So we found ourselves back to square one on Tuesday night, with no definite winner emerging from the last two big Democratic primaries, in North Carolina and Indiana. The possible scenario I have outlined here before, of Obama lawyers battling it out with Clinton lawyers right up to the Democratic convention in Denver at the end of August, loomed ever larger. Rush Limbaugh, the far-right king of talk radio, talks gleefully these days of “Operation Chaos”. There will be six final primaries or caucuses before 3 June, with three states likely to go to Barack Obama and the other three to Hillary Clinton.
“Tonight we stand less than 200 delegates away from winning the Democratic nomination for president of the United States,” Obama triumphantly proclaimed to his supporters in North Carolina on Tuesday. He and his almost unchallenged media cheerleaders would certainly like it to be that simple. Yes, he is the clear front-runner and will probably now prevail. Yet those remaining six contests will choose 217 delegates to vote for either Obama or Clinton in Denver, who will now be outnumbered by 267 as yet undeclared “super-delegates”.
Throw in the bickering over Florida and Michigan, which a crucial meeting of the party’s “rules committee” will try to resolve on 31 May (almost certainly unsuccessfully), and the outcome becomes ever murkier, and will probably be resolved only by a concession from Hillary Clinton or the mother of all internecine political battles. Yet Gallup reports that more than 60 per cent of Democrats want Clinton to stay in the race, and polls show her beating John McCain in November by a wider margin than Obama.
That is why the Democrats now find themselves increasingly backed into a corner. Back in March, I asked a very senior McCain apparatchik which rival the McCain camp would prefer. “Hillary, of course,” he replied. Now, with the hateful preaching of racial separatism by the Reverend Jeremiah Wright – Obama’s spiritual mentor and political adviser – having injected a note of reality into the love affair that so many have been conducting with Obama, the Republicans are rooting for Obama instead.
He ran a slicker campaign and outspent Clinton by three-to-one in North Carolina and Indiana, yet is still unable to clinch the deal. Clinton is insisting on hanging around and offering her hand to the electorate, too. Her hope, and the reason why she refuses to go away, is that as the affair tumbles towards marriage Obama will be subjected to more scrutiny, and that further Wright-like or other dirt will emerge.
The Clinton camp argues that the life story of Obama for the electorate has been shaped almost entirely by Obama himself and his Machiavellian strategist David Axelrod (political “consultants” like him are an amoral lot: his past clients include none other than Hillary Clinton herself). They point out that Obama has been Axelrod’s protégé since his Harvard Law School days, well before he published his self-defining memoir Dreams From My Father at the age of just 33. It would be dangerously unprecedented, they are telling the uncommitted super-delegates, for a 46-year-old man who was an unknown, part-time state politician less than four years ago to be catapulted to the Democratic presidential nomination when the electorate still knows so little about him.
Stand by for a nasty “October Surprise” about Obama’s past from the Republicans if the super-delegates put their faith in him, they say. The 6 May elections, certainly, told us little we did not know before. Obama won the votes of most black and upwardly mobile white people, while Clinton netted the majority of votes by women and poor whites – the so-called “Reagan Democrats”, whose support will be vital to either party in November. In North Carolina, Obama delivered the kind of soaring speech he does so brilliantly; Clinton was more muted in Indiana.
Perhaps most telling, however, was that she had squandered several chances to inflict further post-Wright political damage on Obama. She let him redefine himself as the candidate with the most deprived background when she could have hammered away at this image by pointing out that she is the only one of the three candidates still in the race who went to a state high school rather than an elite private institution. She also allowed herself to be savaged by the left for saying that Iran could be “obliterated” in a US nuclear attack, failing to get it across somehow that Obama said months ago that he would consider nuking Iran in a pre-emptive strike and that he proposes increasing the size of the US military.
Barring a sensation – McCain withdrawing because of ill-health, for example – all one can say for certain is that the next president of the United States will be the first senator elected to the White House in nearly half a century. Don’t be misled by skin colour, gender, cleverly crafted images or oratory: he or she will still be a machine politician who has never actually run anything, and who is beholden to vested interests.
Dig beneath the excitement of this campaign, therefore, and the prospects for America and the world are not as exhilarating as they might at first seem. Plus ça change . . .