Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
It was a crummy week for Obama, leading up to the 4th of July. But over on DailyKos, the antiwar, progressive netroots could learn why smart guys using "hard numbers" can demonstrate that Obama's opposition to gun control laws, support for unfettered government wiretapping, and denunciation of the Supreme Court for placing limits on the death penalty, as well as his vow to expand Bush's faith-based initiatives and his backtracking on firm deadlines for withdrawal from Iraq, are actually brilliant good news.
You have to understand the math, you see.
I'll spare you the rehash of poll numbers showing that Obama needs to shore up support among conservatives and independent, swing voters--never mind those young, progressive, antiwar voters he assumes are already in his pocket. This is the same old argument we heard for two Clinton terms. Obama's Second Amendment position on doing away with DC's sensible ban on handguns, and his position that the Supreme Court ought not to let a child rapist escape the death penalty are his version of Bill Clinton's trip home to watch the execution of Ricky Ray Rector. Obama was never anti-death-penalty. His work in the Illinois state senate on the issue, during a death penalty moratorium that followed the execution of innocents in his state, was, as his wife described it on the campaign trail, an effort to "fix a broken death penalty." That is, to get the death chambers working again. The religious pandering is so pro-forma now it's hardly surprising.
But Obama's FISA position and his Iraq War waffle are the hardest to swallow.
The enthusiasm Obama generates derives in large part from his departure from what he likes to call "politics as usual." He drew the sharpest distinctions with his primary opponents with his early opposition to the war. His principled speech opposing the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a true distinction. He was right. His colleagues were left to make apologies or to claim, unconvincingly, that they would have voted differently "if we knew then what we know now."
On civil liberties, Obama, like his colleague in the Senate, Russ Feingold, offered unequivocal words.
Here's an excerpt from a speech in January, courtesy of Talking Points Memo:
I strongly oppose retroactive immunity in the FISA bill.
Ever since 9/11, this Administration has put forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand.
The FISA court works. The separation of power works. We can trace, track down and take out terrorists while ensuring that our actions are subject to vigorous oversight, and do not undermine the very laws and freedom that we are fighting to defend.
No one should get a free pass to violate the basic civil liberties of the American people -- not the President of the United States, and not the telecommunications companies that fell in line with his warrantless surveillance program. We have to make clear the lines that cannot be crossed.
Here, also from TPM, is the statement he gave after voting for the bill he initially opposed: "My view on FISA has always been that the issue of the phone companies per se is not one that overrides the security interests of the American people."
The civil liberties issue got Obama's supporters so worked up they deluged his website with email. Tamping down netroots outrage on this issue is quite a task.
The Markos argument is simple: Obama must tack to the center to win. It's the same argument the Democrats have been making since the 1960s. Meanwhile, the political center has drifted further and further to the right. Obama won the primary by appearing to stand up to this drift. He talked about middle and working class Americans losing ground not just in the Bush but also in the Clinton years. He stood up on Iraq. He refused to adopt a cowering and defensive posture on issue after issue--including, most notably, on his minister and race.
He inspired people by rising above what he referred to as the tired culture-war arguments on the 1960s.
Nowhere is there a better place for rejecting a false left/right dichotomy than on the issue of civil liberties. Liberals and conservatives alike despise government wiretapping. A courageous stand, such as Russ Feingold has taken against the Patriot Act, appeals to Americans across the political spectrum who value their constitutional rights.
On DailyKos, Markos and the diary "Hope Reborn" argue that Obama's supporters should embrace his abandonment of their principles on this issue because, he takes pains to demonstrate with polls numbers, charts and graphs, he will win by selling out. The big problem with this argument is that it avoids the most important question: What will Obama do after he wins? Why should we believe he will suddenly tack back to being a defender of civil liberties?
The time to resist the pressure to hew to a "center" defined by the Bush Administration's radicalism is now.