Obama and his Labels

Posted: Jun 08, 2008 12:01 AM
Obama and his Labels

I was just getting used to the idea that Barack Obama is an America-hating left-winger bent on socialism and surrender. Then along comes Ralph Nader, who says the problem with Obama is that he's an obedient steward of the status quo, doing the bidding of greedy corporations. Naderites, conservatives and many others agree he's a menace. They just can't agree on why.

Obama has said, in reference to his broad appeal, "I am like a Rorschach test" -- meaning that his admirers have a knack for seeing in him exactly what they want to find. But the inkblots work the other way, too: People who dislike him have detected a multitude of reasons to justify their animus.

To Hillary Clinton's supporters, he was always a dreamy innocent who would be ground up by the Republican attack machine. To some critics, he's a sleazy Chicago pol. When he ran for Congress against a black incumbent, he lost because some voters thought he was too white. In some primary states this year, some voters thought he was, well, not too white.

By the time this campaign is over, he'll be called everything but a child of God. Some of it will be true, some of it will be false and much of it won't matter.

One of the favorite Republican themes will be labeling him the most liberal senator, as ranked by the National Journal. Now, it's true that Obama -- how to put it? -- votes eerily like a Democrat. But it's hard to believe he's really more liberal than Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, Chuck Schumer, Barbara Boxer, Russ Feingold or Bernie Sanders.

By more comprehensive measures, he's not. According to one scholarly analysis of all non-unanimous votes, Obama is only the 10th most liberal senator. Still, there is no doubt he's a liberal of one shade or another. If he's elected, you should not expect a reduction in taxes, spending, regulation, federal power or Birkenstock sales.

Obama insists his views are more complicated than simple labels convey. But while McCain has often defied his own party's orthodoxy, Obama has declined to do so.

As liberals go, however, opponents of Big Government could do worse. On economic matters, like the mortgage crisis, he's more respectful of property rights and free markets than, say, Clinton. His health care plan rankles many liberals because it doesn't force everyone to buy insurance.

While Obama has criticized various free-trade agreements, he's also written that in today's world, "it's hard to even imagine, much less enforce, an effective regime of protectionism."

Some of the positions that get him tagged as liberal confound traditional categories. Among the members of Congress who share his support for withdrawal from Iraq are Republican Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who favors dismantling most of the federal government, and Democratic Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, who was secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan.

These days, 20 percent of Republicans say we should bring the bulk of our troops home within a year. They can attest that opposing the war doesn't make you a liberal any more than eating nuts makes you a squirrel.

That's one reason the liberal label may not be quite the ball and chain Republicans hope. If "liberal" is taken to connote gay marriage, socialized medicine and unilateral disarmament, most people won't find it appealing. But Obama does not espouse those. If it is taken to mean trying something different from the last seven years -- or offering a plausible alternative to war, inflation and a housing bust -- they will be receptive.

Back in 1980, everyone knew Ronald Reagan was too conservative to win. But when non-conservatives were presented with a conservative who was likable, temperate and occasionally eloquent, many of them found they could vote for him. What Obama has going for him, more than anything, is a quality of calm and thoughtful gravity, which offers a refreshing contrast to President Bush's inarticulate defensiveness and McCain's stubborn pugnacity.

I disagree with Obama's positions more often than not, but reducing a political leader to the sum of his positions is like judging the value of an artwork by adding up the cost of the canvas and paint. Obama didn't get where he is by being a liberal like any other. He got there by being a liberal like no other.