The Corner

Why Did Obama Run Left?

Let the pre-criminations begin! Clive Crook asks why on earth Obama ceded the center to Mitt Romney by running a class-warfare-based campaign. Crook sees Obama as a centrist mysteriously cowed by his party’s leftist base. I think we can clear this mystery up: Obama ran a leftist class-warfare campaign because . . . well, he’s a leftist class-warrior.

I’ve been struck by commentators on both the right and left treating Obama’s leftist campaign as a matter of strict necessity. For a couple of years, conventional wisdom has held that the weak economy left Obama little choice but to turn this into a base election. Then conventional wisdom was upended by the conventions. Bill Clinton’s dubious but effective attempts to exonerate Obama from economic blame could easily have been combined with a centrist campaign — and presidency. Obama’s class-warfare campaign was a choice, not a necessity. But to see that is to suggest that Obama is a leftist by conviction, and many have been reluctant to do that.

Remember when Obama told Diane Sawyer he’d rather be “a really good one-term president than a mediocre two-term president”? That was a swipe at Clinton, Obama’s lifelong model of what not to do. In that same interview, Obama explained that he didn’t want to go “small bore” just to avoid controversy and secure re-election. That’s what Clinton did, and that’s what Obama wants to avoid. The president is willing to take significant political risks for a shot at transforming America in a second term. Reelection flowing out of a class-warfare-based campaign would further that goal. Is it so hard to believe that Obama means it when he runs left? After all, he was the most liberal senator before he became president. So where’s the mystery? The real mystery is our refusal to see what’s staring us in the face.

Here’s where Obama’s political past is illuminating. Obama joined a leftist third party in 1996 precisely because he was dissatisfied with the direction of the Democrats under Bill Clinton. That’s why the New Party was created to begin with. I explained in the final chapter of Radical-in-Chief, two years before the fact, that Obama would run a class-warfare campaign in 2012 because his leftist community-organizing buddies see that as a strategic key to transforming the country. Again, as Crook himself correctly says, Obama could have done otherwise. The president’s strategy was a choice based on background and conviction.

Crook says that, if anything, instead of moving to the center after his 2010 shellacking, Obama “hardened the anticapitalist line around which his campaign for re-election was forming.” Whoa! “Anticapitalist” I’ll take it. So why has the president run what Crook calls an anticapitalist campaign? Could it be because he’s an anticapitalist? Nah, that would be too simple. Obama must be a moderate, post-partisan, pragmatist trapped into anticapitalism by an ill-founded fear of his leftist base.

By the way, Crook loves tweaking supposedly radical Republicans, yet his entire analysis assumes that the Democratic party base is rabidly “anticapitalist.” Is it so hard to believe that a president who sprang from, and spoke for, the left side of that base might share the base’s views? Mightn’t that explain something about why Republicans moved right in 2009?

Crook seems to believe that Obama could have run a successful centrist campaign by bragging about his ability to get health-care reform passed over unified Republican opposition. Yet Obamacare is unpopular with the centrist swing voters Obama needs most. The truth is, the first two years and the last two years of Obama’s term are of a piece, and neither of those pieces can correctly be called centrist.

So why did Obama run what Crook himself calls a class-warfare anticapitalist campaign? I guess for any old reason other than that the president might actually be an anticapitalist class-warrior.


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