The Risks for Barack in Moving Right

Carol Platt Liebau
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Posted: Aug 04, 2008 12:01 PM
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Juan Williams notes that fact that race just won't go away in this year's presidential elections, and he advises Barack to do a better job of reaching out to white voters.

How?  Williams argues:

Blacks in the Pew poll were just as likely as whites to take a hard line opposing crime (as long as black neighborhoods are not unfairly targeted), to condemn the shocking number of children born out of wedlock and express disgust with the violence and misogyny in rap music.

Mr. Obama needs to hammer home these conservative social values to capture undecided white voters.

Facially, that's sound advice -- after all, there's almost nothing Barack could do to lose the black vote.  But there are a couple of problems.  First, one can't look at Barack's political career when it comes to "conservative social values" and find much support for them, aside from the occasional bit of throw away rhetoric.  So it would create more "having it both ways" character issues.

Second, as someone who frequently takes a conservative line when it comes to social issues, I can attest that it's hard to find the verbiage to make the points without it being characterized as holier-than-thou or otherwise unappealing.  Tacking right on social issues is a particularly daunting task for someone who's already gained a reputation for lecturing his fellow Americans.
 
Third, how much would taking a conservative line when it comes to values alienate Barack's other core constituencies -- in particular, the upper-middle-class professoriate and young people (the latter, of course, having been schooled by the former, often hold far-left social views)?  Even if a shift to the right only alienates a portion of these constituencies, it's a problem (particularly given the young's frequent fall-off when it comes actually to getting to the polls on election day).  How much disenchantment with Barack as a "change agent" and a "different kind of politician" would shifting vocally to the right on social values create?

And if I were one of Barack's arugula-eating core supporters who was culturally very left of center (as he is), I'd be very nervous and unhappy with his shift to cultural centrism.  Why?  Because his embrace of socially conservative views would validate them more quickly than anyone on the right ever could.  How, if Barack comes out vocally for things like traditional marriage, could the left come back and demonize social conservatives as haters if their very own candidate agrees with them? 

By adopting conservative views, Barack ironically could lay the groundwork for GOP success in the future -- not least by undermining years of Democratic talking points by convincing African-Americans that conservative social policies don't necessarily spell their doom or constitute hatred for blacks in general.