The reigning media narrative is that because this is a heavily Democratic year, Senator McCain is a clear underdog to Senator Obama. The narrative has almost nothing to do with the appeal of the candidates' respective policies -- and it's clear the Obama campaign is concerned voters will begin to notice.
Consequently, in order to position himself for the general election, Obama has been running furiously toward the center-- deemphasizing his liberalism with the adroit use of linguistic jiu jitsu. As NBC recently reported, Obama declared:
"Let me tell you something. There's really nothing liberal about wanting to reduce money in politics that is common sense (sic). There's nothing liberal about wanting to make sure [our soldiers] are treated properly when they get home. There's nothing liberal about wanting to make sure everybody has health care, but we are spending more on health care in this country than any other advanced country. We got more uncovered.
There's nothing liberal about saying that doesn't make sense, and we should do something smarter with our health care system. Don't let them run that okie doke on you!"
The person running the okie doke is Obama, who, with media acquiescence, has changed his rhetoric if not his positions on issues such as campaign finance, gun control, troop withdrawal, welfare reform, NAFTA and terrorist surveillance -- just to name a few.
Yet even with his recent attempts at moderation he retains positions on several significant issues indistinguishable from those of Dennis Kucinich. Most of those positions are opposed not only by overwhelming majorities of all Americans, but in several cases, majorities of Democrats as well.
Whenever a proposition polls in the 60% range, it's considered to be in landslide territory. That doesn't necessarily mean that someone supporting the minority viewpoint is a nut or an extremist, but at some point it may fairly be said that a person on the short end of several of these propositions is out of the mainstream. Here are just some of the issues in which Obama's on the fringe of American opinion:*
Obama opposes offshore drilling for oil. Voters support drilling by 67% to 18%. (Rasmussen, June 2008).
Obama supports giving driver licenses to illegal immigrants. Americans oppose this 76% to 23%. (CNN/ Opinion Research, Oct. 2007)
Obama supports affirmative action in public employment, contracting and university admissions. Americans oppose giving an advantage in these areas on the basis of race by a margin of 82% to 14%. (Newsweek, July 2007)
Obama says that he will cut funding for research and development of missile defense systems. 89% of Americans support development of or research for missile defense -- 8% don't. (Program on International Policy Alternatives, March 2004) It's worth noting that Obama's closer to a pre-9/11 view of missile defense. An August 2001 Bloomberg News poll showed only 49% favored missile defense at that time whereas 41% opposed it.
Obama voted against a ban on partial birth abortions. Americans support a ban by a margin of 66% to 28%. (CNN/Opinion Research, May 2007)
Despite his equivocal statements regarding the recent Supreme Court decision striking down the D.C. gun ban, Obama has never met a gun ban he didn't like. Although many Americans support certain types of restrictions on guns, they oppose broad bans by a margin of 68% to 30%. In fact, 58% insist no new gun laws should be passed.(Gallup, Oct. 2007)
Obama opposed the Induced Birth Infant Liability Act while in the Illinois state legislature. The measure is designed to prevent abortion providers from withholding medical care and sustenance from infants born after surviving an abortion attempt. There's no national polling data on this state issue, but when the Senate voted on a analogous piece of legislation -- the Born Alive Infant Protection Act -- the measure passed unanimously.
Obama voted against a bill that would make English the official language for conducting business with the U.S. government. Americans support making English the official language 85% to 11%, including 79% of Democrats. (Rasmussen, July 2006)
While in the Illinois state legislature, Obama voted against parental notification requirements for abortions for minors. Americans support parental notification laws by a margin of 79% to 17%. Even 64% of those identifying themselves as pro-choice support such laws. (Fox News/Opinion Dynamics, April 2005)
Obama maintains that the Supreme Court's recent decisions prohibiting the use of race in determining public school assignments are wrong. In contrast, 71% of American agree with the decisions and only 24% disagree. (Quinnipiac, July 2007)
Of course, Obama's positions on other issues are more mainstream, but over the course of the primary season he made a number of statements that will play poorly in the general election: Obama plans to raise taxes significantly -- not just income taxes -- but payroll and capital gains taxes as well; he will re-invade Iraq if things fall apart when he withdraws the troops; he promises unconditional talks with leaders of countries that are state sponsors of terror; Obama vows to slow the development of future weapons systems, without any indication that this would be contingent upon other nations slowing the development of their systems as well; he will appoint federal judges in the mold of Justice Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg and; he supports giving foreign terrorists habeas rights.
All presidential candidates take at least one position that's unpopular with the electorate; it's impossible not to in a heterogeneous society. And a candidate who's nothing but a weathervane of public opinion isn't likely to become an inspiring leader. But few, if any, serious presidential contenders have ever taken so many positions supported by so few.
In the circles in which Obama has been traveling much of his career, his positions on the issues are hardly remarkable. But the general election campaign will reveal that even in a strongly Democratic year, those circles remain a tiny sub-set of the American electorate.
*(Obviously, the surveys cited above aren't the only ones on the respective issues but are generally representative of the latest polls on the topics.)Peter Kirsanow is a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. These comments do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Commission.