Thursday, June 05, 2008

 

The Finishing Line

There is a palpable sense of relief and anticipation in the air in America this week – or so it appears from here, at any rate – as the campaign for the Democratic party’s presidential nomination winds to an end, 17 months after it began in earnest at the start of 2007. It has been a long, exhausting, and occasionally caustic campaign, where the lack of substantive disagreements over the issues has been masked by an intensity and stamina that is usually reserved for the general election. As Barack Obama claims his place in history as the first black – indeed, the first non-white – presidential candidate of a major American political party, and (on a rather more mundane level) as I end my five months of primary blogging, it is an appropriate time to do several things. It’s a time to pause and note the historic choices that both parties have ended up making in this most unusual of primary campaigns. It’s a time to reflect on the primary season as a whole, with all of its ups and downs. It’s a time to consider how the campaign that’s past will affect the campaign in future. And, naturally, it’s also a time to gaze into the crystal ball, and see if we can divine anything about the long campaign to come.

First, though, the story of the last few days. Hillary Clinton’s hopes before the weekend rested on two things: the Democratic Rules Committee’s ruling on the seating of delegates from Michigan and Florida, and enough primaries going her way this week to give her a convincing lead in the popular vote. It became apparent that she wouldn’t be able to rescue her situation after the Rules Committee met. Speculation had abounded that she would use her connections within the committee to swing things her way. This was not to be. It was obvious that any move that robbed Barack Obama of the nomination through a technicality would be disastrous for perceptions of the Party, and accordingly the committee came up with a fudge: delegates would be seated, but with only a half-vote each, and Obama would get some of the delegates from Michigan who had voted “Uncommitted” (his name had not been on the ballot in the state). Clinton’s net gain was thus very small – nowhere near enough to bridge the gap with her opponent. Her campaign reacted with a certain degree of outrage – the valid point was made that the committee didn’t have the authority to allocate “uncommitted” delegates to a nominee – but the sense of it all being over was beginning to settle. In the meantime, the vitriol spilled by Clinton supporters upon hearing of the verdict called up ugly memories of the violent 1968 convention and perhaps gave all Democrats pause, as an indication that the continuing split was going too far and might prove too divisive if it continued much further. Although the campaign had grounds to appeal and even threatened to continue all the way to the convention, privately it was beginning to accept that the race was nearly over.

Evidence for this was on show all week. Hillary Clinton, normally controlled and combative, began to relax – a sign that she was keeping on until the bitter end, but that she wasn’t focused single-mindedly on victory any more; she was making more informal comments and jokes. Campaign staff were asked to get all their expenses in by the end of the week. A young communications staffer was introduced to the traveling press pack en route to Puerto Rico; in recognition of her hard work based mostly in Washington DC, she was due a rewarding trip to the Caribbean. Bill Clinton hinted that the campaign wouldn’t continue beyond Tuesday. Rumours swirled about a concession, despite frantic denials. Clinton won in Puerto Rico, by a huge margin of 68% to 32%, but she only increased her vote count by 140,000 – not the 200,000 that had been hoped for. On Tuesday, the last states to vote went for it, finally turning the entire map of the US purple. Obama won in Montana by 57% to 41%, but Clinton’s 55% to 45% victory in South Dakota bucked the trend towards Obama in the mountain west. (John McCain won in South Dakota’s Republican primary by 70% to 17% for Ron Paul, and also won New Mexico’s Republican primary by 86% to 14%.) This last minute surprise win was not enough to save her though.

The Obama campaign had puzzled some pundits as the stream of superdelegate endorsements dried up in the week before the last primaries; it became obvious on primary day that this had been a deliberate choice, as they unveiled 28 superdelegate endorsements over the course of Tuesday. Coupled with Obama’s pledged delegate gains on the day, this was enough to finally push him over the 2,118 threshold to claim an absolute majority of Democratic delegates. Among the endorsements were former president Jimmy Carter and Representative James Clyburn, one of the first members of the national party leadership to make an endorsement. Clinton, conversely, began shedding superdelegates as the outcome became clear: Barack Obama had won enough votes, and enough states, to be the nominee. Clinton’s sole remaining argument was her popular vote victory – an argument which only worked if you included votes in Florida (which didn’t count), Michigan (where Obama’s name wasn’t on the ballot), and Puerto Rico (which doesn’t vote in the general election in November), and discounted caucus states which didn’t disclose their actual voting tallies. Given that Obama’s victory in any case was largely down to states which ran caucuses (which always have lower turnouts anyway), that argument ran hollow. It certainly wasn’t enough to bring Clinton the superdelegate stampede that she needed to proclaim victory.

And so it was, in a typically charismatic and eloquent speech on Tuesday night, that Barack Obama claimed the mantle of the Democratic nominee for President of the United States. It was a powerful moment. American parties have flirted with diversity in the past: electing a Catholic president in 1960, nominating a woman to be Vice President in 1984, choosing an orthodox Jew as the Vice Presidential candidate in 2000. Blacks, Hispanics and Asians have variously been Supreme Court Justices, Mayors, Governors, Senators and Congressmen. But never before has a major American political party done anything like it did this year, anointing an African-American as its Presidential candidate despite the bigoted rumours about his religion, his patriotism, and even (as became apparent in West Virginia and Kentucky) lingering racism in parts of the country. This is a moment when America deserves to pause for a moment and feel good about itself.

The beauty of the Obama victory is that he didn’t run as a self-consciously “black” candidate: he ran as a post-racial one, a politician of undoubted intellect and probity who was attuned to the problems of white Americans and black Americans alike. (Some of the dafter criticism of him even came from certain black leaders claiming that, because he wasn’t descended from slaves and was half-white, he wasn’t “black enough”.) It is very tempting to get carried away, and claim that the Obama victory represents a coming-together of Americans as one nation after centuries of division, as a mark of progress and reconciliation after eight years of a presidency predicated upon exploiting divisions to achieve narrow victories. More than that, Obama represents that rare politician who is possessed of a fearsome intelligence and actually uses it; a politician who will plump for the options that make sense rather than those most politically expedient; a politician who achieves victory by being smarter and more articulate than his opponents; a politician possessed of the gift of soaring rhetorical ability that has failed to fall on any politician since John F. Kennedy. One can look at his victory starry-eyed, and see a triumph of “the audacity of hope”, and – remarkably – one would not be entirely wrong to do so.

In reality of course, other factors are also at work. The new electoral system for Democratic primaries has served him as well as could possibly be hoped for, as the old system (still in use by Republicans) would have given Hillary Clinton victory months ago by virtue of her wins in all of the biggest states. Momentum might have gone in different ways if Florida and Michigan hadn’t been foolishly discounted by overzealous Democratic rules committees. A more representative system of voting – primaries, say, instead of caucuses – could have tilted hundreds of delegates into his opponent’s camp. And some of Obama’s positions – his calls for a quick withdrawal of troops from Iraq, his opposition to free trade – have reflected old-school, cynical political tactics of adopting popular measures without any real intention of implementing them. (Obama has pledged to consult with military leaders before drawing down troops from Iraq, and in the interests of avoiding chaos there he will not be able to withdraw them as quickly as he’s said he would like; meanwhile, his comments to the Canadians around NAFTA represented one of the most humiliating revelations of the entire campaign, from any candidate.)

But Obama has earned this victory. He has stuck to his guns on his soaring principles, with the notions of “Change we can believe in” – “Yes, We Can” – providing an immensely optimistic and idealistic antidote to the poisoned bickering more typical of the national political scene. He has stuck to his guns with this idealism, acting chivalrously toward his opponents long after they started going after him. More importantly, he has been learning on the job in a hugely impressive way. Surprises abounded after he announced his candidacy. It turned out that his stump speeches were made out of wood – quite a surprise given his post-2004 convention reputation of being a talented speaker. He fixed it, leading by the end of 2007 to the now-familiar inspiration that we associate with him. His health-care proposals were meager next to those of his opponents; he fixed it by quickly developing proposals of his own which built on the best aspects of John Edwards and Hillary Clinton’s. His foreign policy experience was dismal, and he dug the trap of naivety for himself with his pledge to meet with leaders of hostile countries without preconditions; his recent caveating and qualifications would make any diplomat proud. He thought he’d won after Iowa, but defeat in New Hampshire taught him to hold on and avoid triumphalism. He was hit hard by scandals such as the Reverend Wright affair and “bittergate”, but after initially shaky responses he learned how to deal with them. In other words, every time that he has stumbled, he’s picked himself back up again, improved and seasoned by the experience. Four years ago, he was still a state senator in Illinois, and it is correct to describe him as inexperienced, particularly in comparison to his opponent. But what he has proved, time and again, is that he has the potential to be a great President, not just for his symbolism but for his substance. Despite all of the campaign vitriol, he is a better candidate now than he was when he started his campaign, and he will be a better candidate still when November comes around.

The Democrats, of course, are only one side of the coin, and the Republicans have had a tumultuous season as well. John McCain was written off as a lost cause by last autumn, even by such normally astute observers as The Economist’s Lexington. But out of all of the front-runners – McCain, Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Fred Thompson – none was an obvious choice. Huckabee was a religious nut, anathema to the business wing of the party and its foreign policy experts. Giuliani was the darling of one foreign policy wing – the neoconservative hawks – and acceptable to the business wing, but held in deep suspicion by social conservatives. Romney was the darling of the business wing, but ran as a social conservative who was unable to overcome suspicion by many in the conservative base on account of his Mormon religion. Thompson appealed to social conservatives longing for a new Reagan to unite the party, but faded without making much of an impression. And McCain was regarded as being insufficiently conservative and far too much of a maverick to be palatable, as well as being too old. The Republicans, in short, faced a very difficult year after two terms of Bush bequeathed them deep unpopularity.

After much excitement – the rollercoaster ride of the Romney campaign, the bizarre lunacy of Giuliani’s plan, the surprising indefatigability of Huckabee - the Republicans pulled themselves back from the brink by choosing John McCain, the only candidate who gave them a decent shot at victory in November. John McCain has a lot going for him: his long experience in politics, his war hero credentials, his undoubted strength of character and moral stature (after his stands against lobbyists and torture), his fiery independence from any ties to interest groups which could hold him hostage. His appeal to independents is mighty indeed, and his sure hand on foreign policy may be just what the country needs after so much incompetence.

But he faces challenges too, particularly since none of his drawbacks in primary season have shown much sign of going away. He is still old – potentially the oldest first term president ever. He may not be hostage to special interests like religion and the gun lobby, but closeness to such groups is a source of strength rather than weakness for Republicans, amongst their base at least. He doesn’t have any significant economic experience (in a time of recession), and he has never really run anything (in a time when the federal government is a mess). He is weak with his base and, despite being very spry for his age, he is not running a campaign that is truly national or a fundraising juggernaut yet. His ties to his party are necessarily weak as he keeps his distance from a party heading for a landslide legislative loss.

Barack Obama has troubles too, of course. The long campaign has entrenched and potentially alienated many supporters of Hillary Clinton, who may not be motivated to work for him in the autumn. Most of the states he has won in the primaries are going to vote Republican in the end, meaning that he will relying on states won by Clinton to be his base of core support. His victory partly rests on the disenfranchisement of voters in two large and important swing states. He is inexperienced in not just economic matters, but foreign policy ones too. But he is young, symbolic, well-funded, a quick learner and very well organized. John McCain may have a bigger appeal than most Republican candidates would in key Democratic states like New York and California – and be a major threat in key swing states like Pennsylvania and Florida – but Obama’s incredible fundraising will put normally Republican states such as Virginia and North Carolina in play as well. From where we sit now, then – particularly given current levels of popular animosity towards the Republican party – an Obama victory looks more plausible than a McCain one.

But much could happen between now and November. Obama will need to watch out for his weak spots on the economy and foreign policy, and ensure that he is perceived as trustworthy by middle class and working class Americans who might balk at electing so liberal a leader. McCain will need to fix his campaign organization and figure out how to mend his relations with his party without ruining his appeal. Vice Presidential picks will be of huge importance. Paranoids on both sides worry that McCain might die of old age, or that Obama might be assassinated. But thankfully, the more extreme outcomes aren’t the most plausible. And the rest of the race – judging by how it’s gone so far – will hopefully remain civil and, now that we move to a fight between the parties, issue-focused.

What is most uplifting about the way that these campaigns have turned out, in fact, is the wonderful result that both of the candidates being put forward would make excellent Presidents. President Obama would be symbolic, inspiring, and potentially transformative. President McCain would bring the steady hand of experience to the tiller of state, and would fix much of what is currently wrong with the government by dint of his fierce independence and upstanding moral character. In conclusion, then, this has been one of the best primary seasons ever: exciting without being nasty, inspiring without being cynical, and ending by presenting two excellent candidates for the job for the first time since 1992. America has been transfixed by the saga of the past five months of campaigning, and as a result of their outcome, America can now look forward happily to a brighter future.

Next Up: There are no more primaries, but the election blog will return to assess the candidates’ platforms once the Vice Presidential picks are made, and perhaps even to offer an endorsement when the election is upon us.

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