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June 11, 2008

Is Voting "Present" a Cop Out?

A new attack ad—paid for by the RNC—shows an animated and paper-thin resumé of Barack Obama's past experience. Over music lifted from the soundtrack of an America's Most Wanted reenactment, a narrator lists Obama's lack of accomplishments. When she gets up to the candidate's time in the Illinois State Senate she says, "In the legislature, he avoids tough votes on abortion, crime and guns by voting present instead of yes or no." This seems a little familiar, and not just because the voice-actress sounds like she should be saying, "Ask your doctor if Lipozene is right for you."

Way back in the January debates, Senator Clinton chastised Obama for those present votes, saying, "In the Illinois State Senate, Senator Obama voted 130 times 'present.' That's not 'yes.' That's not 'no.' That's 'maybe.'" When these votes were first being discussed, Gelf asked political consultant Rob Shrum what he thought of the issue. "I have some familiarity with the Illinois State legislature, and the ‘present’ votes are fairly common," he said. "It shows that you may like a bill but have some issues with it. The one that Clinton called [Obama] out on, Democrats were urged to only vote 'present' in order to block a ban on partial birth abortion."

The real story behind the present votes was reported in the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and on NPR, and was soon dropped from the Clinton campaign's talking points. So why would the McCain camp pick up this discarded attack? Well, if I were a skeptic, I could say that Republicans aren't as interested in the veracity of their charges, so long as they stick.

However, there is also another, less paranoid, reason why the RNC would bring up a charge that Clinton backed down from. As Bob Shrum mentioned, the rationale for many of the present votes is that Obama was following the directions of the Democratic party in the State Senate, specifically with regards to the controversial abortion bills. According the Chicago Tribune article, "Obama and officials from Planned Parenthood have said that the 'present' votes were a strategy to give cover to Democrats who might be attacked by Republicans later if they voted 'no.'" This answer holds up to a staunch Democrat like Clinton, but if Obama were to tell McCain that he abstained from an important issue for the sake of his party, McCain could paint him as the very type of political creature that Obama talks of eliminating from Washington.

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