Filling out a 12-page questionnaire [part 1 of questionnaire, part 2 of questionnaire] from an Illinois voter group as he sought a state Senate seat in 1996, Obama answered “yes” or “no” — without using the available space to calibrate his views — on some of the most emotional and politically potent issues that a public official can confront.
“Do you support … capital punishment?” one question asked.
“No,” the 1996 Obama campaign typed, without explaining his answer in the space provided.
“Do you support state legislation to … ban the manufacture, sale and possession of handguns?” asked one of the three dozen questions.
“Yes,” was Obama’s entire answer.
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Obama said he would support a single-payer health plan for Illinois “in principal” [sic], “although such a program will probably have to be instituted at a federal level; the long-term objective would be a universal care system that does not differentiate between the unemployed, the disabled, and so on.” The campaign says Obama has consistently supported single payer health care in principle.
Under single-payer health care, a government system would replace private health insurance. Obama’s campaign said he has always supported the idea in concept, but thinks it is not currently practical because of the existing health care infrastructure.
The questionnaire, which was provided to Politico with assistance from political sources opposed to Obama’s presidential campaign, raises questions of whether Obama can be painted as too liberal and whether he is insufficiently consistent.
A week after Politico provided the questionnaire to the Obama campaign for comment, an aide called Monday night to say that Obama had said he did not fill out the form, and provided a contact for his campaign manager at the time, who said she filled it out. It includes first-person comments such as: “I have not previously been a candidate.”
The campaign said his views have been consistent, and points out that his positions have always been more nuanced than can be conveyed in yes-or-no answers.
Obama, who makes an issue of his opponents’ consistency in the presidential race, has tempered many of those 1996 views during his quick rise to the pinnacle of American politics. He now takes less dogmatic positions many of those hot-button issues — in the view of some Democrats, he abandoned the stands as he rose through the ranks.
For instance, Obama says he supports the death penalty in limited circumstances, such as an especially heinous crime. The campaign says Obama has consistently supported the death penalty “in principle” and opposed it “in practice.”
On handguns, his campaign said he has consistently been for “common-sense limits, but not banning” throughout his 11-year political career.
Regardless, the blunt statements of his earlier views, preserved on a questionnaire he filled out for an Illinois voter group that later endorsed him, would allow a Republican opponent to paint him as being way to the left of the nation’s electorate on questions that have historically been potent wedge issues.
Campaign advisers say that Obama’s positions reflect his willingness to remain true to his values, whatever the cost. Obama has argued that he can “change the game” of American politics, and doesn’t need to playby the cautious old rules.
“His views are very much in the mainstream of the Democratic Party,” said chief strategist David Axelrod, who has known Obama since 1992 and worked with him since 2002. “There are some issues on which he’s probably viewed more conservatively. He’s been a consistent voice on issues of, for example, parental responsibility and pushed those hard, because he believes in them.”
But Obama has never faced a serious Republican electoral challenge. And as the reality that he could be the Democratic nominee sinks in, party analysts are assessing the risks of a career that — unlike that of New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, his chief rival for the nomination — has not been spent carefully anticipating and avoiding GOP attacks.
So electability questions that once were directed at Clinton may now be asked about Obama.
Put more bluntly, Republicans think his high-minded approach to issues could make him a sitting duck as he tries to attract the vast middle that determines American elections.
Bill Burton, press secretary of Obama for America, said Clinton's campaign has been talking increasingly about how Obama would play in November. "That's their spin," he said.
Obama’s advisers argue that Clinton has her own vulnerabilities from her approach to issues, since she can be tagged with the perception that some of her stands are taken on the basis of political convenience.
“She’s been on a lot of sides of a lot of issues, and, ultimately, if you look at the history of the last few elections, that’s far more damaging than any one position,” Axelrod said.
Nevertheless, Obama’s campaign is about his story, his narrative, and the idea that he can foster transformative change, while Clinton’s reflects a realism that twice won her husband the White House. Clinton chooses her battles, ceding small issues to win on big ones.
Obama, on the other hand, has rolled out a more courageous — and perhaps more politically problematic — agenda. On the most important policy issues, he has struck solidly centrist notes, with a plan for withdrawal from Iraq that is similar to Clinton’s and a health care plan that has been criticized as less ambitious.
But on the sort of small-bore, emotionally-charged and sometimes easily-distorted issues that can come to dominate presidential politics, Obama seems to make a point of his disdain for Clintonian caution — a tendency the questionnaire from his political beginnings emphasizes.
He supports state plans to give driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, a position shared by roughly 20 percent of his fellow citizens. He’s committed to raising billions from wealthier Americans’ Social Security tax — a stance Clinton, perhaps previewing Republican attacks, described as a “trillion-dollar tax hike.” And in Iowa recently, he came out for a plan that would ultimately grant 19,500 convicted drug dealers early release, and has been criticized by Second Amendment groups.
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(Obama’s campaign says it would allow those charged with crack cocaine possession to apply for early release, which would have to be approved by a federal judge.)
As a result, Republican officials say that, depending on how Obama plays his cards, they will be able to torpedo him in a general election either as a flip-flopper or a lefty.
“No candidacy of his avowed liberalism has succeeded in the United States in much more than a generation,” said Republican strategist Kieran Mahoney, a national political adviser to former Sen. Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign.
Mahoney said GOP consultants typically have to game out: “Is this a guy who has the nuance and cleverness to hide the fact that he is an unrepentant liberal?”
“That’s the question you have when you’re trying to beat these guys,” Mahoney said. “He’s not even trying.”
Indeed, rivals and critics in both parties are preparing to paint Obama as an opportunist who once took non-mainstream positions that have evolved in concert with his political stature.
In fact, Republicans already are licking their chops. Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said conservatives are planning ways to make an issue of Obama’s plan to eliminate the cap on Social Security taxes for taxpayers making more than $97,000 a year.
Norquist predicted that “dramatic tax increases are going to be more important than the ‘The Audacity of Hope.’”
Axelrod, Obama’s chief strategist, says he recognizes that opponents will “try to paint the caricature.”
“But Obama’s history is that he’s been progressive and pragmatic and been able to work with both sides of the aisle and people across the ideological spectrum to get things done,” Axelrod said. "He comes to the table with a point of view, but he’s not dogmatic or rigid. He’s willing to compromise on details without sacrificing his principles.”
Obama did get something of a valentine this week from the conservative Weekly Standard, which ran a “Saint Barack of Iowa” cover story saying that “it looks increasingly as if the Democratic contest might come down to a battle of Hope vs. Muscle.”
The 12-page packet giving Obama’s more extreme 1996 views was prepared as part of his quest for the Illinois Senate’s 13th District on Chicago’s South Side. He was seeking the support of the Independent Voters of Illinois — Independent Precinct Organization, and won it with the unanimous support of the 13 members who voted, according to the group’s record.
“Do you support ... any other restrictions on abortions?” the questionnaire asked.
“No,” Obama wrote. The “other” was a reference to an earlier question about “parental consent/notification for minors seeking abortions.” Obama wrote that he did not. Obama’s campaign said that is his current view and that he has never voted to restrict access to abortions.
Whatever the openings for attacking Obama, the bizarre, fluid calculus of this cycle could wind up scrambling the strategic plans of both parties. The Republican field also has its share of candidates who have struggled to square their political past with their presidential future.
“What happens if both parties nominate a candidate who can’t win?” asked Mahoney, the GOP strategist. “We may find out.”