Politics & Policy

They Know Where He Stands

The netroots and Barack Obama.

Conventional wisdom says Barack Obama has been tacking right since winning the Democratic nomination, and that’s true as far as it goes. But this isn’t causing the kind of mass disillusionment among left-wing activists online (the so-called “netroots”) that people think it is. Liberal bloggers have had their suspicions about Obama for a long time, which is why most of the leading ones leaned toward John Edwards in the early going.

Before Obama could pull off his historic upset and beat a heavily favored Hillary Clinton, he had to win Iowa, and Iowa’s Democrats are pretty conservative. The rightward drift we’re seeing from Obama now is just a more pronounced version of what happened in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses, and the netroots were just as upset then as they are now.

For example: Obama sinned against liberal orthodoxy when he pointed out that Clinton’s health-care plan included a mandate that would “force people to buy insurance even if they can’t afford it.” By contrast, Obama’s plan did not mandate coverage for adults.

Liberal blogger Steve Benen gave this a 5 out of 5 on the “Lieberman scale” for the most annoying use of “conservative frames.” Translated into English, that means that Benen was upset that Obama had described health-insurance mandates the way a conservative would, emphasizing the element of coercion involved.

Obama further irked liberal bloggers when, speaking to a crowd of Iowans, he explained that he had eschewed a lucrative career path for a life of public service, adding, “That’s why I didn’t become a trial lawyer.” This clear dig at John Edwards drove the netroots nuts, prompting lefty blogger Atrios to issue a command he usually reserves for conservatives.

Dissatisfaction with Obama had reached such a high level by January that the most prominent liberal blogger, Markos Moulitsas Zúniga of the Daily Kos, wrote, “He is the return of Bill Clinton-style triangulating personified.” If you read any left-wing blogs at all, you know that Kos didn’t mean that in a good way.

Once Obama won Iowa, however, he was free to run to Clinton’s left, and the netroots warmed to him — especially after Edwards exited the race. He wooed them by pledging to filibuster any Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act modernization that included liability protection for telecommunications companies that cooperated with the Bush administration’s surveillance efforts.

Now that he has broken that pledge by voting for the new Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Reform bill, liberal bloggers are remembering why they had their doubts about him. Once the smoke from the FISA debate clears, however, the netroots will go back to supporting Obama for the same reason they ended up supporting him in the Democratic primary, namely because he’s the most liberal candidate on the ballot.

— Stephen Spruiell is an NRO staff reporter.

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