New York: A ‘Post-racial’ American vs an Old Coot

‘The Obama campaign will be touted as “historic,” and how do you run against history?’

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The presidential race in America is turning out to be much more interesting than expected. At the time of writing, the Democratic nomination is not quite wrapped up — but Hillary Clinton is on the ropes and Barack Obama is the all-but-certain nominee. Unless something drastic happens, it is he who will slug for the Democrats against the Republicans’ John McCain in the general election.

It was not supposed to be this way. Mrs Clinton, wife of the former president and senator from New York, was supposed to waltz to the nomination. It was hers for the asking. She was a great heroine of the Democratic party, their Joan of Arc. But, in the course of her waltz, a young senator from ­Illinois cut in.

He had had very little experience: after a stint in the Illinois legislature, he was elected to the US Senate in 2004. Yet many wanted him to be president. He inspired them with his rhetoric — gassy words about “hope” and “change” — and he was black, or half black. Many Americans long for a president “of colour” to help wipe away the stains of the past.

Philosophically, there is very little difference between Senators Obama and Clinton. They are both statists, central planners, proponents of Big Government. In Europe they would belong to one of the socialist camps. But American political taxonomy is a little strange: however illiberal they may be, they are called “liberals”.

Mrs Clinton comes from the Sixties’ Left; Obama, at 46, is younger than that, but he might as well have sprung from there too. His politics are warmed-up McGovernism (I refer to 1972’s Democratic presidential nominee, George McGovern). There is nothing interesting about Obama’s politics: nothing unorthodox, nothing innovative, no enticing deviation.

In the Democratic primaries the fight was personal and demographic. Mrs Clinton attracted older voters, working-class whites. This princess of the New Left — a product of Wellesley College and Yale Law School — had never been known as a lunch-bucket type. But there you had it. Senator Obama, for his part, attracted young people, blacks and “upscale cultural liberals”.

Why did I put that last phrase in quotation marks? It comes from Bill Clinton, who used it in an interview on the radio. The former president was describing a section of Obama’s electorate; and it was an ear-catching phrase, coming from him. Upscale cultural liberals had always been his demographic.

So too had blacks. Mr Clinton has had a bad 2008 campaign, not least because he has damaged himself with black Americans, a great many of whom are annoyed at his occasional criticisms of Senator Obama. He accused Obama of “playing the race card” against him.

It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, for Bill Clinton is a long-time player of that dirty card.

Biting Senator Obama are some of his associates, specifically Tony Rezko, a shady Chicago operator; Billy Ayers, a former, utterly unrepentant Weather Underground bomber; and the Rev Jeremiah Wright, Senator Obama’s pastor — or “former pastor” as the candidate is at pains to say now.

Thanks to Wright, the American public has become acquainted with “black liberation theology”, not always a pretty sight. There he is in video clips, screaming hatred and kookery: the United States had 9/11 coming; the American government invented Aids in order to decimate blacks; and so on.

Senator Obama has done a fast and determined distancing act. But Wright has undoubtedly unnerved a great many Americans. How could Senator Obama have sat in those pews drinking it in for 20 years? Is he a “post-racial” American, as many say, or a nurser of grievances and a believer in conspiracy theories?

As a candidate, John McCain has a number of strengths, among them grit and his heroic Vietnam war record. He has liabilities too. For one thing, he needs to reassure conservatives, many of whom recoil from him, or at least look askance at his moderate-to-liberal positions. Then there is his temperament, not always the most placid. And of course there is his age: at 72 he would be the oldest man ever elected president.

But against Obama, McCain could play age to his advantage. He could say, “Yeah, I’m an old coot, all banged up. I earned a lot of scars in the service of my country. We are now in two shooting wars and a broader war on terror. As for Senator Obama, he’s a nice kid. But we’re talking about commander-in-chief here.”

How about the delicate matter of race? This has always been America’s sore spot. The Obama campaign will be touted as “historic,” and how do you run against history? Americans will be told — by the Democrats and the media — that they have a chance to “make history”. How do you blow this chance? By voting for Senator McCain, the old white guy. And if you do that, you wear a scarlet R, for Racist.

Yes, it will be ticklish for McCain and the Republicans to run against a black candidate, just as it has been for the Clintons. McCain and his party will have to be deft, graceful and unafraid. They may not have it in them.

People say that many Hillary voters will not vote for Obama and that many conservatives will not vote for McCain. I don’t know about that. There is something about a presidential election that sparks a rallying urge: the choice is essentially A or B. Democrats will be hungry to regain the White House and defeat the Big Bad Right. Republicans, including conservatives, will be eager to block a Left-wing president.

In a recent column I commented that even non-McCainiacs in the Republican party would crawl over broken glass on that Tuesday in November to vote for John McCain. A reader wrote to say that he would have two knees cut and bleeding but only one hand in that condition. The reason? The other would be holding his nose.

More than a jest, that is a keen insight into Election ’08.