Obama Republicans : Awaiting the big break

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One of the winning passages in Barack Obama’s speeches is his description of the Republicans flocking to his campaign rallies. “They whisper to me. They say: ‘Barack, I’m a Republican, but I support you.’ And I say … ” – here Mr Obama usually lowers his voice to a stage whisper – “‘Thank you.’” The founding of Republicans for Obama this week by former congressman Jim Leach of Iowa, former senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Rita Hauser, a former fundraiser for George W. Bush, seems merely to make official a phenomenon that is already widespread. “There is going to be a split in the Republican base on foreign policy,” Mr Chafee told reporters, “because the Bush-Cheney approach has been such a failure all over the world.”

By Christopher Caldwell

Is this true? Mr Obama is making a big pitch to Republicans. He has spoken glowingly of Ronald Reagan, is friendly to religious voters and has invested heavily in advertising and staffing not just in the swing states of the Midwest but also in such Republican strongholds as Texas. Yet there are a number of myths about “Obamacans” (as Mr Obama calls them) or “Obamacons” (as pundits do). Their numbers are overestimated and their import is misunderstood.

If there is a recent Republican flight to Mr Obama, foreign policy is not at the core of it. While the Iraq war has been unpopular, Republicans paid the price in defections – a steep one – well before Mr Obama’s rise. The founders of Republicans for Obama all had grave misgivings about the Iraq war. Ms Hauser endorsed John Kerry in 2004. Mr Chafee was the only Republican in the Senate to vote against the resolution permitting the use of force in Iraq. He was constantly rumoured to be on the verge of leaving the party. After his defeat in the Democratic landslide of 2006, he did.

Of the trio, it is Mr Leach who is the key defector. Although he called this week for a “new approach to our interaction with the world”, he was best known, until his own defeat in 2006, as chairman of the House banking committee and a financial watchdog of high integrity. Among today’s Republicans are many who still profess Mr Leach’s budget-balancing kind of conservatism. Mr Obama’s fiscal policy is more compatible with such a conservatism than the deficit-widening tax-cuts John McCain proposes. In fact, Mr McCain’s career of eloquent opposition to George W. Bush’s tax slashing is more compatible with Mr Obama’s platform than his own. According to a new poll from the Pew Research Centre, McCain supporters, asked to say what they admire about Mr Obama, most often name his economic positions.

It is neither on foreign policy nor on economics but on religious values that Mr Obama has made his big pitch to party-switchers. In July, he shocked some Democrats by defending Mr Bush’s use of faith-based programmes as government service providers. He did so in Zanesville, Ohio, one of the most heavily evangelical towns in the country. A study released last week by the Barna Group, a Christian consulting firm, found Mr Obama reaping the rewards of his outreach. He leads among non-evangelical born-again Christians, by 43 per cent to 31, although Mr McCain continues to dominate among the highly politicised evangelicals, 61-17.

Mr Obama’s attempt to synthesise new policies is more sincere and thoroughgoing than that of any candidate since Reagan. You would think Republicans would like Mr Obama a lot more than Democrats like Mr McCain, who not only has been on the political scene for a quarter-century but has also signed on to many of the less popular fiscal dogmas of the Bush-era Republican party. But this advantage for Mr Obama in theory has not materialised in practice. Mr McCain has always had a stronger cross-party appeal than any Republican of his generation. As long ago as 2000, the high points of his presidential campaign were those states – Michigan in particular – that had open primaries, permitting Democrats to cross over and vote for him.

Perhaps due to the bitterness of this year’s Democratic primaries, Mr McCain’s advantage in crossover voting persists, according to that Pew poll. Among Democrats who supported Hillary Clinton in the primaries, only 72 per cent say they will vote for Mr Obama. Fully 18 per cent will back Mr McCain, and another 10 per cent are up for grabs. This is a sharp contrast to Republican supporters of Mr McCain’s primary opponents, 88 per cent of whom will back Mr McCain versus just 6 per cent who will go over to Mr Obama.

The US could benefit from the party shake-up that Mr Obama is trying to effect. That does not mean such a shake-up is happening. Most Obamacans are intellectuals, including a few who are actually conservative, such as the writers Francis Fukuyama and Andrew Bacevich. But the Republican party is no more a natural home for intellectuals than it is for feminists or trades unionists. Much has been made, stupidly, of the support of family members of prominent conservatives, from the daughter of former president Richard Nixon to the son of economist Milton Friedman – as if families never contain political disagreements.

There has been a former assistant secretary here and a former deputy secretary there. But not a single prominent conservative with either an ongoing political career or a continuing affection for the Republican party has yet chosen to back Mr Obama. The endorsement of General Colin Powell, for instance, or Chuck Hagel, the Nebraska senator, would be an election-shifting coup. Unless and until that happens, Obamacans will be a media phenomenon, not a political one.

The Financial Times

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