Barack Obama has the mood, the momentum and the money in his favour – but John McCain’s character and record could yet swing November’s presidential election for the Republicans
To the happy congregation in Barack Obama’s church of fervid believers, the presumptive Democratic nominee for US President is like none that has ever come before him. The soaring oratory, delivered at vast rallies that can seem unsettlingly fascistic at times, hails a new dawn in American politics.
“We are the change we have been waiting for!” he cries. To which the multitudes respond repeatedly with idolatrous passion, if not much of an ear for grammar: “Yes We Can!”
But for all the excitement generated by his undeniably impressive campaign, for all the novelty of his youth, his very recent emergence to national prominence and, of course, his ethnicity, the Obama phenomenon is just another manifestation of a well-mined tradition in American politics. A capacity for reinvention is central to the American spirit, in politics as in economics, and conjuring the aura of change to orchestrate an organic and peaceful overthrow of the existing order has long been essential to the nation’s success.
What really marks America out though, is that it is only in the United States that, every decade or so, a political leader emerges literally from obscurity to seize the national spotlight.
In parliamentary systems, politicians audition for long years on the national stage. Tony Blair and John Major were both considered quite fresh when they became Prime Minister, but they had been in parliament for 14 and 11 years respectively, and both had held prominent national political positions for years.
In America, by contrast, thanks to an oddly lopsided primary system that favours small, rural states over large urban ones and the virtues of personal contact over mass, televised communication, you can, given the talent and the right political circumstances, when the yearning for change is strong enough, bypass all the usual required routes and go straight to the top.
Of course the effects can be mixed. If Jimmy Carter had remained governor of Georgia he would doubtless be remembered as a more successful if less well-known politician than he is after his presidency. Bill Clinton was a modestly effective president, though if Americans had known a little more about his character they might have preferred on balance to leave him and his dysfunctional family to the clammy security of Arkansas. George W. Bush’s only national point of reference in 2000 was his name, and as it turned out, that was about as unreliable a predictor of his behaviour and general competence in office as it was possible to be.
But the beauty of the Unknown Quantity — at least as candidate, if not as president — is that he not only articulates the powerful desire for change ever present in democratic politics. He can, simply by virtue of being unknown, actually symbolise it. Senator Obama’s elegantly written manifesto is called The Audacity of Hope, and there’s an irony to the title. It is indeed audacious to think that hope — and not much else — is sufficient to run a great country.
Countering the appeal of the new in the nation of the reborn is never easy. Opponents tout their long experience as evidence of higher suitability for office and sometimes it works — for Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Richard Nixon in 1968, and George H. W. Bush in 1988. But like second marriages, American elections more often seem to represent the triumph of hope over experience, as Hillary Clinton, to her disastrous cost, discovered this year.
At first glance, then, the general election campaign that finally got under way in June after the long Democratic primary, might look almost like a parody of this recent history of American presidential politics. In the blue corner, up there on the sunlit uplands, is the new and youthful Mr Obama , who first came to national prominence just four years ago with an oratorical flourish at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and who began campaigning for president when he had served less than one year in the Senate. In the red corner, where the day’s long shadows are accentuated by the gentle slant of media bias, is Senator John McCain, of Arizona,the man bidding to be the oldest-ever elected president, a man whose public life began in 1968 when he was shot down over Vietnam, and who has been a national figure — famous prisoner of war, congressman, senator, presidential candidate — ever since.
If the candidates match the stereotype, the parties they represent fit it even better. The Republicans look like a tired party, worn out by experience, rather than armed by it.
Their President has discredited the brand and divided the party. Until 2006, they ran Congress for almost 12 straight years, during which they steadily transformed themselves, Animal Farm-like, from the party that would overthrow the government on behalf of the little guy to the party that grew fat on the spoils of government with the help of the rich guys.
The Democrats look reinvigorated for the first time in a decade. They have just completed the most competitive and energised primary election campaign in modern history. Between them, Senators Clinton and Obama brought 36 million voters to the polls — twice as many as have voted in a primary in the past, and almost twice as many as voted in the Republican contest. They raised nearly $600 million (£300 million) for their campaigns. Senator McCain managed barely $100 million.
Despite the occasionally bitter campaign — and with the exception of the Clintons and a few of their die-hard friends — the Democrats are firmly united behind their candidate. Though their stewardship of Congress for the past year and a half has been less than spectacular, they are steadily tightening their grip. Republicans have lost three special elections in the House of Representatives already this year — and look set to lose many more in November.
The macro political conditions could not be more favourable for the party seeking to capture the White House. The economy is mired — if not actually in recession, then in a period of stagnant growth. As Al Gore noted back in 1992, when standing as the Vice-Presidential candidate against Bush Senior, everything that should be going up is going down and everything that should be going down is going up: house prices are falling, unemployment is rising, oil prices and inflation are surging and incomes and output are slumping.
There has been palpable success in the Iraq war over the past year, but its political effect has so far been negligible. The majority of the American public seems to be in no mood to reconsider the conclusion it reached a year ago, that the decision to invade the country was an unforgivable Republican mistake.
More broadly, there is a profound sense of what Jimmy Carter famously didn’t call malaise. Polls find 80 per cent of the country — more even than during Watergate — thinks the US is on the wrong track. The most popular nonfiction books in the bookshops foretell America’s inevitable decline, with titles such as “Are We Rome?” and “The Post-American World”.
Another — even larger — factor might be at work in the Democrats’ long-term favour. The social and economic composition of the US electorate is evolving in a way that seems likely to produce a longer-term advantage for the Democrats.
As John Judis and Ruy Teixeira wrote in their 2002 book, The Emerging Democratic Majority, the parts of the American population that are growing most rapidly — the better educated, with college and higher degrees, white-collar professional workers, federal, state and local government employees and those who live in the west and in relatively affluent suburbs — are the parts that are most inclined to vote for the Democratic Party.
They tend to be socially liberal or moderate on issues such as abortion or gay marriage and give most weight to post-economic concerns such as environmental protection. They are, in the vernacular of their time and place, latte liberals.
If all these aren’t the conditions for one of those periodic moments when the plates shift, then surely there will never be one. By picking Barack Obama, and rejecting Hillary Clinton, the Democrats wisely showed that they understand the national mood and took away from the Republicans their last real hope of clinging to power — a vestigial trace of their own past.
So the Democrats have the short-term political conditions — the economy, the war, the national mood — in their favour. They have the political momentum and the energy. They have the candidate who seems to encapsulate the hunger for change. And they even have a long-term wave of demographic realignment going for them.
Should John McCain and the Republicans simply concede now? Not quite. It’s worth remembering, first of all, that Democrats have proved themselves capable of losing elections even in highly favourable circumstances. The British Conservative party used to enjoy the reputation of the world’s most feared election-fighting machine — and might reclaim it one day. But for now the US Republicans surely have that title. They have won seven of the last 10 presidential elections. They are the only party in the past 70 years to have successfully resisted the rising tide of change and won a third straight presidential election — in 1988.
You can go back further and discover that in the 150 years since the modern American party system was founded, the Democrats have won a majority of the popular vote in presidential elections on only six occasions — and three of them were by just one man, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the only person to win three terms.
This can’t be an accident. It suggests that the Republican Party has established a deep connection with the American people, whose conservative, patriotic and religious values it best understands and reflects. But that alone won’t be enough this time to deprive Mr Obama of the presidency. The Republicans’ brand is easily discredited enough these days to have thoroughly frayed those links.
A different challenge for Mr Obama, widely discussed, if mostly sotto voce, is the race problem. It’s almost universally believed in Democrat and liberal circles that large numbers of Americans are simply too racist to vote for a black man and that this fact will place a low ceiling on Senator Obama’s potential vote.
It is impossible to know how much of a problem his race is. But it might at least be useful to distinguish between straight bigotry — an ugly disposition that will certainly move some voters — and a different and surely more legitimate attitude; that is, a lack of susceptibility among others to the Senator’s “transcendent” appeal beyond usual class and economic barriers. Senator Obama has based his campaign on this appeal, but you don’t have to be racist to believe that, at a time of economic distress and concern about America’s role in the world, the laudable aim of raising the American people’s eyes to loftier ideals may not be seen as an immediate priority for some voters.
In fact, for all the talk of change in the primary campaign, it was the Democrats who seemed unhealthily obsessed with issues of race and class. Although it was undeniably competitive, the contest between Senators Clinton and Obama came down in the end not to a debate about the type and direction of change the country needed, but to a struggle between two large competing demographic blocs — Senator Obama’s blacks, the well-educated and young voters, and Senator Clinton’s whites, blue-collar and older voters.
For much of the time, it seemed oddly free of discussion of the issues that concern most voters and focused much more on the modern dark political arts of low-information political signalling and dog-whistle politics. That should give Senator McCain an opportunity to make his case, especially in an area that has proved pivotal in recent elections — national security.
In the formulation of most liberal media outlets in the US, the national security card is a sort of cheat, a trick Republicans use to scare voters away from well-intentioned Democrats. In this demonology, Republican candidates from Richard Nixon to George W. Bush have diverted attention from their own shortcomings by playing on Americans’ worst, and most irrational, fears, suggesting the Democrats would endanger the nation.
But it’s just possible that voters might actually have decided for themselves that, since Vietnam, and the spectacle of Democrats virulently attacking the US defence of its values in the struggle against communism, they really cannot be trusted with the nation’s security.
The ineptitude of the conduct of the war in Iraq has undermined the credibility of the Republican case, but has not necessarily destroyed it. And no Republican is better placed to restore that credibility, and to point up the contrast with Democrats than John McCain, the Vietnam War hero, who has been a fierce critic of the strategy in Iraq and a key figure in bringing about the change to a more successful approach last year.
At the end of any presidential term, especially after an eight-year presidency, there is an inevitable hunger for change. But it would be a mistake to think that only Senator Obama is capable of reflecting and shaping that change. John McCain may be old, white and male, but he has in many ways better represented the kind of change Barack Obama has built his campaign around.
While the Illinois senator talks inspiringly of ending the petty and damaging partisanship of Washington, his Arizona counterpart has actually spent the past decade in Washington building bipartisan coalitions on everything from campaign finance reform to foreign policy to judicial appointments.
The question for John McCain is whether he can remind voters that his brand of Republican politics is not the one that has been so damaged these past eight years. It’s a heavy irony that after eight years of a presidency that has discredited the Republicans and even America in the eyes of the world, the man who stood against the-then Governor Bush for the Republican nomination in 2000 finds himself derided as a mere postscript and continuation of that presidency.
It is an additional irony that the man who spent years railing against the ugly intolerance of the religious right over the past decade should now be bracketed with those very “agents of intolerance” that he once condemned.
Of course, Senator McCain is partly to blame for that himself. He has reined in his independent streak in the past year or two to make peace with his own party.
That may have helped him win the Republican primary, but it has weakened his ability to appeal to a dissatisfied broader electorate. He needs to move fast in the next few months to remind voters where his political instincts lie.
Whoever wins, 2008 is shaping up to be an election that is likely to mark a sharp turning point in American politics. The Bush era, the era of narrow Republican majorities won in a highly polarised country, is gone. By identity and by party, Senator Obama might be best placed to capitalise on the growing desire for change. But by his own character and record, it might be that his Republican rival, Senator McCain, is better placed to achieve it.