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3 April 2008

It could be a stalemate

The Democratic race is so close that it may be decided by the super-delegates - and planeloads of la

By Andrew Stephen

Remember those final weeks of 2000, when every US Airways flight from DC to Florida was jammed with lawyers representing either the Republicans or the Democrats? And how they were all determined to use every possible legal ploy to finesse their man into the White House? We all now know the tragic outcome, too: George W Bush was finally declared by the Supreme Court to be the 43rd president of the United States, even though more Americans had actually cast their votes for poor Al Gore.

I raise this spectre because it is becoming by no means inconceivable that we may be heading towards a similar spectacle in the final dog days of August. This time private jets will be swooping into Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard to fly the lawyers from their summer haunts to the Pepsi Centre in Denver for the 2008 Democratic Convention from 25-28 August. On board the planes will be rival teams just as determined and ruthless as those of 2000, each determined to land their candidate with the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination.

If and when either Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton starts to do appreciably better or worse in the ten remaining primaries and caucuses than they have done so far, this nightmare will not unfold; one or the other will go to Denver with a common-sense mandate. But what is now clear is that neither is going to be able to win the 2,024 delegates theoretically necessary, and stalemate is a distinct possibility: Obama currently has 133 more delegates than Clinton, and is just 2.6 points ahead in the popular vote.

But if you count the legally disputed elections in Florida and Michigan that Clinton easily won – this is where those lawyers enter the fray, with Clinton’s team desperately keen to factor in those two elections and Obama’s equally determined not to – the gap in the popular vote narrows dramatically, and 341 new voting delegates suddenly enter the Pepsi arena. Then the 794 “super-delegates” – Democratic congressmen and women, governors, other senior office-holders and elder statesmen – will have their say. In that group, Clinton is almost certainly currently leading.

This time, the Obama lawyers will argue that the super-delegates must vote for the candidate who has won the most delegates in the primaries and caucuses, who will almost certainly be Obama himself; should Clinton overtake him in the popular vote, however, the arguments become much more tricky. The Clinton camp will argue, in any case, that the whole point of having super-delegates – introduced by the Hunt Commission in 1982 after Senator Ted Kennedy tried to wrestle away the party’s nomination from Jimmy Carter at the Democratic convention in New York in 1980, although Carter had won 2,129 delegates and Kennedy only 1,150 – is that they should use their wisdom and experience to make up their own minds.

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Roller-coaster primaries

In effect, these unprecedented issues could have the Obama and Clinton camps arguing for wildly differing interpretations of party rules: the Clintonistas will insist that party governance be overruled where Florida and Michigan are concerned, arguing that Obama had his name on the ballot alongside Clinton’s in Florida, that his supporters were free to write-in for him in Michigan, and that Democrats in those two major states cannot simply be disenfranchised. The Obamaites, on the other hand, will be frantically arguing that party rules governing super-delegates be overturned so that the super-delegates, in effect, merely rubber stamp the pre-existing public voting.

This, I stress, is what a senior Democratic friend describes as the “muddle” scenario in which the Democrats could find themselves. We can fasten our seat belts for more roller-coasting, meanwhile: the next primary is on 22 April in the crucial state of Pennsylvania, demographically ideal Clinton country and where polls currently have her 16 points ahead.

Should she falter in Pennsylvania, she will be finished – but a strong showing might have a significant effect on how the super-delegates view her ability to win the big, all-important states that matter so much in the general election in November. The alarming news for Obama, in fact, assuming Clinton takes Pennsylvania, is that no candidate in modern times has ever gone on to win the presidency without first being victorious in the primaries or caucuses of at least one of the nation’s biggest seven states, which Obama will have failed to do.

The unpredictability of it all, though, was underlined in the last two weeks of March, when both candidates were all but derailed. Each case involved visual evidence easily assimilated by the masses via YouTube or television. First, Obama’s realisation 20 years ago that black churches were massively underutilised tools to power came back to haunt him. Instead of going to a racially mixed or traditional African-American church, Obama joined a so-called “buppie” church in Chicago with a decidedly strange political agenda. Americans did not like one bit seeing Obama’s religious and political adviser yelling “Goddamn America” from his pulpit, or discovering that the pastor preached that white Americans had invented Aids to kill off blacks.

Then came Hillary Clinton’s turn to be savaged. Presumably goaded by Obama’s taunts that she was merely “taking tea” in visits to more than 90 countries, she started to overdramatise her roles in Bosnia and Northern Ireland, for example, in her stump speeches. Saying that she flew into Tuzla US air force base in Bosnia in 1996 “under sniper fire” proved disastrous for her when television footage appeared of her smilingly talking to a little girl in a peaceful greeting ceremony on the tarmac. The truth, according to a reporter on the trip, is that her C-17 plane was accompanied by jet fighters from the Ramstein air base in Germany, that the Secret Service insisted she wear a flak jacket, and that her plane made a steep descent of the kind routinely used when landing in a war zone. But the mud that she was a liar had stuck, and her poll ratings – as Obama’s had done a few days before – plunged.

David Axelrod, Obama’s political mastermind since his Harvard Law School days, continues to play the US media like a fiddle. Last Tuesday, I entered the words “Obama” and “saviour” into the Yahoo! search engine and in 0.27 of a second it found 3,580,000 hits; “Obama” and “Christ” produced 17,700,000 in one third of a second. That messianic image refuses to fade; Obama even managed to turn his near-implosion over his ranting pastor into a media triumph, when he delivered a speech about race that the New York Times dreamily compared with the inaugural addresses of Lincoln and FDR.

Professor Marion Just of Wellesley College, who is undertaking a joint major study of US election coverage for Harvard’s highly respected Shorenstein Centre and the Project for Excellence in Journalism, tells me preliminary studies show that coverage of Clinton has been 26.9 per cent positive and 37.8 negative, while Obama’s was 46.7 per cent positive and 15.8 negative.

The Axelrod strategy

Racism is much more taboo in America than elsewhere, she says, but “misogynists are most definitely not in the closet”. Obama or John McCain, she points out, have not had their cleavages discussed on television or their clothes described in the New York Times as “dowdy”. The likes of the MSNBC political superstar Chris Matthews, who said he “felt this thrill going up my leg” when he heard Obama speak, contemptuously described male politicians who have endorsed Clinton as “castratos in the eunuch chorus”.

The genius of the Axelrod strategy thus far is that it has been directly centred on race while maintaining the appearance of the opposite, appropriating the race card as well as that of moral rectitude for Obama himself. Very early in the campaign, Obama’s South Carolina press office put out a memo pronouncing routine political sniping from the Clinton camp to be racist. The memo came from a local “low-level staffer”, Axelrod reassured us. In fact, it was written by Amaya Smith, a seasoned Democratic Party spokesperson and former congressional press secretary based in Washington – and the labelling of the Clintons as racists had stuck.

Geraldine Ferraro, the Democrats’ vice-presidential candidate in 1984 and a former congresswoman, was similarly targeted. In an interview last month with a tiny Californian newspaper called the Daily Breeze, that would have passed unnoticed by at least 99.99 per cent of Americans, Ferraro casually observed that if Obama was a white man or “a woman of any colour,” he would not be a presidential candidate today. Her remarks led to a national furore, but nobody pointed out that it was Obama’s campaign that alerted the national media to Ferraro’s words.

“I’m always hesitant to throw around words like ‘racist’,” Obama said, doing just that. Ferraro, a veteran 72-year-old, riposted that “every time that campaign is upset about something, they call it racist”. She sussed out the Axelrod strategy: to gain immunity from political attacks by immediately smearing attackers as racists.

The kind of thing that is worrying some super-delegates, too, is that Obama is increasingly emerging as no mean fibber himself. In his latest television ad, he declares that he does not take money from oil companies. According to the Centre for Responsive Politics, however, Obama is overlooking the $213,884 he had received from the oil and gas industry up to 29 February, most of it channelled directly from the CEOs of two major oil and gas companies.

On 30 March the Washington Post reported that key details in Obama’s version of how JFK and the “Kennedy Foundation” had funded his Kenyan father’s study in the US “are either untrue or grossly oversimplified”. It quoted an Obama spokesman acknowledging that Obama had “erred” in crediting the Kennedy family with a role in what he called his “very existence” in the US. Obama’s evasions and silences about his close relationship with Antoin “Tony” Rezko, currently on trial for extortion and fraud, also come close to lying; he used the furore over his pastor to release, virtually unnoticed, details of even closer links with Rezko (a $250,000 donation from him rather than $150,000, for example) that he had failed to disclose before.

I am all too aware that some NS readers are horrified that I’m not an Obama cheerleader like practically every other journalist; I understand that people hate to see their new god blasphemed. I also know that politicians lie and that politics is a dirty business; Hillary Clinton, for example, takes more money from the oil industry than Obama.

But it is Obama who has appropriated the high moral ground while simultaneously smearing Clinton – as he did, by all accounts, with previous political opponents – in as ruthless a way as I’ve ever seen. If I was one of those 794 super-delegates in whose hands the choice of America’s 44th president may well now lie, I would be studying all these facts very closely indeed.

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