As I wrote in the post below this one, Obama appears to be successfully sending out dog whistles to both progressive activists and to center-right, elite media disciples of High Broderism. The combined effect is a tremendous boon for his campaign, earning him the largest activist army a primary season has ever witnessed (which leads to huge fundraising, crowds and caucus results), and much more favorable media coverage than Hillary Clinton (as demonstrated in his higher number of media endorsements and the more positive content of his campaign coverage). This is no small feat, as typically the candidate who attracts the most progressive activists is dismissed by the center-right, elite media disciples of High Broderism as just another DFH.
However, this dogwhistle Rorschach test, which progressive activists and media elites are interpreting so differently, could create problems for Obama when it comes time to govern. I have been heartened by the comments from many Obama supporters here that they intend to hold Obama accountable when he goes too far off the progressive rails. However, the same media elites that also like Obama intend to hold him accountable unless he becomes the next Joe Lieberman. Take David Igantius today, for example:
But what stands out in his brief Senate career is his liberal voting record, not a history of fighting across party lines to get legislation passed. He wasn't part of the 2005 Gang of 14 bipartisan coalition that sought to break the logjam on judicial nominations, but neither were Clinton or other prominent Democrats. He did support the bipartisan effort to get an immigration bill last year, winning a plaudit from McCain. But he didn't work closely with the White House, as did Sen. Edward Kennedy.
The Obama campaign sent me an eight-page summary of his "bipartisan accomplishments," and it includes some encouraging examples of working across the aisle on issues such as nuclear proliferation, energy, veterans affairs, budget earmarks and ethics reforms. So the cupboard isn't bare. It's just that, unlike McCain, Obama bears no obvious political scars for fighting bipartisan battles that were unpopular with his party's base.
"The authentic Barack Obama? We just don't know. The level of uncertainty is too high," one Democratic senator told me last week. He noted that Obama hasn't been involved in any "transformative battles" where he might anger any of the party's interest groups. "If his voting record in the past is the real Barack Obama, then there isn't going to be any bipartisanship," this senator cautioned.
Obama's message of bipartisanship means different things to different people. Media elites see it as a sign that he will regularly engage in fights that will anger the progressive activist base of the party. By contrast, many progressive activists see it as simply stating that he intends to build a large, "bipartisan" majority in Congress that will pass a progressive agenda. If, when he becomes President, Obama breaks in one direction or the other, one of these groups will probably end up pretty angry at him. Activists might wonder where their progressive governing majority is, while media elites might wonder what happened to the restoration of High Broderism in the federal government. It is in this sense that Obama's dueling dogwhistles leave a huge question mark as to how his governing mandate will be perceived, and indeed to how he will govern at all.
Campaigning is often a sign of how someone will govern. In 2000, the Bush campaign ended up "winning," basically by preventing many people from voting in Florida, and then stopping the recount there altogether. He won through a power grab, foreshadowing the many power grabs to come in his administration. In 2004, Bush won through a base strategy, and then preceded to govern directly to the base without any concern for broader public sentiment. In the 2008 campaign, Obama is winning by appealing to a huge wave of progressive activists, but also by appealing to beltway, center-right conventional wisdom. This is why, over the past week, I keep coming back to who Obama will pick as his Vice-President--not to mention key cabinet positions like Secretary of State and Defense--as a key sign of how he intends to govern. Sending out signals that he might appoint Hagel to one of those positions strongly indicates that the will defer to contemporary center-right CW. However, he has not actually made such a choice yet, and there is still time to convince him to make a different sort of pick.
Obama's Vice-Presidential choice now strikes me as extremely key to defining his governing mandate before he takes office. A progressive fighter like Sherrod Brown, Barbara Boxer, Chris Dodd or Russ Feingold would indicate that he does intend to govern as a progressive. (Now, I know there are quibbles with classifying one or all of those people as progressive fighters, but please don't let the flaws of any of the specific examples take away from the larger point.) By contrast, picking a center-right or Bush Dog type Democrat would send an entirely opposite message. It is in this way that a campaign for a progressive Vice-President under Obama might become one of, if not the, most important fights for progressives between now and August. Obama's running mate could settle this dog whistle discrepancy once and for all, and help define how he will (hopefully) govern over the next four years.
Look to Obama's appointments and advisors as the best indications of how he will govern. And then, put pressure on him to pick progressives for those positions. Defining Obama's mandate as a progressive one could be the biggest fight we face over the next few months, and could make our governing work from 2009 on all easier.