Thursday, January 31, 2008

And then there were two

With John Edwards withdrawing from the Democratic contest, that leaves just two candidates in the race, which looks likely to drag on well past next week's Super Duper Tuesday. Then, almost half of the delegates to the conventions that will actually decide the candidate are up for grabs, but the electorate are so evenly split that it is quite possible that neither Obama nor Clinton will emerge as the clear leader.

In any other year, Hillary would be a shoo-in for the nomination. She’s spent years alongside her semi-detached husband in the crucible of the Oval Office, she knows her way around the system and has the people and the money behind her to run a winning campaign against a Republican party firmly on the back foot. She’s highly competent and looks and talks a good game. Her problem is that she’s only inspirational to the opposition – the Republicans loathe her as though she were the spawn of Satan. Hillary is a solid, worthy contender – if she were a film, she’d be a guaranteed Oscar nominee and winner.

Obama is a different matter. He’s the high-concept summer blockbuster that everyone wants to see. They both have an instant narrative – no need for a campaign film to explain why this white bloke is different from this other white bloke – you only have to look at them to see the story, but Obama’s trumps Hillary’s. Sure, for the first time we have a woman in with a serious chance of winning, but we’ve also got a black man who looks like a winner. Less than half a century ago, another President had to send troops onto the streets to ensure that black kids got an education and the FBI had to tackle white racists who were preventing black voter registration (constitutionally banned 80 years previously, but still prevalent). To move from there to a point where people can talk about a black man taking the top job is a remarkable journey – long overdue, but stunning nonetheless. If you had asked me twenty years ago when I first properly studied US politics if they would have a serious black candidate for the highest office within my lifetime, I’d have laughed. I’ve rarely been so pleased to be wrong. I think America is ready to vote for a black president (even if
he isn't called Palmer), despite Steve Bell's depressingly grim cartoon in the Guardian.

Part of the Hillary attraction for some Democrats is that it would signal a return of Bill to the White House and this might not be a good thing - he's a powerful personality and his presence can overpower her. In fact, his recent performances on the campaign trail have been rather underwhelming – perhaps his powers are diminishing. Doris Kearns Goodwin, the biographer of presidents, said on the Daily Show this week that Bill has to be at the centre – if he was at a wedding, he’d want to be the bride, at a funeral, he’d have to be the corpse. He can’t help it – like Norman Wisdom, he is biologically tuned to perform. In a campaign where change is the big issue, the temptations of a return to the semi-mythical, pre-Bush golden age of the 90s may prove less of an attraction than going beyond the next frontier.

But Obama seems to reach out beyond the traditional Democratic base. The
Guardian visited a campaign office in California and found former Bush Republicans dialling out for Obama, people like Robin Tarne.
"I was for Bush and I believed in the war but as time went on I became saddened… I believed in the good guy, the cowboy who can go in and sort things out… I like Obama… I understand what he's saying. I don't agree with everything he says, but I understand it.”

Or George Kappas
"I'm a lifelong Republican… I've never donated before, I've never volunteered before. I guess I'm feeling like it's kind of important. I like this guy."
And that sort of attitude matters on a visceral level - he feels right. If Obama can replicate that widely, he will win. How people feel about you matters when it comes to voting – it will help to bring in the independent voters and the soft Republicans. Another striking thing about his performance is that Obama is motivating young people to turn out and vote. Clinton was a fine political campaigner – the best of his generation, but Obama has a star quality. The buzz about him is closer to that around Kennedy – that the voters believe in this man and are excited by his potential in a way that Hillary can’t match. People are inspired and motivated by Obama, but not by Hillary.

And we all know that while the worthy films do OK at the box office, it is the blockbusters that really reel in the public.

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