Saturday, November 08, 2008


Reflections on the Campaign

After all that's happened in the campaign, it seems hard to believe that it’s all over. Following this election has been fascinating and entertaining in equal measure, and I very much doubt that another one will come close for many years to come in terms of excitement. The real work, of course, actually starts now.

But to make the most of the slightly dazed feeling, a retrospective seems in order. I’ve been writing about the campaign from the time of the first primary, and going back to the beginning means going back over ten months. There are a great many highlights from the campaign which stand out in my memory. You'll find them below, in roughly chronological order.

- Rudy Giuliani’s daft strategy of sitting out all the primaries until Florida, hoping that “momentum” didn’t exist. It did. At least he prompted Joe Biden’s famous remark that “There's only three things [Giuliani] mentions in a sentence -- a noun, a verb, and 9/11.”

- Barack Obama’s victory speech after the Iowa caucuses. Suddenly, the rest of the country understood that this was a powerful new voice in politics who really could go on to win – and started to understand why maybe that would be a good thing.

- Hillary Clinton’s rebound in New Hampshire. Although she couldn’t hold her campaign together with a consistent style, her “that hurts my feelings” response to a hostile question about why she was so unlikable, and her refreshingly honest moment of choking up
suddenly put her back in the running.

- At the same time, Obama’s amazing speech after his New Hampshire loss showed what the qualities were that would propel him to victory. “We have been told we cannot do this, by a chorus of cynics. They will only grow louder and more dissonant in the weeks and months to come. We’ve been asked to pause for a reality check; we’ve been warned against offering the people of this nation false hope. But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope. For when we have faced down impossible odds, we’ve been told that we’re not ready; or that we shouldn’t try; or that we can’t. Generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes We Can. Yes we can. Yes, we can.” Still sends shivers down my spine.

- John McCain’s win in New Hampshire: the honest, independent guy won. It was awesome.

- Mitt Romney’s win in Michigan. Momentum be damned – here was a candidate who would spend his way to victory as far as he could! Not to last, though.

- Mitt Romney’s nasty negative tactics. Not great in themselves, but they did produce a great quote. "Never get into a wrestling match with a pig", said John McCain, in an earlier life, about his opponent. "You both get dirty, and the pig likes it."

- The rush of Obamamania.’s “Yes We Can”
, Obama Girl, and all the rest.

- The febrile response to Obamamania, which somehow didn’t quite work: the spiky Hillary Boy
, the unsettling McCain Girls, the perhaps slightly insincere Giuliani Girl, and even some of the mash-ups that followed.

- Hillary Clinton’s negative turn in South Carolina. Not so much taking the gloves off as revealing her nasty side, it suddenly became apparent to lots of her fans that the lady was perhaps not above stooping to be horrible. Another nail in the political coffin, and a thoroughly deserved one. Obama’s South Carolina victory speech
rose above it.

- The McCain win in Florida which knocked Giuliani out of the campaign. The Republicans, too, were looking for change, and one by one the ineffective (Thompson), the nasty (Giuliani), the loony (Huckabee) and the hardcore conservative (Romney) dropped by the wayside, one by one, and it suddenly came to seem like the autumn contest would be one between two worthy candidates for the first time since 1992.

- Hillary Clinton’s Super Tuesday non-win. The strategy was simple: get through to Super Tuesday, then hoover up delegates from winning massive states, enough to knock out Obama once and for all. Clinton was so confident about this that she didn’t even have significant teams in place in the states that followed February 5th. And she did indeed win all the big states, as predicted. The problem? She somehow missed that the Democrats this year were dividing delegates proportionally. Her increase in the delegate count was thus pathetic, and as a result she was stuck for the next six weeks as Obama gathered delegates and momentum in states that he had been preparing for all along. This was the point where her inevitability disappeared and Obama became the leading candidate.

- Hillary Clinton’s March 4th victory. Bill Clinton said that she needed to win Ohio and Texas on that day to stay in the campaign. The Obama campaign gleefully announced that "three weeks ago, when they led polls in Texas and Ohio by 20 points, the Clinton campaign set their own test for today’s primaries." So it did. And it passed it. Clinton’s big win on that day pushed her onwards towards the very end.

- The Reverend Wright controversy and Obama’s speech on race. In a tight spot, did Obama resort to tried and tested political tactics to control damage and make a problem go away? He did not. His response to the controversy over his former pastor was a decision to treat the American people as grown-ups and to give a speech articulating the complexity surrounding the issue, and the result was a speech that was complex, thoughtful, empathetic, and extremely moving – a speech that recognized black concerns and white concerns alike, putting them into the context in which they are properly understood and reaching beyond that, soaring away from the mundane denunciations characteristic of the subject into the realm where his own candidacy and the turmoil it has occasionally created is seen as a necessary stepping stone towards a more perfect union. This was the moment when the rhetoric of change came together with the intelligence of his books, and Obama the statesman left his competitors comprehensively in the dust. Maturity, intelligence and respect one the day.

- John McCain’s natural-born-citizen controversy. He came into this world in Panama, when his parents were stationed there with the US military. Did that make him a natural born citizen for the purposes of the presidential election? A group of lawyers was interested to find out. What did Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton do? Did they jump on the opportunity to hobble their opponent? No – they co-sponsored a non-binding Senate resolution reaffirming their opponent’s eligibility to run. It’s easy to forget after the nastiness of the McCain campaign in the autumn, but for much of the year the campaign distinguished itself through how noble and nice it all was.

- Hillary Clinton’s Pennsylvania win. This was remarkable as an abject lesson in how perseverance could pay off. A lengthy campaign in which Obama distinguished himself mainly through gaffe and scandal ended in a resounding Clinton victory. Naturally, she had already lost the nomination by this point; but as an exercise in politicking – wow.

- Obama’s speech on winning the Democratic nomination on June 3rd. It’s another speech, but again, boy, what a good one.

- Hillary Clinton’s concession speech four days later. She waited long enough to give it, and she talked about herself rather a lot, but when she got around to making her endorsement it was about as forceful as Obama could have wanted.

- Obama’s overseas trip. Not been to Afghanistan, Iraq, or European allies enough, you say? Fine, let’s visit. McCain then found himself being pictured in a golf cart with George H.W. Bush while Obama took helicopter rides over Baghdad with General Petraeus and gave a speech before 200,000 cheering people in Berlin. Never in my lifetime has an American president been well-liked enough to command those sorts of numbers overseas; more usually they have commanded vast hordes of angry protestors shouting at them. This transformation is one of the most inspiring things about the new president.

- Paris Hilton’s contribution. Obama a celebrity, eh? Unfortunately for “that wrinkly white-haired guy”, the real celebrities sometimes fight back.

- The usual Jib-Jab contribution, set appropriately enough to the tune of “The Times, They Are a’Changin”.

- The Biden VP pick. Inspiring? Let’s be honest – not really. But a sound, solid choice that would establish Obama as a candidate serious about governing.

- Obama gets nominated. Another great speech. Looking back, it seems remarkable quite how many great speeches there actually were in this campaign.

- McCain picks Palin. Initial reaction: who? But the great stagecraft of the announcement, the thrill of finding out about her, and the spectacular speech that she gave to the Republican convention quickly marked her out as a rising star that would boost McCain’s ticket and let him overtake Obama in the polls…

- …until her drawbacks became so obvious as to hobble the McCain campaign permanently. These were best embodied by Tina Fey’s Saturday Night Live routine, meaning that Palin now lives on in our minds for her initial announcement
, for her debate performance against Joe Biden, and for her interview with Katie Couric more in the form of the resulting parody than of the original (although this may in fact be because the original verged on parody in any case). (Unfortunately, since the election it appears to be impossible to get hold of these clips outside the US. Talk about annoying. Seek them out on YouTube or elsewhere.)

- The Daily Show. Jon Stewart provided a great many funny moments during the campaign and was a regular highlight. My favourite has to be the examination of sexism in American society following the Palin pick.

- American cartoons weigh in. Both The Simpsons
and Family Guy had something amusing to say about the election.

- The nasty autumn campaign. Whether it was misrepresenting Obama’s plans on just about everything or accusing him of “palling around” with terrorists, McCain’s campaign in the autumn was dishonorable and often revolting. Why was this a highlight? Because it made clear the difference between the two campaigns and made clear that one of the candidates – McCain – was willing to suspend his principles and unable to lead his campaign well enough to keep in full control of its tactics and narrative. The choice became clear.

- McCain suspends his campaign. It was the moment he lost his credibility: deciding that the magnitude of the financial crisis demanded a serious gesture, McCain decided to suspend his campaign and rush back to Washington to fix things. Unfortunately, not only did he not really suspend his campaign (prompting an entertaining diatribe from Letterman), couldn’t contribute to any sort of resolution, and ended up looking foolish and economically illiterate.

- The Al Smith fundraiser. Both McCain and Obama being funny? Well worth a watch.

- Election night. So exciting. The anticipation was immense as the results started coming in and it began to appear that Obama would win Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. When Ohio was called, it was a bit of a crazy feeling.

- John McCain’s concession speech.
It’s as if suddenly, the old McCain was back. Shame he didn’t show his face between the nomination and the election.

- Obama’s victory speech. Sums it all up.

- Feeling dazed when it was all over. Wow. Hard to adjust.

- America suddenly becoming cool again internationally, with a President that non-Americans might actually like. Proof?

- The 2012 race starts hotting up. The Democrats already know their candidate. On the Republican side, Mike Huckabee has booked dates in Iowa for his book tour and Mitt Romney has reopened his presidential fundraising committee. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal is sounding out support for a run, and Florida governor Charlie Crist will most likely follow suit; Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty may as well after the amount that his name was bandied around for McCain’s VP pick. And the evangelical juggernaut that is Sarah Palin will now return to Alaska, most likely to spend the next four years producing policies that thrill the Republican base (including sorting out the troubled new pipeline that she’s always boasting about), writing a bestselling book about herself, and, naturally, catching up on some of those pesky policy areas (like foreign policy and economics) that she tripped up on this time around. It’s going to be a fun race. Let’s get started.

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