Saturday, November 13, 2004

The wounds the Democratic Party received on Nov. 2 will not soon heal. One of its few winners, however, must be smiling broadly. Senator-elect Barack Obama strode into the vacant Illinois seat after soundly defeating the Republican candidate, Alan Keyes. On “Meet the Press” last week, Mr. Obama proudly reminded host Tim Russert that he shared a million Illinois voters with President Bush. True, Illinois is a blue state, but Mr. Obama’s point is well taken: He’s a Democrat who appeals to voters on both sides of the spectrum — and he knows it.

Heading into a 55-45 Republican-dominated Senate, Mr. Obama is going to need every ounce of his political charm to help steer a party that has lost any sense of itself, while at the same time adding to his political capital. Is Mr. Obama up to the challenge? Many Democratic strategists think so, but there are a few warning signs that suggest Mr. Obama might not live up to his own hype.

First, Mr. Obama is extremely ambitious. He entered the Illinois State Senate in 1997, only to run for the U.S. House in 2000. He lost in the primary, but when Sen. Peter Fitzgerald said he wouldn’t run for re-election in 2004, Mr. Obama jumped at the opportunity. Such was the allure of this young, dynamic candidate that the Democratic National Committee decided to give him the keynote address at its convention in Boston, thus officially granting him the mantle of “rising star.” The speech itself was full of flag-waving, God-fearing, “morning-in-America” language. In other words, exactly what the Democrats need right now. But in his meteoric rise to the top, Mr. Obama has conveniently elided much of his leftist past, which brings us to the second point.

Mr. Obama’s record in the Illinois Senate marks him as more liberal than John Kerry. That’s quite a problem for a party that needs to shed its Michael Moore wing. During the campaign, Mr. Obama managed to soften his liberalism with inspiring rhetoric on the stump and by removing some of his more controversial doings from his Web site. One of these was a fiery speech he gave at an antiwar rally in October 2003; another was a Senate bill he co-sponsored that would have had the rights of homosexual, lesbian, bisexual and “transgendered” individuals added to the Illinois Civil Rights Act. Nevertheless, none of this stopped the Democratic Leadership Council — which represents the relatively conservative elements of the Democratic Party — from naming Mr. Obama one of its “100 Democratic Leaders to Watch in 2003.” With leaders of both factions whispering into his right and left ear, it will be interesting to see which path Mr. Obama chooses.

With that in mind, here’s a thought Mr. Obama should consider: Whatever path he decides on — and we have our preferences —he will do his party and his presidential aspirations no favors by fudging his true political inclinations.

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