In the "old politics," this sort of maneuvering was an accepted technique for approaching tough decisions, euphemistically known as "keeping your options open." The "new politics" of the McGovern campaign, which likes to frown on the old ways, will have to think of something different to call it.
The South Dakota senator has always insisted that he is, above all, a pragmatic politician and his handling of the Eagleton crisis confirms his description. Beneath the exterior of the earnest and open man, there is a cautious tactician, more calculating than either his hard-boiled critics or his starry-eyed admirers have admitted.
Barack Obama's had his share of hard-boiled critics and starry-eyed admirers, though as of late the latter haven't been so visible, mostly because anyone who thought that the man could just work magic on national and world affairs probably wasn't paying much attention to begin with.
Yet even for those of us who have tried to keep things in perspective, Obama's calculating strategy has been painfully frustrating, on gay rights and torture, particularly. But let it not be said that he doesn't know how to get what he wants. A stimulus package, health care reform, financial regulation, student loan reform (tucked into health care, no less!), diplomatic isolation of Iran. Obama has never gone as far as his supporters would like, but one must wonder at how effective this would have ultimately been. As Nancy Pelosi was rounding up votes for the final health care reform vote, it was pointed out that Dennis Kucinich, for all his passion and standard-bearing, had really accomplished very little in his 13 years of legislating.
But Kucinich is a Congressman. When talking of Obama's pragmatism in the Executive Branch, and its unreliability for liberal causes, Christopher Hayes rightly pointed out that Abraham Lincoln was not a fiery abolitionist, and instead would have done whatever it took to preserve the Union, whether it freed all, some, or none of the slaves. This is an odious view, but to focus on it is to obscure the larger, more significant fact, that these half-measures did eventually lead to the end of the slave system in America.
If talking about, say, health care reform, one can point out the many things still wrong with the new law, but only with the knowledge that voting against a such a bill for not going far enough is what prevented us from getting a nationalized health care system from Richard Nixon. As Ezra Klein noted:
You could imagine a lot of presidents more dogmatically liberal than Obama, but I wonder whether there are a lot of plausible hypotheticals in which they amass more liberal achievements than Obama. At the executive level, it might be the case that being too liberal is a liability to, well, liberalism.
Which is not to say there aren't fights worth having. In the coming weeks pragmatism will be put to the test once more, when maneuvers are made to bring a Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal to a vote. Joe Lieberman says the votes are there, and repeal is widely supported by the population at large. If Barack Obama really wants the matter to be taken up by Congress as he says, then he's going to have to do the arm-twisting he knows it takes to get things done. "Old politics" need not needlessly perpetuate old policies.