We ain't seen nothin' yet'

The battle between Clinton and Obama has been peculiarly unpleasant. Just wait, says our US editor,

You can't even take your dog for a walk in Georgetown without seeing them. The signs for Senator Barack Obama's campaign for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination that sprout from immaculately manicured lawns are strikingly simple: the legend "Obama '08" stands out from a dark-blue background, topped by a symbolic sun rising from patriotic red-and-white rays. It's the same in similarly all-white, wealthy DC neighbourhoods such as Cleveland Park or Chevy Chase. But drive a few minutes into almost entirely black or Latino areas of the city, and there is nary an Obama sign to be seen.

Yes, this is a truly complicated election. We will come to the convoluted role race is playing in it in a moment. But it is positively surreal, meantime, to be told by normally rational and informed friends in Britain that America is in the midst of a glorious democratic uprising that is being led by this phenomenally messianic figure called Barack Obama.

Even Jack Straw seemed to have caught this fever when he breezed in to town a few days ago and gushed to a DC audience about "your enviable notion of civic duty". When I pressed him about what he meant by this admirable American trait, he replied: "For example, an obligation to take part in the democratic system." It would not have seemed kind (and I was shut up by the chairman, in any case) to bring Straw back down to earth by telling him that only 70-75 per cent of Americans even bother to register to vote, or that voter turnout averages 76 per cent in Britain and 54 per cent in the US.

Perhaps it will be higher this year. But you know Brits do not fully understand what is going on here when William Rees-Mogg thunders in the Times that it is now "hard to see" who can stop Obama from becoming the next president because, "like Kennedy, he is young and speaks for the new generation of American politics". Eh? Never mind that JFK had won four Second World War medals, served six years in the House of Representatives, eight in the Senate, almost three years as US president, and was dead and buried before he had even reached Obama's present age.

Before we go any further, however, a reality check. National polls indicate that the next president will be . . . John McCain, Obama, or Clinton (in that order, but none separated by more than 2.4 percentage points, and all thus within statistical margins of error). At the time of writing, while the outcome of the Democratic primaries in Hawaii and Wisconsin is not yet clear, the latest amalgamated national polls for the Democrats have Obama at 45.2 per cent and Clinton at 43.2 per cent. The winning candidate must land the crucial figure of 2,025 delegates; last Monday evening, Obama had 1,302 delegates and Clinton 1,235. But it is all wildly volatile.

Clinton's team has been beset by internal squabbling, departures and money problems, sure signs that a campaign is in trouble. But polls (and, yes, they may change) suggest that Clinton is ahead of Obama in the next two critical primaries, in Texas and Ohio on 4 March (which have 389 delegates between them); yet even if she wins both, the Clinton campaign expects her still to be trailing Obama.

Deadlock

But then there will be 12 more primaries or caucuses still to come, the last in Puerto Rico on 7 June. If deadlock remains, the Obama and Clinton campaigns will fight a furious battle over whether Democrats in Michigan and Florida (with 366 delegates between them) should go to the polls again - or whether the votes in those states on 15 and 29 January respectively, which Clinton won by 15.5 and 16.7 points, should stand (but which party rules forbid).

Finally, the decision could be delayed until the party convention in Denver in August and lie in the hands of the 795 "super-delegates" whom both sides are now frantically wooing.

Not least, alas, by financial inducements. The non-partisan Centre for Responsive Politics says that Obama has doled out $698,200 to the campaign funds of super-delegates (via his political action or campaign committees) since 2005; 43 per cent of those pledged to support him have been recipients of Obama funds. Clinton's team has handed over $205,500 to super-delegates, meanwhile, and received only 13 per cent of pledges from recipients.

Yet, ironically, the US media is waking up to some of the realities about Obama just as British enthusiasm is peaking. Jake Tapper of ABC likens Obama's supporters to Hare Krishna chanters. Joel Stein of the Los Angeles Times says that at first he was mesmerised by Obama's nonsensical lines ("We are the ones we've been waiting for"), but now talks about the "Cult of Obama" and "Obamaphilia". The reality of Obama, Stein concludes, is that he is a politician who is "not a brave one taking risky positions like Ron Paul or Dennis Kucinich, but a mainstream one".

That is the point which so many commentators, both here and in the UK, have been missing. You have to have lived here for a decade or two before you fully understand why the evil legacy of slavery will be extant for generations to come. You just have to read the 1848 "Black Code" of Georgetown to begin to comprehend the sheer wickedness of what was happening in my own neighbourhood 150 years ago.

Crucially, however, Obama is not a descendant of slaves. He is a biracial, prep-schooled Ivy Leaguer whose upbringing in Hawaii was in effect white; his entire political career has been choreographed by David Axelrod, a political tactician described by the New York Times as "post-ideological", from the day they first met when Obama was just 30 (and four years before the publication of his first memoirs).

Fast-forward to the 2008 election. David Greenberg, of Rutgers University, who is at present writing a book about political spin, says of Obama that "no one claims his agenda entails radical innovation or differs much from Hillary Clinton's", but that supporting Obama makes whites "feel good about themselves" and their country. "He lets them imagine that a nation founded for freedom yet built on slavery can be redeemed by pulling a lever," he says.

In contrast, Greenberg adds, the media barely noticed when Hillary Clinton became the first woman in US history to win a major-party primary. Exit-poll data bears out exactly the bias Greenberg detects. In Virginia - Virginia! - white men voted more for Obama than Clinton, as they also did in nine other states. Yet in racial melting-pot states such as Nevada, California, Massachusetts and New York, it was Clinton who won; it is the whitest states that are the wildest about Obama (such as Idaho, which the latest census figures show to be 96.8 per cent white, where he beat Clinton 79-17 per cent).

Those earning less than $50,000 a year are consistently voting for Clinton, while Obama is scoring resoundingly with the so-called "millennium generation" earning over $150,000; the journalists who have been so starry-eyed about Obama fit neatly into the latter demographic bracket themselves, and seem to have avoided scrutinising Obama's record lest they be accused of racism. Michelle Obama, too, is still being afforded constant favourable exposure. In contrast, it is open season on both Clintons, the most scrutinised couple in history; for Hillary's candidature, Bill and the prospect of his being back in the White House have become her biggest liabilities.

Perversely, therefore, the brilliance of the Axelrod strategy has meant that Obama has become the beneficiary of America's racist history, while Clinton has been the victim of its sexism. The Obama team's deft use of race has also worked magic. Hillary Clinton said on 7 January that Martin Luther King's dream needed to be realised in concert with Lyndon B Johnson's passage of the Civil Rights Act 1964, and on the same day her husband dismissed Obama's claims of consistent opposition to the Iraq War as "a fairy tale"; an Obama press aide seized the moment and put out a four-page memo that somehow accused the couple of using racist tactics against Obama.

A thorough swiftboating

That label has stuck ever since (although, char acteristically, Obama and Axelrod subsequently disowned the memo); and the African-American vote, which was once solidly Clinton's, swung dramatically to Obama. In what may have been a sign that he has lost his old touch, Bill Clinton later made the fatal mistake of likening Obama's victory in South Carolina to that of Jesse Jackson in 1988 - a comparison Jackson himself nonetheless thought perfectly reasonable - and the "racist" smear by Obama's camp had stuck for posterity.

Whether McCain's opponent is Obama or Clinton, however, either can expect a thorough swiftboating by the Republicans in the run-up to the 4 November election, just as the characters of Al Gore and John Kerry were torn to shreds in 2000 and 2004. Obama will be slain for his inexperience and for making things up in his memoirs; Clinton for being a "strident" woman (a sexist code word if ever there was one) who stayed inexplicably married to the biggest monster of all time, Bill.

The Republicans held their first 2008 electoral war conference at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel over the 16-18 February holiday weekend, and Axelrod's nemesis, Karl Rove, was in attendance. This year's battle between the Democrats is already peculiarly unpleasant. But, in the words of the legendary Old Gipper, whose name will be endlessly evoked by every Republican for the next nine months, we ain't seen nothing yet.

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