re all over McCaskill for her FISA votes, shouldn’t we be all over Obama as well?


There are, however, a few propositions that have to be examined when we approach the problem of Obama and his FISA sell-out:

1.  Obama’s stance on FISA is no more than political expedience.

Well duh!  He is very careful in his statement on FISA Amendments Bill not to actually endorse any of its content.  But he just as clearly wants it to go away as an issue during the campaign. Fasaha on Dailykos argues that he is responding to his polling:

I think the answer is in his presidential polling.  Barack’s deficit on terrorism leadership in recent polls is actually worse than I thought:  according to TIME Magazine’s June 26 poll’s internals, he trails McCain by 22 points, Moreover, 81% of the country rates this as “extremely” or “very important” to their vote.

To take this argument a step further, his past record and his stated beliefs show that Obama has always been first and foremost a pragmatist, as Tom Daschle noted in a recent Washington Post article:

Those who accomplish the most are those who don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good, … 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.”

The fact that Obama’s main opponent, Hillary Clinton, began her rightward shift much earlier in anticipation of her presidential run, affirms the common wisdom that such a shift to the center is   necessary to win the presidency.  Her Iraq votes and her sponsorship of the Flag-Burning Amendment come to mind most immediately.  

2.  Political expediency during a presidential campaign where so much is on the line justifies an awful lot of drek.

I actually buy this up to a point. I believe that when a political goal is defined, one expects one’s political representative to work to achieve that goal as effectively as possible. In this case the goal is the presidency.  This election in particular is too important to cede to Republicans because we insist that our candidate’s rhetoric reflect a progressive agenda that does not necessarily have wide purchase among the electorate as a whole.

I did not attack McCaskill for some of her expedient campaign postures, and I will refrain from lavishing opprobrium on Obama now.   If Obama’s weak stance on FISA is intended as a platform on which to play out his stated intention to bring the campaign fight to formerly red states–states that might welcome economic populism coupled with a “strong” national security stance–then I just hope that it’s successful.  

The only problem that I have is that I am not sure that this tactic will really be effective.  As the Washington Post observes, Republicans have jumped on Obama’s FISA stance with lug-soled boots, loudly proclaiming a sighting of the infamous “flip-flopper” first sighted to great effect in Kerry’s 2004 campaign:

“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.”

The Post notes that, in addition, Obama also risks disillusioning a large segment of his base when he most needs their support:

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.


Apart from the of risk destroying his “brand,” as the The Huffington Post put it, Obama’s facile response to this issue may really indicate a serious misreading of the politics of the issue and thus fail as a pragmatic response to the political situation.  This case is best made by Glenn Greenwald hereand can be summed up as follows:

… The very idea that Bush/Cheney policies are the “center,” or that one must move towards their approach in order to succeed, ignores the extreme shifts in public opinion generally regarding how our country has been governed over the last seven years.

One could argue that national security plays a larger role in presidential elections than in Congressional races, and that very well may be. But was John Kerry’s narrow 2004 loss to George Bush due to the perception that Kerry — who ran as fast as he could towards the mythical Center — was Soft on Terrorism? Or was it due to the understandable belief that his rush to the Center meant that he stood for nothing, that he was afraid of his own views — the real hallmark, the very definition, of weakness?

As M.S. Belows, Jr. puts it in an essay on The Huffington Post:

On the FISA legislation, Obama is coming very close to failing both the expediency and principle tests.

What is the Right Response?

We have to win this election.  McCain is a continuation of the nightmare of the last eight years–vote for him if you want to see the last fifty years of progress completely dismantled. Consequently, we have to continue to support Obama, and work as hard as we can to see him elected.  We have to hope that he knows what he is doing, and is not so overcome by the gravity of the race to be President that he succumbs to bad advice.

This is not to say, however, that we should roll over and play dead.  Whether or not we can change his response to the FISA Amendments Bill,  we need to let him know that we are out there in force.  We need to keep the letters coming–and, for those in this community who are not Face-Book phobic, we might consider joining this group:  Senator Obama – Please Vote NO on Telecom Immunity – Get FISA Right. According to SusanG of the Dailykos, it now has 2300+ members who have joined just since Thursday, making it one of the ten largest groups on the site.

If he wins this election though, our  job will not be done. We will need to watch and make our voices heard; if we find that our President crosses the lines in the sand that, as progressives, we need to draw, then we can give him the response we long to give to McCaskill.  

To do this we need a strong progressive movement.  A movement that may well take years to build.  We need to make sure that nobody defines the center on the right side of the line in the future.  As McJoan of Dailykos says on this topic:

Our job … isn’t go off sulking in a fit of pique because our leaders let us down. Blustering, whining, refusing to play anymore is the least helpful and productive of avenues. I keep coming back to Howard Dean and his admonition to us at Yearly Kos in Chicago that we are working on a long term project here to take our party back. Making this party ours again is going to take a lot of work and a long time. We do that by staying engaged. We do that by telling our representatives, including our presidential candidate (who is STILL head and shoulders better than the alternative) what we expect of them and by making their decisions matter.

So to answer the question I posed above when trying to state the problem I have been struggling with:  Yes, we tell Obama, just as we tell McCaskill what we believe, and, no we don’t go after Obama full-throttle with every punishment we can think of–yet.  

UPDATE I.  Maybe all the pressure is paying off?  This report is not confirmed, but sounds good.  Of course, now we have to be ready to get Obama’s back since it is not good political mojo to open oneself up to further “flip-flop” charges.

UPDATE II.  In the light of the possible change of heart on Obama’s part indicated in the article above, see this article in the Nation.  Proves that sufficient pressure can be effective–coupled with all the other high-profile brouhaha such as the most recent Olbermann commentary.  We have just got to keep it up until after the vote.