Was Obama's FISA vote "calculated"?

If Barack Obama's vote for FISA amendments was truly a political "calculation," he needs to check his math.

Published July 10, 2008 12:50PM (EDT)

The fallout from Barack Obama's vote Wednesday for a FISA reauthorization continues to rain down on his campaign from vast swaths of the blogosphere and the MSM, and from within his own supporter base. The words "betrayal" and "sellout" occur very often, along with threats to take retaliatory actions ranging from the withholding of financial support to the withholding of votes in November.

Moreover, Obama's vote for the Dodd amendment to strike the retroactive telecomm immunity provisions of the bill isn't helping him much with unhappy progressives, who often cite his earlier pledge to support a filibuster of the bill if telecomm immunity was retained. And to top it all off, the vote against final passage of the FISA bill by Hillary Clinton -- supposedly the triangulating centrist of the Democratic primary field -- has left Obama without a lot of cover.

Assumed in a lot of this angry talk is the premise that Obama's FISA vote is part of a broad strategy to "move to the center" or even "the right," reflecting a theory of how to win general elections that is in itself deeply unpopular on the left.

But was Obama's position on FISA really a matter of political calculation? If so, he needs to check his math.

By almost any measure, political passions on this issue are heavily concentrated among the FISA bill's opponents. There was no real voter pressure on Obama to support the bill. Public opinion polls have consistently shown the bill generally and telecomm community in particular aren't very popular (see this Glenn Greenwald summary of early polling about FISA and an ACLU poll taken in January of this year).

The general net-roots indictment of Democrats in Congress supporting FISA often cites lust for telecomm cash and pundit approval as motivating factors for "sellouts." But Barack Obama hardly needs telecomm campaign contributions, and if there's been any windfall of talking-heads approval of his position, I've certainly missed it. I forced myself to watch Fox News last night to see how the conservative noise machine was reacting to Obama's vote. Given the incessant attention being paid to Fox's own manufactured "controversy" involving Jesse Jackson (including a hilarious poll of Fox viewers showing they think, by a 2-1 margin, that Obama indeed "talks down to black people"), there wasn't much talk about FISA, but it followed the McCain line in citing Obama's vote as just another flip-flop.

As for the theory that Obama needed to vote for the FISA bill to protect his flanks on national security, there is a vast array of more visible and popular ways for him to do that.

(Net-roots proponents of the "sellout" theory do need to stare at the roll call votes and notice some of the Democrats who not only voted for final passage but parted ways with Obama by voting against the Dodd amendment on telecomm immunity: Jim Webb, long a net-roots favorite, and not noted for political cowardice; Kent Conrad, a reliable progressive on most issues; and Barbara Mikulski, who hasn't had a serious electoral challenge in recent memory.)

So what gives? I honestly don't know. I tend to agree with Gail Collins' New York Times column today, which bluntly argues that progressives who accuse Obama of a "move to the center" weren't paying sufficient attention to, or didn't take seriously, his long-standing rhetoric about compromise and transpartisan politics. Perhaps Obama sincerely believed the FISA "compromise" (I put that in quotes deliberately) qualified as a measure that would help overcome the stale left-right debates of the past. But if so, it appears he picked the wrong moment, and the wrong issue, to show he could rise above ideology and embrace compromise.

By Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is the managing editor of The Democratic Strategist, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute, and an online columnist for The New Republic.

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