THERE’S COLD FEAR in the blogosphere. Liberals from Malibu to Madison have broken out into hives. Hands are wringing and knickers are twisted. Turns out that Barack Obama might be a centrist! Or even worse, it seems.

“Obama Veers Right!” screams a headline on the leftist Counterpunch Web site, as socialist blogger Alan Maas frets that the Democratic candidate has shown himself to be “pro-corporate, pro-military.” Ralph Nader dumps on Obama for attempting to “talk white.” Even less radical analysts shake and shudder because Obama has recently spoken out forcefully for Israel. Because he mildly criticized the Supreme Court for its recent decision barring the death penalty for child molesters. Because he’s doing a lot of so-called God talk. Because he’s wearing an American-flag pin in a Rolling Stone cover photo. Because he gave a speech declaring his patriotic values. Because he voted for a dastardly compromise on the warrantless wiretapping bill that immunizes the phone companies against legal liability.

His critics on the left demand to know, What the heck is going on?

The answer is, quite simply, that Barack Obama wants to get elected. Of course he’s running to the right. The primary is over and the general election is upon us and Obama’s campaign is figuring that — no, Virginia — there apparently aren’t enough “progressive” Democrats to form a national electoral majority. Hell, there aren’t even enough to win a decisive majority inside the Democratic Party. (Please note the die-hard Hillaryoids — most Democratic feminists — who are now vowing to vote for a rigidly anti-choice John McCain.)

Believe me, I know the counterarguments. I’ve been making them for years (and on top of that, I’m actually one of the plaintiffs in the ACLU lawsuit against the telecom giants for their role in the domestic eavesdropping adventure). They go something like this: Provide the proper leadership and the People Will Follow. Democrats lose because they are Republican Lite. The Democrats will triumph if and only if the Democratic wing of the party dominates and eschews all compromise and wavering. That’s it, right?

But what makes you so sure? If this formula were so exact, we’d have already completed the second term of the Kucinich administration, wouldn’t we? John Edwards would be this year’s nominee, and he’d be vowing not to implement national health care, but rather be promising to further improve it, along with our humming national high-speed rail system, our fleet of biofuel cars and our beloved national service program that provides free college tuition to all students who promise civic duty.

DREAM ON. That we are, instead, still living in the Bush nightmare, paying $5 a gallon for fossil fuel, still mired in Iraq and worried about meeting the monthly mortgage payment does not, on the other hand, mean that we should apologize for or condone blatant political pandering and cowardly capitulation. It’s not free license for Obama, or anyone else, to wuss out. Bold political leadership is more important than ever, and to some degree, people will follow if presented with a compelling example.

The crucial question is, Just how far? So let’s lay down some metrics. Barack Obama won the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party as a freshman senator who defeated the most powerful of establishment political machines. As a candidate with no military background at a time when we’re supposedly leading the Global War on Terror. As a candidate who promises to substitute diplomacy for interventionism. As a candidate who has mobilized and inspired an entire new generation of Americans who actually feel engaged in the political process. As a candidate named the “most liberal” member of the senate by the National Journal. Oh, and did I mention, as a black man, whose middle name is Hussein?

Modestly, I’d have to say that’s pretty damn far to come in America in the age of Bush. And apparently, just about far enough for Obama and his strategists. Judging by his political positioning of the last few weeks, they clearly think it’s time to do some backfilling. They judge they’ve gotten out in front just about as far as they can without going over the ledge. They’re worried that one out of 10 Americans still think Obama is a Muslim. An equal number swear he was born in Africa. They can see that candidate McCain has twice the popularity of his own Republican Party. They note a recent Washington Post poll revealing that 30 percent of Americans admit to race bias. (Not really a shocking figure when, according to the just-published book Just How Stupid Are We? by historian Rick Shenkman, three out of 10 Americans don’t know what the Holocaust is, and a far greater percentage of Americans can name more members of The Simpsons family than they can enumerate the freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment.)

Nor do I think that what we’re seeing is merely calculated caution. Much of Obama’s appeal from the outset has been his determination to rise above the narrow and often phony and pointless partisanship that has come to define the two-party system. If someone thinks that a progressive majority can actually govern by scorning and ignoring rather than including the tens of millions who consider themselves patriotic, flag-waving, born-again Christians, please let me know. Or better, send your memo directly to Dennis Kucinich.

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