Monday, 15 September 2008

It's President McCain (I think)

This year's Presidential election in America is warming up into a rather interesting contest. The primaries were keenly fought among a pretty good list of candidates and it became clear early on that John McCain was likely to win his party's nomination. The Democratic Party fight went to the wire and that, I believe, gives a strong clue to the likely winner in November. I will return to that point shortly, but first I want to explain what I see as the most important battle grounds over the next two months.

It is often said that the most important issue in a presidential election is the economy ("it's the economy, stupid", as Bill Clinton is reported to have said) but that is not to say that it is always crucial. An incumbent president seeking re-election will have difficulties if the economy is in tatters but neither McCain nor Obama is responsible for current problems. Indeed, America seems to be coping with the consequences of the credit crunch rather better than other countries and the sense of deep gloom across the UK is not matched on the other side of the pond. The candidates have a difference of emphasis in their economic policies but there is no stark difference of substance, so I do not see their positions on the economy as something of great importance. Far more significant, I believe, will be health care, McCain's age and Obama's pigmentation.

Health care is a major policy matter this year because it featured so prominently in the Democratic primary campaigns. It was all over the television, radio and newspaper coverage and featured highly in debates. Had it not done so it would probably be a peripheral issue as in almost all previous elections. Now that it has prominence it is the issue on which the main difference between the candidates' approaches can be judged. McCain is adamantly opposed to a national health service funded out of taxes because he knows such systems, as in the UK, are hopelessly inefficient and wasteful and far too open to short-term knee-jerk political interference. He proposes continuance of the insurance-based system but with greater availability at affordable premiums for the least wealthy. Obama has changed his position and has now adopted the Hillary Clinton NHS plan. I believe this will be a real weakness for Obama because what he is proposing will have to sit alongside the existing health insurance structure. It will be seen that, in effect, he is proposing a tax funded NHS only for the poor which will have to be paid for by those already paying their own insurance premiums. That is not a recipe of great appeal to the American mindset.

McCain's age is an issue because he has suffered medical problems and might be unable to see through a full four-year term. Therefore the light is on his running mate to a far greater extent than would normally be the case. Remember that George Bush senior won the race in 1988 despite having the hopeless Dan Quayle on the ticket. In that election the great strengths of the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, Loyd Benson, could not rescue the inadequacies of Michael Dukakis for the top job. McCain's choice of Sarah Palin will prove to be either inspired or disastrous, it is too early yet to say which. What can be said is that Obama opting for Joe Biden was almost certainly a serious error of judgment. In a year when the vice-presidency is of special importance the last person to be chosen should be someone with a long history of foot-in-mouth disease. On the evidence so far Palin is likely to stick to the script, Biden is unlikely to do so.

The other respect in which McCain's age is relevant is simply by way of contrast to Obama's youth. Neither has ever run anything significant, Senators do not run things, they are like backbench MPs. However, McCain has been in national politics for a long time and has had plenty of opportunities to make serious gaffes. Because he has not made any serious enough to prevent his party nominating him he is seen as a safe pair of hands whereas Obama is a very new boy indeed. No one knows how he will react under pressure.

Kennedy got away with youth and inexperience through a combination of ostensible charm and a father who bought votes in sufficient number to sway swing States his son's way. It should not be forgotten that the questions about the legitimacy of Kennedy's win in 1960 were far greater than the dispute about hanging chads in 2000. His opponent, Richard Nixon (you might have heard of him) was urged by many in his party to challenge the result but he had the good sense not to do so for fear that it would suggest he wanted Washington rather than the people to decide the outcome of the election. Eight years later Nixon was in the White House. By contrast Al Gore was completely broken as a national politician by his failed challenge to the outcome in key states in 2000 because he knew he would forever be haunted by his sulking speech of concession.

Unlike Kennedy, Obama does not have a quasi mafia to manipulate votes. Also unlike Kennedy, Obama is not the first white-toothed, youthful charmer to stand. Kennedy had that privilege and turned out to be a disaster as President. When the chips were down his lack of experience and untested judgment combined to cause a series of decisions which blighted his country for years, the intervension in Vietnam being by far the worst. People have long memories and many will see too much of Kennedy in Obama. Interestingly, the oldest man to win a presidential election is also within memory of many, Ronald Reagan; now revered as one of the greatest presidents. I can see a lot of votes being influenced by the negative for Obama of being too Kennedyesque and the positive for McCain of being somewhat Reaganlike.

The final issue I consider of particular importance is Obama's skin colour. It will not be referred to by McCain except as an irrelevance but his words will not change the entrenched views of millions of Americans. Like it or not, America is a deeply conservative country, built with huge success by white settlers a very large number of whose descendants consider it important to have a white president. The question is often asked "is America ready for a black president?". Much of America is, but the rest also have votes.

In America, seemingly more so that in the UK, electioneering is as much about getting your dedicated supporters into the voting booth as it is about pulling undecideds into your camp. As the campaign proceeds over the next seven weeks scrutiny of the candidates will increase in intensity to a level far beyond anything that has been seen so far. In this age of 24-hour television everything they said during their push for nomination has been recorded and each side has a full library of these recordings. In addition, the things their opponents said during the primaries are stored, and ready for use. Many snippets will be brought out and given wide publicity.

This is where I believe the long and bitter contest between Obama and Clinton will be of greatest influence. While McCain was keeping his head down and travelling quietly round the country shaking hands and making generalised speeches, Obama was in the spotlight changing his position on issues to combat a good Clinton speech and being accused of every degree of incompetence and duplicity by a former First Lady. We can be in no doubt that his changes of policy and her strident criticisms will be aired by the McCain team with ruthless efficiency. They will also bring up Obama's tour of Europe which was played-out like a victory celebration. That sort of thing does not go down well in America, just as Neil Kinnock's victory rally in Sheffield in 1992 tipped the election in favour of John Major's Conservatives. Presuming to tell the electorate how they will vote is an expensive ploy.

Once it was clear that Obama and Clinton would be fighting for months while McCain was engaging in the rubber chicken circuit I predicted a McCain victory. Nothing that has happened since then has changed my mind and the clips of Obama flip-flopping and Clinton saying he is an incompetent and a liar will, I believe, seal his fate.

1 comment:

redwhiteandbluepinko said...

Methinks you do overthink this one.
Kenedy is still revered as godlike (he was handsome and he got shot).
Obama is black and has a funny name and he didn;t ask Hillary to be VP-Strike one , 2 , and 3 unfortunately.
And now for the big one. Start a war, put the boys and girls in harms way and then paint everyone with a brain that tries to point out the folly as elitist unpatriots-and bingo-you got yourself an election (also helps if you screw up voting machines in poor neighborhoods etc).

Everyone says that they have nothing against the people of the US-just the government. Time to start having something against the people folks-we are dumb ass enough to keep voting these warmongers into office.