For many of us, Democratic presidential candidate Barack
Obama represents the best hope for renewing this country�s promise and
transforming its role and mission for the 21st century. Lately, however, he is
proving to be an even more transformative figure than many in his party had
perhaps bargained for.
In a recent speech in which he proposed expanding, if
elected, President Bush�s �faith-based� initiative that delivers federal
dollars to religious groups engaged in social services, he sounded more like
Billy Graham than the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate. That proposal,
his �yes� vote earlier this month on the FISA reform bill and his promise to
consider supporting private school vouchers all demonstrate that Barack Obama
is assuming a very wide political stance indeed.
To be sure, it would be folly not to court the religious
vote, especially that of the evangelicals, who constitute one quarter of the
voting population. Influential and well-funded, they helped elect Ronald Reagan
twice and gave shape to the Republican domestic agenda. After heeding the
advances of evangelical George Bush and helping elect him twice, however, they
were spurned, their agenda largely ignored. Whether in response to that or
because a movement so vast is bound eventually to splinter and transform
itself, evangelicals have been steadily liberalizing on social, economic and
other issues ever since. So, given that many Democrats feel that winning back
the White House is a matter of national survival, political expediency is to be
expected, and a search for common ground with evangelical and other religious
voters is to some degree enlightened self-interest.
Considered along with his wiretapping and school voucher
positions, however, Obama�s practicality begins to resemble pandering. If he
could step down from the pulpit long enough to reflect, Barack Obama might
recognize that his crusade-like endeavor to bring these lapsed Republican
voters wholesale into the Democratic fold, coupled with his dalliances across
the voting aisle, risk injuring both his own prospects and his party�s
First, the sheer scale of such pragmatism, even though it
may bring many new voters into the Democratic Party, might, come November,
clash with Obama�s unwavering insistence that he is a candidate of change.
After all, there is nothing new about attempting a mass diversion of voters
from your opponent�s camp into your own in order to improve your odds.
Moreover, what the party may gain in newly recruited voters it may equally lose
in long-standing, disillusioned ones. The problem of perception is further
compounded under the present circumstances: an unpopular, divisive Republican
candidate and a widespread identity crisis within that party would hardly seem
to demand rash tactics on the part of the Democrats. In other words, Obama
shouldn�t be having to work this hard.
If he manages to win the election, then the real trouble
begins. If he fails to deliver on any promises he makes to converted voters, he
would be taking a page from George Bush�s playbook -- not an ideal association
for voters to carry into the mid-term elections and 2012. Yet should he
actually deliver on promises unpalatable to the Democratic Party at large, he
would be undermining the basic self-definition and cohesion of his own party.
His tactics, therefore, threaten to plunge the Democratic Party into a crisis
of its own.
By attracting disaffected Republican voters, Obama stands to
capitalize on the opposition party�s predicament. Doing so, however, may in
fact precipitate a similar situation within the ranks of the Democrats. After
all, one of the causes of the Republican Party�s current crisis was its failure
to clearly define itself over time amidst the often conflicting agendas of its
evangelical, neo-conservative, and libertarian members. If Obama and other
Democratic leaders fail to reconcile the competing demands of new members
amongst themselves, and then square them with those of established party
members and with general Democratic principles, they could send the party into
a tailspin by the 2010 mid-term elections.
Obama is raising the pole and extending the flaps of the big tent, inviting
everyone and suspending ideological admission fees. It�s an admirable move from
a pluralistic standpoint, but is he a good enough ringmaster to keep all the
acts within from crashing into each other? Pulling off the presidential
election this year is one thing -- and by no means guaranteed -- but party
viability is a longer term issue. After a great deal of soul-searching, the
Republican Party has shed some of its self-doubt (indeed, the doubters
themselves), and is beginning to find itself again. Democrats should make sure
that Barack Obama, in his haste to win in 2008, doesn�t leave their party