6 August 2008: Are conservatives starting to jump ship for Obama?

Are conservatives starting to jump ship for Obama?

The contest between Barack Obama and John McCain is a study in contrasts. Barring a Bush October surprise, its outcome has the potential of reflecting a generational shift in the trajectory of American politics.

It’s fascinating to speculate about an Obama victory being on the scale of Ronald Reagan’s 1980 tsunami that restructured the American political landscape.

The 1980 election, with the rise of the Reagan Democrats, might prove to be a model for 2008, but with roles reversed. This election could well signal the rise of a new phenomenon: Obama Republicans. Should that happen, Barack Obama would be hailed as the Democrats’ Ronald Reagan.

Aside from the obvious physical differences, Obama and McCain contrast much as Reagan and Carter did in 1980.

In a 2004 piece titled “How Reagan hobbled the Democrats,” Tom Curry of MSNBC writes, “The stylistic contrast between Reagan and his 1980 adversary was superficial, yet important: Carter: dour, dutiful, defensive, earnest to a fault. Reagan: chipper, optimistic, practiced in the art of the one liner: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

For Reagan, even at the height of the Cold War, it was morning in America; for McCain it is gloomy dusk with the barbarians at the door.

One likeable attribute of McCain is his sense of humor: a quick wit and a willingness to engage in self-deprecation. That gets lost, however, when he goes to his ostensible strong suit: foreign policy.

There McCain consistently engages in fear-mongering, from terrorists listed on every airline passenger manifest to Iran set to nuke Israel. It makes it tough to quip when your goal is to scare the hell out of people.

McCain mocks Obama’s use of the word “hope,” which backfires by implying that with McCain, there is no hope, only fear.

And there is the grump factor: McCain does have a thin skin with his legendary temper boiling beneath it.

Curry goes on to write, “In their 1980 debate, Carter treated Reagan almost as a preposterous figure, ignorant of details of nuclear weapons policy, among other things. Carter’s attitude toward Reagan was a harbinger of Al Gore’s theatrical sighs and eye-rolling during his first debate with George W. Bush in 2000.”

Likewise, McCain is trying to portray Obama as a neophyte when it comes to the very serious issues of terrorism, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and the Middle East.

In a July 16 column in the NY Daily News titled “I’m a lifelong conservative activist and I’m backing Barack Obama,” Larry Hunter writes, “I’m a lifelong Republican – a supply-side conservative. I worked in the Reagan White House. I was the chief economist at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for five years. In 1994, I helped write the Republican Contract with America. I served on Bob Dole’s presidential campaign team and was chief economist for Jack Kemp’s Empower America. This November, I’m voting for Barack Obama.”

His credentials established, Hunter explains his rationale: “Taxes, economic policy and health care reform matter, of course. But how we extract ourselves from the bloody boondoggle in Iraq, how we avoid getting into a war with Iran and how we preserve our individual rights while dealing with real foreign threats – these are of greater importance.

Harper argues that McCain “would continue the Bush administration’s commitment to interventionism and constitutional overreach.”

On the other hand, he asserts that Obama would bring about a “humbler engagement with our allies, while promising retaliation against any enemy who dares attack us.”

From that perspective, it is Obama, not McCain, who is the true conservative, Harper insists: “That’s what conservatism used to mean – and it’s what George W. Bush promised as a candidate.”

Republicanism is dogmatic, which makes it tough for Republicans to publicly acknowledge other-party candidate preferences. A Republican consorting with other political strains has been like a Christian holding other faiths being equally valid paths to God.

But cracks are surfacing in the old-time religion with schism threatening to separate the disparate groups: old money, new money, fundamentalists, and neo-cons.

Hunter might be one of the more prominent Republicans jumping ship, but, I suspect, he is far from alone.

Those who vote their worst fears—the 23 percent currently approving of George W. Bush’s performance—will hold firm and serve as McCain’s base. Republicans who hold hope and want change will defy their party’s inquisitors and move, some openly, some more furtively, to Obama.

In the 1982 California gubernatorial race, Tom Bradley was way ahead in the polls but lost because many who professed to support him voted against him due to him being African American. It has become known as the Bradley Effect.

Undoubtedly that will happen with Obama. But those losses might be offset with a swell of support for Obama by those who, for the record, are publicly opposing him. A wonderful thing, that secret ballot.

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