Forgive the hyperbolic title, but I can't help feeling like that's the attitude behind the framing of this piece by Robin Toner in today's Times, titled "Obama's Test: Can a Liberal Be a Unifier?"

The first problem is that the answer to the question is obviously yes--liberals have been unifiers in the past, and there's no reason to think one couldn't be at this point in our history. Franklin Roosevelt was unquestionably liberal, and he united the nation in one of its more dire moments. The same was true of Lyndon Johnson in the days after the death of JFK, and was even true of the early days of Jimmy Carter's administration. But that's never even hinted at in Toner's piece.

There's another problem at play. Toner asks:

But this promise leads, inevitably, to a question: Can such a majority be built and led by Mr. Obama, whose voting record was, by one ranking, the most liberal in the Senate last year?
Emphasis mine. Toner is speaking of the National Journal's ranking, which placed Obama as the most liberal in the Senate, which is quite an achievement, considering that he's up against liberal stalwarts like Barbara Boxer, Ted Kennedy, Tom Harkin and Bernie Sanders, who describes himself as more socialist than Democrat. One would think that such an outcome might cause an intrepid reporter to at least ask how the National Journal came up with those rankings. After all, this is the same magazine that ranked John Kerry the most liberal Senator in 2003, with a pre-populist John Edwards coming in 4th by that measure.

But cast an eye around the progressive landscape, and the excitement over Obama is likely to be a bit more tepid. Yes, we're excited about the possibility of electing the first African-American president, but by that limited standard, we're also excited about electing the first woman to the presidency. But neither of them does much for us from a progressive point of view. After all, Clinton's not giving us much hope on the Iraq War front, and Obama's sold us out a bit on universal health care. Clinton seems to want to continue her husband's aggravating triangulation strategy and Obama speaks so often of unity across party lines that many wonder just how partisan he's willing to be. Progressives are supporting these two candidates--and there is a divide in the progressive community, make no mistake--in spite of their lack of progressive credentials, not because either has reached out to us.

Toner's hack job isn't limited to Obama in this piece either. Clinton gets it right in the neck.


Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton has worked hard in the Senate to moderate her liberal image and forge working relationships with Republicans. But with her husband’s tumultuous presidency still fresh in some voters’ minds, she is often cast as a hyperpartisan Democrat who would try to achieve her ends by beating the Republicans at the same brutal (and often futile) competition that has dominated Washington for years.
No mention of the cause of the tumult in her husband's presidency, of the partisanship that Newt Gingrich and company exploded and then exploited. And most importantly, no questioning of the framing of Clinton as a hyper-partisan Democrat, when progressives will tell anyone within earshot that it's Clinton's tin ear on bipartisanship--crossing the aisle to support nonsensical measures like video game violence legislation or flag-burning amendments, not to mention her Iraq War vote--that makes us wonder just how partisan she will be as President.

Don't get me wrong--progressives are, for the most part, willing to line up behind either candidate, come the general election. We recognize that either will be an improvement on the current president, or on John McCain, even if we are disenchanted with the two options we're left with.

Of course, if Toner had bothered to ask a single progressive for this piece, maybe that would have come out. Obama gets the lion's share of the quotes, as one might expect, but the other people quoted are Mark Penn, Clinton's chief pollster, and Danny Diaz, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. Any of those people sound like progressives to you? Me either. It's not like progressive voices are difficult to find if you just look around.

Toner made it pretty clear that the liberal tag would be affixed to Obama's forehead, whether it deserved to be there or not. Keep an eye on this sort of reporting--we can expect to see a lot of it in the coming months.

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