Sen. Obama’s comments today on faith-based programs haven’t made much of a stir yet. They’re certainly unusual for a Democrat and unexpected in a political environment where running fast and far from anything touched by the current Administration is a winning strategy for either party.
As with the cave on FISA, it leaves me wondering whether this is a principled position, a crass calculation, or a part of a brilliant strategy.
I’ll scratch principled position. For the ends it states there are probably better and more effective ways to achieve them, though the shift to “neighborhood programs” certainly harkens back to his Chicago community-organizer roots.
For crass calculation, everybody expects the candidates to run toward the wings in the primaries, then tack to the center for the general. Obama and McCain are certainly doing both. (Note that tacking looks like zig-zagging, which is like flip-flopping.) The Father’s Day speech, along with the new radio, TV, and web page ads, could be taken as either deliberately wooing the evangelical vote in a move to the right, or at the very least trying to disarm the Muslim smear.
But the reason I lean toward brilliant strategy is that the specific policies he’s linking with religion are fundamentally liberal issues. What he’s proposing is to turn a program that was created out of crass calculation—use federal money to fund conservative action groups and proselytize to grow their right-leaning membership—and turn it to be an extension of liberal government delivering social services. Very, very few religions see their social mission as fostering rugged individualism and the accumulation of personal wealth. The bulk of mainstream American Christianity resonates to a message of healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and clothing the poor. Christ was a liberal (a radical, longhair, anti-establishment one, in fact.) If liberals want to spread social justice, America’s churches are excellent places to start.
Republicans have been performing a political jujitsu on Democrats for twelve years, taking their own failings and pointing the finger at Liberalism as deflection. (Note our broken military, our out-of-control spending, the rampant corruption and lawlessness in Washington, and the elitist greed permeating the establishment.) The faith-based strategy is a positive use of the same technique. Take something familiar that resonated with America (“compassionate conservatism”), remove the corruption and cronyism, and use it to inject actual liberal ideology into what the Republicans considered their solid base, and you have not only an election-year issue, but the thin end of the wedge for breaking a conservative stronghold.
It’s likely not just strategic, but with some calculated elements and some basis in his policy positions. I’d prefer to believe it’s part of a larger picture. But as with FISA, we Democrats are accustomed to our candidates running scared from the labels the Right slaps on them, and it’s hard to trust that Obama isn’t just making a futile centrist gesture that will only backfire. We’ve seen so many of those before.