It's hard to miss how closely Barack Obama has studied the electoral strategy and tactics of Bill Clinton in the 90s. He has moved rapidly in the last two weeks to reposition himself in the center, signaling that he is not an abolitionist on the death penalty, that he will not immediately withdraw from Iraq, and that he supports government support for "faith-based initiatives," among other things. Long-time Clinton supporter that I am, I should be heartened by this. The argument at this point is about winning the election, after all, and what we learned from the centrist Southerners of the Democratic Leadership Conference is that a Democratic politician can't be shy about running to the right when it is expedient, especially at the national level. Win first, then you can govern. Today quickly becomes another yesterday that can be conveniently forgotten.
So I'm sure I'll cause a lot of hair-pulling frustration on the team of young Ivy-leaguers assigned to closely monitor my statements on this blog and summarize them daily for the chief's breakfast when I say this morning that I'm not totally sold on this rebranding of Obama. In the 90s, the goal was just to win one for the Democrats. This election is different. Clinton just wanted to steer the battleship, but there exists now an opportunity to turn the battleship around. What is needed is for the liberal Democrats to beat the conservative Republicans. It is not enough just that there is a Democratic president (a significant achievement in the 90s). The ideological pendulum can swing, inaugurating a period of progressive America. But in order for this election to have that symbolic resonance, the candidate must present himself as clearly liberal. This will take courage. For example, it may be that the math indicates that being a death penalty abolitionist is a loser, but that doesn't mean that the Democrat has to affirm the death penalty to get elected. Obama needs to approach this with a subtle touch.
I wouldn't necessarily include the "faith" stuff in this criticism, though. I can think of at least five reasons why it might pay off for Obama to try to carve out an identity as a Christian candidate, roughly from less important to more so:
1) He needs a productive way of repeating the fact that he is a Christian, as double-digit numbers of poll respondents still identify him as a Muslim.
2) It does indeed help with the Clintonian strategy of portraying Obama as more moderate, and more recognizably American, which he does after all need to do (to be precise, he needs to raise the comfort level with white voters).
3) He might be able to make some lemonade out of the lemon of Jeremiah Wright, since that gentleman's intemperate statements at least made clear that Obama has indeed been in a long-term relationship with a Christian church.
4) John McCain has a weak spot on his right flank, and the Christian right is part of that. Obama has shown a heartening ability to wade in and go on the offensive wherever possible, something we missed in our last two national candidates.
5) Long-term, it's never been obvious that Republican policies were the most in tune with a genuine Christian spiritual practice. There has always been an impressive Christian left in this country, but the smaller size of the left in general as left them for a century in the wilderness (admittedly a place the Christian left obviously feels comfortable being). If we move into a more liberal American era, a renaissance of progessive Christian politics could be a part of that. Don't leave religion to the troglodytes!