Coloring in Obama

The GOP is trying to slur him with the "most liberal" tag. Their facts don't add up, but the comparison is good news for the Illinois senator.

Published March 20, 2007 5:06PM (EDT)

One of the problems with starting a new Salon blog is that I have so much competition on my own site: I was about to write about the bogus "revelation" that Sen. Barack Obama is more liberal than Rep. Dennis Kucinich, but the indefatigable Tim Grieve beat me to it. Of course, comparing Obama's short Senate record with Kucinich's much longer tenure in the more-liberal House is bad methodology, and the fact that the news came in a blast from the Republican National Committee makes it even more suspect. And while his voting record is "more liberal" than that of Sens. Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden or Christopher Dodd, some of his rivals for the presidential nomination, they're all in the same bracket. The contenders in '08 are all solidly liberal, so let's forget the label. What's needed is good reporting that breaks down the serious differences between them, especially on Iraq (where Hillary Clinton's latest hawkish stance on keeping permanent bases there deserves more attention than it's gotten in a week dominated by the U.S. attorney-firing scandal.)

But while it wasn't the RNC's intent to help Obama, I think the attempted slur is good for the surging newcomer. Critics are asking "Where's the beef?" In the over-covered scuffle between Obama and Rev. Al Sharpton, I think Sharpton asked relevant questions about Obama's support for Sen. Joe Lieberman and for tort-reform legislation that could limit damages to police-brutality victims. Obama has to answer for those stands. But questions from Sharpton and other doubters shouldn't confuse Democratic primary voters into thinking Obama is somehow less reliable on questions of civil rights and poverty than, say, former Sen. John Edwards or Clinton. I was personally happy to see him come out on top in the National Journal's ritual calculation of "most liberal." We can quarrel about whether the label will hurt Obama in the general election (as readers are doing in in the War Room comments thread), but I think it helps him with primary voters just tuning in, who might be rattled by questions on tort reform, Lieberman or his ethnic identity. I am not personally enjoying the whole "Is he black enough?" debate, but I think it's an easily lampooned proxy for the more relevant question of what he will do to advance a civil rights agenda. It represents a fear that the multiracial Obama could suddenly go Shelby Steele on the black community, a fear that his actual voting record in the Illinois state Senate and the U.S. Senate should assuage.

Of course, should Obama win the nomination, he'll have to go beyond the Democratic base and court moderates, and that's where the RNC is betting that the "most liberal" tag will hurt him. We'll see. The Bush administration's incompetence and corruption, from Baghdad to New Orleans to the daily e-mail dumps in Washington, is doing a lot to rehabilitate the notion of liberalism, if liberalism is defined as a government that operates with fairness and competence. And the Democrats will have a lot of opportunity to define it that way. So keep the slurs coming, RNC folks! The "Obama went to a madrassa" story line turned out not to be true, and backfired on its peddlers, and the "most liberal" tag is pretty debatable. But if I were stuck having to peddle the mediocre primary candidates the RNC has this year, I'd be spending all my time thinking about Barack Obama, too.

By Joan Walsh

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2008 Elections Barack Obama