Commentary Magazine


A Curious Admission

Yesterday Barack Obama said this about the prospects for an extended primary battle: “I think giving whoever the nominee is two or three months to pivot into the general election would be extremely helpful, instead of having this drag up to the convention.” Buried in that is a germ of self-awareness that Obama (unlike McCain, as I’ve commented before) will have to do some major league scrambling back to the political center if and when he captures the nomination.

Yes, he’s selling the familiar line that the liberal vs. conservative dichotomy is outmoded. But his comment indicates some recognition that he will have significant pivots ahead. (By the way, isn’t it rather old-school politics to sell your base on one message in the primary and sell the general electorate on another? How inauthentic and Clintonian.) In fact, he will have to convince moderates and independents he is not some crazed lefty looking to usher in a socialist domestic policy and a foreign policy premised on wishful thinking.

He is loath, now, to stress that he runs to the right of Hillary Clinton on certain domestic issues (e.g. opposing a freeze on mortage rates and a healthcare insurance mandate). But he will have to stress just these points and others to assure voters that he does not believe government is the answer to all American ills.

Likewise on foreign policy. He’s going to have to do better than boasting of his devotion to healthcare for vets if he is to shed the image of a fuzzy-headed dove. He will have to explain when he is prepared to use force, what commitments he will make to enhance troop strength and why meeting with dictators doesn’t mean capitulating to them. It’s not an easy task. But he will need to talk about things he hasn’t in the primary and adjust his language and tone to convince voters he really is prepared to defend America against her enemies.

All of this becomes harder if the time between the primary fight and general election is compacted and the memory of his original rhetoric is still fresh in voters’ minds. The further he has to go politically, the longer it will take to get there. It’s one more reason for him to dread a primary battle that may continue until August.