Was Obama Wrong to Veer Right?

Progressive Democrats like myself are already watching in some dismay as Barack Obama moves toward the center. The Supreme Court decisions on the death penalty and gun control have pushed the candidate into public statements on hot-button issues with which we fundamentally disagree. Here's Obama on the death penalty:

I have said repeatedly that I think that the death penalty should be applied in very narrow circumstances for the most egregious of crimes. I think that the rape of a small child, 6 or 8 years old, is a heinous crime and if a state makes a decision that under narrow, limited, well-defined circumstances the death penalty is at least potentially applicable, that that does not violate our Constitution.

I am opposed to the death penalty in any circumstances, even the most despicable of crimes. I share the Buddhist view that the taking of any life is to be avoided. Even so, it has been proven time and again that our justice system can make mistakes, that people can be wrongly convicted -- either through honest jury error or by dishonest prosecutorial conduct; and that it is inherently racist and demonstrably influenced by class standing and wealth. The death penalty, once carried out, is irreversible, and it is known that numbers of innocent people have been judicially put to death. It's my personal belief that the death penalty is a toxin in the lifeblood of our society, and we are indisputably in extremely nasty company in the community of nations in insisting on maintaining this barbaric ritual. In the eyes of much of the world, the death penalty calls into question the state of our civilization. I am absolutely firm in my conviction that it is wrong.

Here's Obama on gun control:

I have always believed that the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to bear arms, but I also identify with the need for crime-ravaged communities to save their children from the violence that plagues our streets through common-sense, effective safety measures. The Supreme Court has now endorsed that view. Today's decision reinforces that if we act responsibly, we can both protect the constitutional right to bear arms and keep our communities and our children safe.

I couldn't disagree more. I think the Supreme Court decision on the "right to bear arms" is an invitation to the NRA and its associates to open the flood gates on litigation to force other major cities to abandon the sanity of those few existing laws that protect our communities from the menace of guns. I believe that guns are out of control in this country, as witness the unending acts of violence on city streets as well as in our schools and workplaces. There is seemingly no reliable way to prevent maniacs and criminals from easy access to powerful weapons, capable of wreaking havoc on a large scale and dealing out indiscriminate death to innocents. As with the death penalty, America's image in the world is deeply impaired by this addiction to the gun. There has to be some middle way on which sensible people can agree, in order to stem the violence.

And yet, and yet, my liberal and progressive friends, my brothers and sisters in the battle for justice and sanity and basic humanity... let's not throw out our newest baby with the bathwater. Not this time. Let's not throw up our hands in shock and horror when he says something politically contingent. Let's acknowledge, bitter though it may be, the galling truth that not everyone in this country shares our convictions; that there are vast numbers of Americans -- a majority, indeed -- who do not share our views and who would not cast a vote for anyone, man or woman, who did not make public avowals like those Obama makes, above. The changes we seek in our society will come about only in part through leadership -- though that is certainly important. They will come about only through the will of the majority of people, and there we must work, each as best he can, to change hearts and minds.

Of course we need to voice our differences. We will not be silenced. But as we speak, let's be clear about the picture that is bigger, by far, than any one of our disagreements. Let's voice them with clarity and conviction, but not with the kind of bitterness, disappointment, divisiveness and anger that give heart to those whose world-view has held dominion over this country for the past few decades. Let's be mindful of the goal and listen to the whole man, Obama, not to those things he is compelled to say, if only to avoid defeat. Let's try to listen to the heart even as we tolerate the strategist. Let's, this time, be real enough to win. Once that's done, then the work begins.