IT'S Politics 101. The major party presidential candidates left standing after the primary musical chairs not only have to sooth sore feelings within party ranks but woo a much broader spectrum of voters than just diehard Democrats or Republicans. The goal is to hold the party base while building enough wider public support to win in November.
So the messages candidates drive home in the general election are necessarily different than those emphasized in the primaries. Rhetoric is tweaked or changed altogether for a new audience.
But the transition from candidate of the party to candidate of the people is a tricky one, and those too eager to expand their appeal (or pander shamelessly) with abruptly moderated or reversed policy positions can quickly lose the respect of loyalists and potential supporters alike.
Voters, especially in this for-the-history-books election, are paying unusually close attention to everything the Democrat and Republican running for president do and say. And believe me, they see right through the political expediency of candidates whenever they noticeably recast old talking points.
Both presidential nominees-in-waiting are guilty of listing subtly toward the center to broaden voter interest. Both have attempted to walk a precarious middle line between pro and con on particularly charged topics so as not to unduly offend anyone.
The danger with that tack, of course, is offending everyone. If political considerations can nudge a candidate to capitulate on former positions, to notably refine policies, or even alter rhetoric just slightly to blur intentions, how strong can their word be on anything to anybody?
Then the candidate becomes like every other political candidate, saying and doing whatever it takes to get elected. All that's needed to torpedo such a campaign is to be branded a "flip-flop" as John Kerry was four years ago, causing the advantage of the presidential contest to swing - to our everlasting regret - to the candidate contrasting himself as the more solid alternative.
Sen. Barack Obama, who will soon accept the mantle of Democratic presidential nominee, is at risk of losing the image he has cultivated as a principled newcomer and replacing it with garden-variety politician over some of the changes he's embraced lately.
Certainly the Illinois senator's Republican opponent has also hurt his cultivated image as a maverick with recent policy shifts - but more on Sen. John McCain's reversals of convictions next column.
So far, the slippery Obama switches on the campaign trail are slight to significant but not half as serious as the fast one he pulled recently in the U.S. Senate. Hold that thought. Mr. Obama's passing comment to reporters about how an upcoming trip to Iraq might lead him to refine his campaign commitment to quickly remove U.S. troops from the war was unremarkable.
It gained media traction only because it was made going into the long Fourth of July weekend. The fact that Mr. Obama became the first major party candidate to reject public financing for the general election, despite earlier promises to accept it, is significant, but not earthshaking, considering the man is rolling in campaign dough.
Certainly, his potential to pander was exposed when he qualified his death-penalty opposition after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed capital punishment for child rapists, or when he qualified his handgun-control advocacy after the high court overturned a gun ban in the District of Columbia, or when he qualified his pro-choice position with health exceptions for late-term abortions, after voting against a ban on partial birth abortions.
The political slickness of Candidate Obama is disappointing but not as disturbing as Senator Obama's change from opponent to supporter of President Bush's warrantless wiretapping program and legal protections for the telecommunications firms that helped with the White House domestic spying operation.
Apparently, lest he appear soft on national security, the senator backed a House update of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that gives government even more power to spy on our phone calls and e-mails and shields U.S. companies from prosecution for helping the Bush Administration carry out wiretaps without warrants.
The Obama turnaround is a huge disappointment for many of the candidate's most ardent supporters. Mr. Obama has long opposed any revision in the surveillance law and strongly objected to granting any retroactive immunity to telecoms for their collaboration in the President's illegal domestic spying - until now.
Not the fact that the government eavesdropped on American phone and computer lines for nearly six years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks without permission from the FISA court, the panel set up for that purpose under the original 1978 law.
Not the fact that under existing law, telecoms that cooperate in good faith with government requests for information are already immunized, provided those requests meet clearly defined statutory requirements.
Nevertheless, legislation vastly expanding the government's power to carry out warrantless wiretapping and electronic surveillance, while handing blanket retroactive immunity to major telecoms that facilitated the secret spying by the administration, sailed through Congress this week with help from Democrats such as Barack Obama willing to put election-year politics ahead of principle.
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