Obama Supporters On The Far Left Cry Foul
By WILLIAM YARDLEY Of The New York Times
PORTLAND, Ore. — In the breathless weeks before the Oregon presidential primary in May, Martha Shade did what thousands of other people here did: she registered as a Democrat so she could vote for Senator Barack Obama.
Now, however, after critics have accused Mr. Obama of shifting positions on issues like the war in Iraq, the Bush administration’s program of wiretapping without warrants, gun control and the death penalty — all in what some view as a shameless play to a general election audience — Ms. Shade said she planned to switch back to the Green Party.
“I’m disgusted with him,” said Ms. Shade, an artist. “I can’t even listen to him anymore. He had such an opportunity, but all this ‘audacity of hope’ stuff, it’s blah, blah, blah. For all the independents he’s going to gain, he’s going to lose a lot of progressives.”
Of course, that depends on how you define progressives.
As Ms. Shade herself noted, while alarm may be spreading among some Obama supporters, whether left-wing bloggers or purists holding Mr. Obama’s feet to the fire on one issue or another, the reaction among others has been less than outrage.
For all the idealism and talk of transformation that Mr. Obama has brought to the Democratic Party — he managed to draw a crowd of more than 70,000 here in May — there is also a wide streak of pragmatism, even among many grass-roots activists, in a party long vexed by factionalism.
“We’re frustrated by it, but we understand,” said Mollie Ruskin, 22, who grew up in Baltimore and is spending the summer here as a fellow with Politicorps, a program run by the Bus Project, a local nonprofit that trains young people to campaign for progressive candidates. “He’s doing it so he can get into office and do the things he believes in.”
Nate Gulley, 23, who grew up in Cleveland and is also here as a Politicorps fellow, said too much was being made of Mr. Obama’s every move.
“It’s important not to get swept up in ‘Is Obama posturing?’ ” Mr. Gulley said. “It’s self-evident that he’s a different kind of candidate.”
Bob Fertik, president of Democrats.com, a progressive Web site, started asking his readers last month to pledge money to an escrow fund for Mr. Obama, as opposed to contributing to him outright. The idea was to make Mr. Obama rethink his decision to support the Bush administration’s wiretapping measure.
Mr. Obama initially said he would try to filibuster a vote, but on Wednesday he was among 69 senators who voted for the measure, which to many liberals represents a flagrant abuse of privacy rights. The legislation grants legal immunity to telecommunications companies that cooperated with the wiretapping program.
So far, 675 people have pledged $101,375 to Mr. Fertik’s escrow fund, money that theoretically would be donated to Mr. Obama once he showed a firm commitment to progressive values, Mr. Fertik said.
But Mr. Fertik also said that while Mr. Obama’s change on the spying issue upset some supporters, it was not necessarily emblematic of a troubling shift to the center. He said he continued to support the senator, though he added, “We don’t see the need to close our eyes and hold our noses until November.”
Still, others warned that Mr. Obama risked being viewed as someone who parses positions without taking a principled stand.
“I’m not saying we’re there yet, but that’s the danger,” said David Sirota, a liberal political analyst and author. “I don’t think there’s disillusion. I think there’s an education process that takes place, and that’s a good thing. He is a transformative politician, but he is still a politician.”
Joe McCraw, 27, a video engineer from San Carlos, Calif., who writes three liberal blogs, said Mr. Obama’s shift on the domestic spying measure was a watershed moment.
“This is the first time I’ve ever seen him lie to us, and it makes me feel disappointed,” Mr. McCraw said. “I thought he was going to stand up there, stand by his campaign promises like he said he would, and it turns out he’s another politician.”
Many Obama supporters said the most vocal complaining about various policy positions was largely relegated to liberal bloggers and people who might otherwise support Ralph Nader, the Green Party candidate, or Dennis J. Kucinich, the liberal Ohio congressman who dropped out of the presidential race earlier this year.
“I think it’s accentuated by the fact that Obama’s appeal is an appeal to idealism,” said Kari Chisholm, who runs a blog, blueoregon.com, and does Internet strategy for Democratic candidates. “They believe their ideology is the only idealism and Obama’s is very mainstream. I’m not surprised they’re getting a little cranky. They’ve always been kind of cranky. A mainstream Democrat has always been too mainstream for them.”
Some of Mr. Obama’s supporters say he is less vulnerable to accusations of flip-flopping on issues because his campaign ultimately has been built on his biography and philosophy.
“I don’t think the test on him is in an explicitly narrow set of check boxes that have to get filled,” said Kevin Looper, executive director of Our Oregon, a liberal advocacy group. “I think it’s about do his campaign and his message embody serious changes for the direction of the country?”
Mr. Looper and many other supporters said Mr. Obama was solid on core Democratic concerns like the environment, social and economic justice and how to balance taxes among economic groups. Of course, his stands on more specific issues appeal to many supporters, too.
Rhys Warburton, a 25-year-old Brooklyn resident who teaches earth science at a public high school, said he supported Mr. Obama because he thought the senator was more likely to end the Iraq war. If Mr. Obama takes a few steps to the center that will not change his opinion, he said, and “it doesn’t make the others any better or more attractive to vote for.”
Before the Oregon primary in May, Mr. Obama held a rally here in Portland that made news not for what the senator said but for what he saw: more than 70,000 people came to hear him speak on a bright Sunday along the Willamette River.
The startling size of the crowd, followed by Mr. Obama’s resounding win here on May 20, helped cement his status as the presumptive nominee. And for some, even far beyond Oregon, it confirmed what Mr. Obama had been telling voters from the start: that he really is different.
“Seventy-five thousand people do not attend political rallies unless something truly magical is happening,” Bob Blanchard wrote on May 18 in the comment section accompanying an account of the rally on The New York Times’s Web site. “Our great country will soon close the book on ‘government by division,’ and embrace ‘government by inclusion.’ ”
Asked last week whether Mr. Obama’s vote on the surveillance law or any other recent statements or actions had altered how he felt about the candidate, Mr. Blanchard, of North Smithfield, R.I., said “absolutely not.”
“When are these people going to go, anyway?” Mr. Blanchard said of left-wing critics he believes have hurt Democrats in past elections. “My attitude is lighten up on the guy. We want to win. Moving to the center is not a crime in this country.”
Ms. Shade, the Green-turned-Democrat-returned-Green voter, spoke about Mr. Obama while leaning out her second-floor apartment window, where she has placed homemade signs urging the impeachment of President Bush. Others say “Free Gaza” and “Occupation is Terrorism.” She said twice that the American political system was “rotten.”
“You realize,” Ms. Shade said, her voice fading with resignation, “that you’re talking to somebody who’s pretty far out of the mainstream.”
Dan Frosch contributed reporting from Denver, Andrew Tangel from New York and Katie Zezima from Boston.
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