Elections & Voting
Obama�s tactics threaten party cohesion
By Maryse Hile
Online Journal Guest Writer

Jul 25, 2008, 00:12

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 integrity.

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.

Barack 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 needing therapy.

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