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Party takes Obama shift in stride

Times Staff Writers

As Barack Obama moves to broaden his appeal beyond loyal Democrats, a chorus of anger and disappointment has arisen from the left. But those voices are a distinct minority because the party has a more pressing concern: winning in November.

On Wednesday, Obama again bucked his liberal allies, voting in the Senate to give legal immunity to phone companies that took part in warrantless wiretapping after the Sept. 11 attacks. Critics chided Obama for the vote -- which put him crossways with dozens of Democratic colleagues, including Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York.

The vote, a reversal of an earlier pledge, was Obama’s latest perceived step away from his party’s base on a range of issues, among them the death penalty, gun control and taxpayer money for religious groups.

Reaction has been swift and -- aside from the blogosphere and some newspaper columnists -- notably mild.

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“We’re willing to work through this period,” said Richard Parker, president of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action, one of the party’s most enduring advocacy groups. In the long run, he said, the organization’s “serious concerns” about Obama are far outweighed by its disagreements with Republican John McCain.

Gerald Austin, a veteran Democratic strategist, put it more succinctly: “When I hear people complaining . . . I tell them I have one thing to say: ‘President John McCain. Three Supreme Court appointments.’ That’s all I need to say.”

Obama denies any sort of shape-shifting. Campaigning in Georgia on Tuesday, the Illinois senator said that those who see him as moving to the center “haven’t been listening.”

“Everybody has become so cynical about politics that the assumption is you must be doing everything for political reasons,” Obama said. “And the message I want to send to everybody is: You’re not going to agree with me on 100% of what I think. But don’t assume that if I don’t agree with you on something, that it must be because I’m doing that politically. I may just disagree with you.”

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At the very least, Obama has changed his tone and his emphasis after competing with Clinton for months to seem truest to the Democratic Party’s traditional values.

Last week alone, Obama gave a speech on his support for public funding of social programs run by religious groups, and another on patriotism, wearing a flag pin on his lapel. The week before, he welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision overturning a handgun ban in the District of Columbia and criticized its ruling against the death penalty for child rape.

On Wednesday, he voted for the wiretapping bill, which passed 69 to 28. Obama has called his support a “close call,” saying the measure enabled authorities to investigate suspected terrorists but put limits on a president’s power to approve wiretaps.

Few voters cast their ballots based on a single issue, making much of the discussion of Obama’s evolution -- real or imagined -- just so much talk by political insiders. Significantly, though, many have accepted what they see as Obama’s shift.

“At some point, it does cause a problem,” said Kathryn Kolbert, president of the People for the American Way, another liberal advocacy group. “Is he there yet? Probably not.”

It is hardly unusual for a candidate to move toward the middle in a general election; in fact, it is fairly standard operating procedure. That is part of what bothers some on the left.

Ben Austin, a former Clinton White House political deputy and early Obama supporter, called the senator’s perceived drift “unnecessary and potentially counterproductive” for a candidate who aspires to be a transformational figure.

“To the extent progressives see him as the Reagan of the left, Reagan didn’t tack toward the center,” Austin said. “He moved the American electorate to the right.”

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The greater danger for Obama may come from outside the party. His recent statements have made it easier for McCain to undercut his image by portraying him as just another garden-variety politician “willing to change positions, break campaign commitments and undermine his own words in his quest for higher office,” as Tucker Bounds, a spokesman for the Arizona senator, put it.

But McCain is also vulnerable to charges of flip-flopping, above all for embracing the Bush tax cuts that he once dismissed as giveaways to the rich.

The last Democrat to occupy the White House, Bill Clinton, benefited from the same sort of shrugging acceptance from the left. A few years in the political wilderness can do a lot to promote party unity.

In 1992, Clinton ran on a platform that included deficit reduction and “ending welfare as we know it” -- hardly Democratic orthodoxy. Clinton, then the governor of Arkansas, also left the campaign trail to preside over the execution of a mentally incapacitated inmate, Ricky Ray Rector, and famously went before Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition to repudiate Sister Souljah, a hip-hop artist and political activist.

While there was some outcry from liberal activists, the overwhelming majority of Democrats -- and liberal voters -- stuck with Clinton in the fall. More significantly, the moves strengthened Clinton’s reputation as “a different kind of Democrat,” broadening his appeal and helping him win a three-way contest against President George H.W. Bush and independent Ross Perot.

No two elections are the same. Clinton no doubt gained mightily from the fact that there was no blogosphere back in 1992: The “net-roots” have been a source of much of the anxiety over Obama’s moves.

But one similarity is a deep hunger among Democrats to take back the White House -- which has made many in the party willing to stomach views they might have once rejected.

Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, disagreed with Obama’s support for the ruling on the right to bear arms. But from a pragmatic standpoint, Helmke said, “I think Obama probably played it the right way politically.”

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michael.finnegan@ latimes.com

mark.barabak@latimes.com

Times staff writers Greg Miller in Washington and Louise Roug in Powder Springs, Ga., contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Back story

President Bush acknowledged the existence of the Terrorist Surveillance Program in December 2005, after it was first reported by the New York Times.

The program -- under which the National Security Agency monitors electronic communications, including e-mail and phone calls -- was aimed at identifying potential terrorists who were communicating with people in the United States. As part of the program, U.S. telecommunications companies secretly granted government access to e-mails and phone calls on their networks. Bush said the program had thwarted a number of attacks.

Critics have alleged that the program circumvented the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. That law created a secret, independent court to handle government requests for electronic surveillance in terrorism and espionage cases. The law was enacted as a check on executive power after the Watergate scandal.

Bush has said he did not believe he needed court approval for the surveillance program, citing his authority as commander in chief and the authorization to use military force issued by Congress after the Sept. 11 attacks.

In January 2007, the Bush administration said it would cease eavesdropping on international calls involving “U.S. persons” -- people or companies -- without first getting a court warrant.

In spring 2007, the U.S. FISA court ruled that spy agencies were in violation of the law for warrantless interception of e-mails or phone calls that traveled through the United States.

In August 2007, alarmed by the court ruling, the Bush administration pressured Congress to pass temporary FISA changes -- the Protect America Act -- in a scramble before leaving on its summer break. Democrats complained of White House pressure tactics and vowed to revisit the issue.

This March, the House defied Bush’s veto threat and passed a wiretapping law that did not shield telecommunications companies from lawsuits for cooperating with government eavesdropping.

Last month, congressional leaders reached a compromise on FISA legislation that would expand government eavesdropping powers and protect telecommunications companies.

The House passed the bill, 293 to 129, on June 20. The Senate passed it Wednesday, 69 to 28. California’s Democratic senators split. Barbara Boxer voted against it, Dianne Feinstein for it.

Source: Los Angeles Times


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