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6 February 2008

Now it gets really dirty

In the wake of Super Tuesday, Andrew Stephen predicts the gloves will now come off in the race for t

By Andrew Stephen

So we lost the 2008 US presidential election. The world, I mean. Whether it is to be President McCain or Obama or Clinton – or any of the couple of other Republicans just about still standing after Super Tuesday – US foreign policy, at the very least, will remain much the same.

True, Obama and Clinton are both committed to trying to end the war in Iraq, while McCain says that it could easily go on for, well, at least another 100 years.

But otherwise things will tick on much as before; no less an authority than the Washington Post, for example, scrupulously went through the respective foreign policies of Barack Obama and McCain’s Republican rival, Mitt Romney, and concluded there was very little difference between the two.

Had America’s voters wanted a significant change in US foreign policy, in fact, they would have voted for Republican Congressman Ron Paul – the likeable Libertarian who, at 72, is too old to care what people think and freely lambasts the US for ruining both the world and the country itself by its “imperialism” and insistence on having an “empire”. Needless to say, Paul scraped together just about four per cent of the vote in the Republican caucuses and primaries last Tuesday.

Should Iraq not flare up again between now and November – and, either way, that could help McCain and the man who may have earned the Republican vice-presidential candidature last Tuesday, Mike Huckabee – the last remaining battle is between a 60-year-old woman and a 46-year-old bi-racial man, fighting to be the Democratic nominee who will oppose a 72-year-old Republican for the White House.

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I wrote last week how Karl Rove and his fellow warlocks and witches had brewed their pot in 2000 and ‘04 and come up with the “v-word” (values) as the Republicans’ highly successful mantra. This year, Obama’s very own Rove – David Axelrod, senior partner of AKP Message & Media, the Chicago company which is masterminding Obama’s campaign – has come up with a brand-new, albeit just as meaningless, word.

This time, it is the “c-word” – change – that has now become Obama’s mantra. Indeed, exit polls last Tuesday showed that Democratic voters now consider “change” to be the most important issue in the election this year. “Change is coming to America,” roared Obama in his victory speech in Chicago last Tuesday night. “This fall…we have to choose between change and more of the same. We have to choose between looking backwards and looking forwards.” Hillary Clinton, he went on, will not be able to say he voted for the war in Iraq in 2003. Er, no, she won’t: but then Obama wasn’t in the Senate to vote either way, was he?

I suspect the gloves will really now come off between Obama and Clinton until the Democratic nomination is settled – which, just conceivably, might not be until the Denver convention in August. Super Tuesday was so massive that it drained both candidates of funds, but last month alone Obama raised $37m; Goldman Sachs, which made $6bn profit from devalued mortgage security in the first nine months of last year, is Obama’s biggest corporate contributor. Exit polls, too, confirmed that Obama is the candidate of the yuppies: practically every voter earning less than $50,000 voted for Clinton rather than Obama, and those in the $150-200,000 range plumped for Obama.

The ageist and sexist cards, too, are working well so far for Obama. Exit polls showed that 51 per cent of voters between 18 and 44 voted for Obama, compared with 46.5 per cent for Clinton; by contrast, a majority of the rest of the electorate went for Clinton. Just 37 per cent of Democrats over 60 voted for Obama, in fact, compared with 53 per cent for Clinton.

Possibly more crucial, though, is that the Latino vote – currently the fastest growing bloc of the electorate, with 17 per cent in McCain’s state of Arizona and 23 per cent in California – went overwhelmingly for Clinton, by 74-25 in New York. All of which suggests that the Democrats are heading for a bruising and, quite possibly, vicious battle. Hillary Clinton has already challenged Obama to four more debates, which he will now find practically impossible to reject; the wind is currently behind Obama, but that could easily change in this era of YouTube when one wrong word can instantly smash a political career to smithereens.

McCain, for one, has a notorious hot temper that could boil over any time between now and election day on 4 November. He will have other troubles, too. “Maverick” is such a cliché to describe McCain that I’m almost embarrassed to do so, but it captures him perfectly because it explains his cross-party appeal as well as opposition within the Republicans.

He can sound frighteningly like Dr Strangelove yet, having himself been tortured by the Vietcong as a POW in Vietnam, is 100 per cent opposed to American torture of prisoners and wants to close Guantanamo – though we can surely rely on the military and CIA to dream up new, hitherto unthought-of forms of torture – but he also wants to step up the military onslaught on Iraq and “win” the quintessentially unwinnable war.

A President McCain would also keep George W Bush’s ludicrous tax cuts for the very rich, but is one of the few Republicans ready to act on climate change. Heaven knows how he would justify his fiscal promises should he be president in the looming domestic recession.

So far it has been self-promoting right-wing clowns like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter who have openly opposed McCain – last Monday, Rushbaugh devoted an entire programme to anti-McCainism – but that disaffection is now likely to spread, albeit more surreptitiously, throughout the party’s Establishment. Coulter even says that if McCain is the candidate and Hillary her opponent, she would rather vote for Clinton.

That would be one more woman’s vote for Hillary, who – extrapolating from last Tuesday’s results – has the Democratic working-class, Latino and women’s votes sewn up. Obama will now be playing the youth and c-word cards for all they’re worth, though.

It took me aback on voting day when I realised that an 18-year-old I know who was voting for the first time was just one when Bill and Hillary Clinton entered the White House in 1992; if Hillary wins two terms in the White House, 40 per cent of Americans will have known only presidents called Bush or Clinton. Nature also helps Obama, too: he looks much younger but will will be 47 on election day, four years older than JFK was when he became president.

Just as McCain has benefited from a wildly supportive media – the Project for Excellence in Journalism says that he won twice as much favourable publicity as either Huckabee or Romney – so, too, Obama has received overwhelmingly positive coverage from a press that has yet to lay a finger on him – probably, I suspect, because most reporters fear they will be labelled racist if they query his qualifications or suitability for the White House. Instead, the media has torn into Bill Clinton; it’s gone down in political lore, possibly forever, that Bill Clinton began a poisonous injection of racism into the Democratic contest on behalf of his wife.

Yet ironically, if there is one good thing you can say about Clinton, it is that he is not a racist; he was actually brought up in rank poverty surrounded by African-Americans, while Obama spent his formative years surfing in Hawaii. Yet Obama is constantly described as an “African-American,” a term used in the US to describe a black person whose ancestors were imported to be slaves from Africa. By that definition, Obama is not an African-American – but it has all been part of Obama’s cleverly crafted strategy to present himself as both black and white whenever it suits him most.

This became obvious in his first post-election victory speech at Iowa on 3 January, which he described as “this defining moment in history” and said, “you know, they said this day would never come”. That a man in suit-and-tie would win a caucus in Iowa? Or because he was bi-racial? He has since used those same words in letters appealing for funds, one of which fluttered through my letterbox the other day – but not one reporter, to the best of my knowledge, has dared asked him why his victory was so historic.

Then he preached at Martin Luther King’s church in Atlanta about how “my daddy left me when I was two years old…and I was raised by a single-parent mother … and I needed hope” – true if you discount his Indonesian step-father and then his well-off white grandparents in Hawaii, who effectively became his parents when he was 10.

Last month I described Obama’s cleverly choreographed media events in Kenya, when an old lady widely described as his grandmother was produced. A few days ago, it was time for more photo-opportunities in El Dorado, in the heart of the frozen plains of Kansas, where his white maternal grandfather was born.

“Thank you for welcoming me back to the place my family called home,” he roared, failing to mention that he had never once been to that place before. Tavis Smiley, the legendary black broadcaster, says that blacks are sceptical of Obama because he does “not have a long-standing relationship with the black community.”

Professor Cornel West of Princeton, likewise, criticises Obama for beginning his campaign in Abraham Lincoln’s Springfield, Illinois, rather than a symbolic place of racial healing like Martin Luther King’s church. The evil legacy of slavery is seared so deeply into the American consciousness, though, that last Tuesday the African-American vote nonetheless went almost entirely to Obama.

So what next? Despite Obama’s record fund-raising last month, the Clinton campaign still has more cash in hand ($50.5m) than Obama’s ($36.1m). Conventional wisdom is that Obama’s impetus will now give him the edge in forthcoming caucuses and primaries, but a painstaking analysis by the Washington Post concluded that Clinton will benefit most. There was something for both sides in last Tuesday’s votes, after all: Obama won the most states, but Hillary won hundreds of thousands more votes.

Super Tuesday II comes on 4 March, when the delegate-rich states of Texas and Ohio go to the polls. Then comes Pennsylvania on 22 April, and such is electoral fever that it’s already too late to book a room in Harrisburg for that date. Should no clear winner have emerged by then, the Clintonistas will start furiously arguing that votes by Democrats in Florida and Michigan should count, which party rules currently forbid – or that the states should go back to the polls, which this time would be within the rules. The fun, my friends – as John McCain would say – has hardly started.

Election 2008

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