Politics & Policy

Barack McGovern Clinton

Meeting Obama.

Andrew Sullivan, one of Barack Obama’s most ardent defenders, has written this:

The right doesn’t know what to make of Obama because he has transcended their Rovian categories. So he either has to be a radical like McGovern or a hollow opportunist like Clinton. He is, in fact, neither.

Obama may, in fact, be both.

Sen. Obama’s instincts seem to be, and his few legislative accomplishments are unquestionably, those of an orthodox liberal. It is not by accident that National Journal — a respected, non-partisan publication — named Obama the most liberal person in the Senate in 2007. In a chamber that includes Ted Kennedy and John Kerry, that is, in its own way, quite an achievement. Sen. Obama is arguably the most liberal Democrat running for the presidency since McGovern and, in fact, Obama’s stand on Iraq (until the last few weeks, anyway) very much mirrors McGovern’s “Come Home, America” rallying cry.

Where Obama differs from McGovern is in his style and countenance. Obama does not come across, as McGovern did, as a radical; in fact, Obama’s words are meant to be reassuring, calming, and measured. Obama has been blessed with the (rare) ability to project himself as a centrist even though his voting record is, by any reasonable definition, fairly extreme.

Sen. Obama may have emerged out of the politics and ethos of Hyde Park, but he does not appear to be a person of any deep political or philosophical convictions. His vertigo-inducing shifts in positions since the Democratic primary ended is where the impression that Obama is a man of Bill Clinton-like hollowness comes from.

In that sense, then, Obama is something of a hybrid: a person with a number of radical associations and the voting record of a person who fits in easily and comfortably in the world of the Daily Kos, MoveOn.org, and The Nation — but also a person of enormous ego and ambition whose overwhelming concern is his political viability. One increasingly gets the sense that there is virtually no issue, no core convictions, and very few people who will not be thrown under the bus, if doing so advances Obama’s political career. That kind of raw, unleavened ambition is actually more rare in politics than many people might imagine. My sense is that both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama possess it in the extreme.

Bill Clinton and Barack Obama share something else in common: both are men of considerable political skills. In fact, I would argue that Obama is at least equal to, and in some respects better than, Clinton as a candidate. Obama is more far more disciplined than Clinton ever was (of course, who is not?). He does not carry anything like the personal baggage Clinton did (of course, who else does?). Obama is also quite a good political tactician and a man in possession of an attractive, agreeable personality. He does not carry Clinton-like grudges and resentments. He also delivers his speeches far more effectively than Clinton ever did, though Clinton was probably (at this stage at least) a better debater than Obama. Obama is also very hard to tag; the kind of person who, if he was a prize fighter, would have the reputation for slipping a punch.

The fact that Obama has placed himself, through his past stands, on the fringe of American politics offers conservatives and Republicans an opening, one Obama has been frantically (and probably successfully) trying to close. Any Republican or conservative who still underestimates him is badly mistaken. He is an extremely formidable figure. But the question for Obama, as it was for Clinton, is to what end his political talents will be channeled and used. We cannot know the final answer to that question yet — Obama is, even now, still a largely new and unknown figure on the scene — but the indications so far are not at all encouraging.

– Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to the president, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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