The Extreme Center

In recent days the word ‘flip-flop’ has once again surfaced. Both McCain and Obama have made some dramatic changes to some previously held positions—hence the term ‘flip-flop’. We recall that the Republicans successfully tagged John Kerry’s campaign in 2004 as one of ‘flip-flopping’ on crucial issues. It did not take long for the image to stick and Kerry was never able to come across as a principled leader and a clear alternative to George W. Bush. Bush may have had contentious policies, but at least you knew where he stood.

While McCain’s changes of heart on offshore drilling and the Bush tax cuts are dramatic reversals in position, they have not been criticized as strongly as those attributed to Obama. The senator from Illinois has made three important policy decisions in the past ten days. One dealt with public campaign financing; another dealt with Iraq and the eventual withdrawal of the United States; and, finally, the most controversial had to do with legislation regarding electronic surveillance of suspected terrorists (FISA). Obama spent the last week trying to explain his reversals, which have overshadowed those of his rival.

It seems that both candidates have come to the realization that moving to the center has the greatest potential for votes and eventually, victory. Most likely their soon to be chosen vice-presidential nominees will also reflect that shift. Both Obama and McCain achieved their current status because they came across as authentic and principled. The shift to the center, however, may not please some of their original supporters, but it does indicate that despite the high rhetoric, these presidential candidates are hard-nosed realists.

We may oppose the new positions (or variations of former positions), but America is not a nation governed by extremes. Whenever there is extremism, there is usually balance that follows. This is why it has been said that America is capable of the worst instincts, but also able to act with the best instincts and principles. McCarthyism, segregation and what followed those dark periods of U.S. history are a good illustration. This blog remains convinced that America is well served by these two candidates vying for the presidency. I fundamentally believe that they still hold firm to their ideals, and if there is an extremist streak in both of them, it is directed towards the center of the political spectrum.

This being said, Obama is a victim of his own success. He was able to mobilize much of the youth vote and the Internet universe because of his high rhetoric and idealism. I believe that his new position on campaign finance can be justified if only because we have seen the Republican hate machine in action before. The reluctance by Kerry to counter the Swift Boat commercial was in part dictated by financial considerations. This will not happen with Obama. The current position on Iraq is not inconsistent with his earlier position, except the current one emphasizes the process more than the end result. The area where I believe he is more vulnerable to the charge of ‘flip-flop’ is with the FISA legislation.

Although, I believe it will not be fatal to his candidacy, the fact that Hillary Clinton voted against the legislation leaves many of Obama’s supporters perplexed. The opponents of FISA believe that this legislation goes against fundamental constitutional principles. The more idealistic supporters of Obama will have difficulty reconciling their ideals with the stance of their candidate. So, the extreme-center may be the best place to gain votes, but it is not seized without a price to pay. Just how hefty that price is remains to be seen.