As even a casual observer of the 2008 presidential campaign knows, Barack Obama is running as the candidate of change. I've written before in this space about how that in itself is nothing new: John Adams ran on the same platform. So did Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, for that matter.
But there is a gnawing fear in the hearts of some progressives that Obama won't really be the once-in-a-generation transformational leader they'd hoped - that they're being set up for colossal disappointment. "We think he's Bobby Kennedy," a veteran Berkeley progressive fretted the other day. "But what if he's just another DLC Democrat?"
She was referring to the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist "New Democrat" faction that produced "Third Way" Democrats Bill and Hillary Clinton and Al Gore, and profoundly influenced Tony Blair in the UK. As far as progressives are concerned, if you're in the DLC, you might as well be a Republican.
The DLC is getting behind Barack Obama now, by default, if nothing else. The Clintons, if we take them at their word, would still rather see another Democrat in the White House than another Republican.
But it's Obama himself who's alarming the left. First, he reneged on his earlier intention to accept public financing for the general election, becoming the first major party candidate to do so since the system was put in place after Watergate. Then he agreed to vote for the FISA amendment bill, which means the telecommunications giants will be immune from lawsuits for participating in warrantless government wiretaps.
Those two moves make Obama seem an awful lot like a conventional politician, not an "agent of change." They should actually reassure all those rabid conservative talk show hosts who fear he's out to destroy America - because it could turn out he's just another willing cog in the corporate political machine. But Obama needs to be careful not to alienate that young, idealistic army of his - he needs them to win in November.
The decision to opt out of the public financing system was disappointing for some, but really, it should hearten Democrats who watched in frustration as Al Gore and John Kerry frittered away their natural advantages with inept fall campaigns. Barack Obama is doing what he has to do to win. He may well be asking himself, "What would Karl Rove do?" The answer, of course, is, take the money and run. Obama's ahead of John McCain in the polls now, by as much as 15 points if you believe the Newsweek poll (I don't). McCain will have $85 million to spend in the last two months of the race, the money allotted him by the federal funding system (that three bucks you probably don't check off on your tax return). Obama could either have that same amount - fair enough - or he could have $250 million, the amount he can probably raise from his and Hillary's donors. Hmm, tough decision, huh? This was a choice between progressive principles, and pragmatism and ambition. Guess who won? Obama took some heat for a few days, but who can really blame him? Now he can compete in all 50 states, with paid staff everywhere, something McCain simply can't do. Obama can inundate voters in swing states with a volume of TV ads that McCain won't be able to match. And he even turned his controversial decision into yet another fundraising opportunity, sending out a video by email with a pitch for new donations (and I've gotten two more since then, from his campaign manager, David Plouffe, asking for still more money, money, money).
Instead of criticizing him for going back on his word, those Republican talk show squawkers should admire Obama for applying free market principles to his campaign. Is he a socialist who wants to dismantle capitalism? Apparently not, at least not until he gets himself elected. Which might reassure some on the right. It's scaring some on the left, who aren't sure what they're getting now...and what kind of change, if any, an Obama presidency would really bring.
FOOTNOTES: I sat down last week with former Bush press secretary Scott McClellan, to talk about his new inside-the-Oval Office expose, "What Happened." You can hear some of it here
along with excerpts from Obama's speech on patriotism, and stories on his rapprochement with Bill Clinton, and the energy policies of Obama and McCain, among other things.