How times change. Remember the days when Senator Barack Obama was the great ray of hope for the 2008 US presidential elections? The progressive voice of change, an idealistic outsider who would cast aside the murky Clintonian politics of triangulation and fudging inside the Democratic Party for ever? Whose youthful optimism and promises of change would then propel him to the White House this November, ready to start sweeping clean the Augean stables of George W Bush in January?
The election on 4 November is still Obama’s to lose, but both he and Senator John McCain are already demonstrating the truth of my dictum in these pages: that this year’s presidential can didates are two of the least qualified in history. These days, neither man looks as though he is up to the gruelling campaign, let alone the 44th presidency itself. “By the time I’m sworn in, I will look the part,” Obama admitted to supporters just before this month’s Independence Day celebrations, four weeks before his 47th birthday, with what could yet prove unjustified over-confidence.
In the meantime, McCain’s team is already dreading some televised “Dole moment”, recalling the seconds when poor Bob Dole slipped on a platform during the 1996 presidential campaign and was instantly dismissed by the electorate as too old to be president; he was 73 when he became the Republican nominee, and McCain will be 72 when his turn comes at the inaptly named Xcel Energy Centre in Minnesota this September. Obama is phenomenally fortunate to have a weak opponent in McCain, but he has been unable to take the campaign by the scruff of the neck and surge forward: on 7 July he was leading McCain by just 5.7 points in an amal gamation of polls, the kind of lead he was frequently unable to maintain to the actual election days during the Democratic primaries.
The greatest transformation, though, has been in Obama’s supposed idealism. He has now come out in favour of executing child rapists, for example, a practice that was still legal in five states but that the Supreme Court has just deemed unconstitutional; Obama now says he disagrees with that decision. He applauded the Supreme Court’s almost simultaneous ruling that DC’s plucky attempt to outlaw handguns was unconstitutional, however, contradicting what he told the Chicago Tribune on the constitutionality of the DC law just last November.
He was heard murmuring dissent over late-term abortions during Independence weekend, too, having previously painted himself as the ultimate pro-choice Democrat. Meanwhile, two Obama supporters – who happened to be Muslim women wearing headscarves – were asked to move seats at an Obama rally when campaign organisers realised the women would be televised sitting behind Obama as he spoke.
It is axiomatic in American politics that, after they have won over their party bases during the primaries and as soon as battle for the hearts and minds of the entire electorate has commenced, the Republican candidate will move to the left and the Democrat to the right.
Yet even some of the most committed Obamamaniacs are horrified by the abruptness of the senator’s about-turns. He now says he will have to “refine” his policy of withdrawing US troops from Iraq. He repeatedly opposed the Bush administration’s wiretapping laws, and as recently as February was scoring political points against Hillary Clinton on the issue; now, he says he will vote for an even more draconian Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act when its renewal comes before the Senate very soon (“not an easy call for me”, he explains).
The big money man
Having spent much of his brief political career calling for campaign finance reform – insisting last February that he would aggressively pursue spending limits and challenging the Republicans to abide by them this year as well – Obama has now abandoned that principle, too. Without the $84m in public financing he decided to reject after all, he and his campaign will not be subject to the many laws and spending regulations that McCain’s campaign will have to obey. Even his most committed supporters doubt Obama’s claim that he made the decision because privately financed “527” groups (such as the grotesquely misnamed “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” of 2004) were already busily smearing him and he needed extra, privately raised funds to combat those smears.
The truth is that such groups do not yet exist, though they may well spring up in the coming months. The reality is altogether more prosaic: it is the Democratic rather than the Republican nominee who is now the candidate of big money. Obama had raised more than $287m by the end of May, compared to McCain’s $115m. Obama’s slick campaign now has more than 1,000 full-time employees, McCain’s barely 300. Although he has an army of small contributors, Obama has taken more funds than any other presidential candidate this year from banks, law firms, hedge funds, private equity firms and the pharma ceutical industry. Last month, he held a private meeting with senior executives of companies including Boeing, J P Morgan Chase, Centerbridge Partners, Ford, Duke Energy, Aetna, Comcast and RealNetworks.
Phew. If all this does not quite gel with the sainted image contrived by Obama himself and by David Axelrod, his chief strategist, Democrats can take comfort from the shambolic McCain campaign. It has already endured one makeover, with a protégé of Karl Rove, Steve Schmidt, taking charge amid sackings and recriminations. Poor McCain was actually in Colombia on the day the Farc hostages were released, but hardly anybody seemed to notice. We can be sure that when Obama jets off to the Middle East and Europe later this month, for photo opportunities with Nicolas Sarkozy, Ehud Olmert, Angela Merkel – and, if he’s lucky, Gordon Brown – there will be considerably more coverage in the world’s media.
That is McCain’s problem: Obama is the story, and he generates vastly more interest. Indeed, in his desperation to reverse that, McCain is already close to squandering his reputation as a gruff straight-talker who does not pander to right-wing, focus-group populism. He is now frantically courting the so-called Christian right and – having been a staunch opponent of Bush’s tax cuts not long ago – he now not only supports them, but wants to extend them. It’s the same story with abortion. In snowy New Hampshire, McCain told reporters: “I would not support repeal of Roe v Wade” – the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 decision which, in effect, legalised abortion. The new John McCain says: “I do not support Roe v Wade. It should be overturned.”
Now that the state of the economy is worsening – a CNN poll published just a few days ago found that three-quarters of Americans think the country is in a recession – McCain has most to lose, too. Last December, he stupidly admitted that “the issue of economics is not something I’ve understood as well as I should” – words which will surely come back to haunt him. Rumours are rife that he will pick Carly Fiorina, the 53-year-old former chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, to be his vice-presidential running mate; she would bolster the ticket’s economic credentials, as well as adding some much-needed and possibly transformative glamour and vigour to the campaign.
McCain’s uncharacteristic pandering, meanwhile, proceeds apace. His support for climate change reforms was sheer apostasy to most Republicans, so it has duly morphed into calling for a resumption of drilling off both America’s coasts. He is also beginning to backtrack on unorthodoxly progressive positions he took until very recently on torture and immigration.
Bizarrely, therefore, we are in a position where both presidential candidates have swung dramatically to the right following the 2008 primaries. Nothing demonstrates more succinctly, in fact, just how right-wing this country has become.
The gloves are off
The country does not yet have a full grasp of the characters of the two candidates, either. An Associated Press-Yahoo News poll just published found that 19 per cent associate the words “age” most with McCain and “change” or “outsider” with Obama, but then the results became contradictory: 9 per cent were impressed with McCain’s record as a prisoner of war in Hanoi, but 7 per cent associated him with Bush. Thirteen per cent were struck by Obama’s lack of experience and 9 per cent believed him to be “dishonest”, while 8 per cent saw him as “inspiring”.
Much to the rage of the television networks, for which it will mean vastly increased costs, Obama has now hired the appropriately named Invesco Field – home of the Denver Broncos, and named after the international investment conglomerate – to deliver his acceptance speech on 28 August to what he hopes will be a capacity audience of 75,000. With a teleprompter, Obama is incomparable when he delivers his soaring adman speak about “change” and “hope”, though he is increasingly floundering these days without an autocue. McCain is a poor speaker with or without a teleprompter, and is now belatedly taking coaching in public speaking from a consultant called Brett O’Donnell.
But will Obama fever still be in full pitch at the end of August? The very mediocrity of the two candidates, compounded by McCain’s age and temper and Obama’s petulance and sense of entitlement, means that either campaign could go up in flames any time until the polls close on 4 November. McCain will relentlessly attack Obama’s honesty and integrity; in response, Obama will try to depict this criticism of him as racist, a tactic he used so successfully against Hillary and Bill Clinton.
The etiquette of the primaries dictates that a contender such as Hillary Clinton cannot call Obama, say, “a liar”, lest footage of one senior Democrat thus describing another be shown over and over again in the autumn by, in this case, the Republicans. Now, however, the gloves are off, and I predict that it will not be long before we hear that very word, “liar”, spoken by one candidate of another. How edifying it’s all turning out to be.