Emily Packer examines the repercussions of a not-so-decisive week'An election is a moral horror,’ George Bernard Shaw once grumbled, ‘as bad as a battle except for the blood; a mud bath for every soul concerned in it.’ Shaw would have found little to surprise him in, say, the American presidential elections of 2000 and 2004. Yet that of 2008 has about it an unusually optimistic aura that would seem to belie Shaw’s complaint. In fact, the upcoming presidential election promises to be unique and historic in a number of ways. It is the first since 1928 in which no incumbent president or vice-president is seeking his party’s nomination. It is the first to feature a black man or a woman. It boasts a close race between a startlingly broad array of serious candidates, and it follows upon one of the lowest ebbs in America’s appeal abroad. More relevantly to Oxford students, it has also inspired an unusual degree of attention from young people in America and elsewhere.
A week ago, most newspapers were predicting that February 5th, Super Tuesday – on which Democrats and Republicans in twenty-two states would decide amongst the nominees from their respective parties – would be the decisive contest in ‘the greatest race on earth.’ How decisive it in fact was remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the day marked a culmination of months of feverish political activity, both amongst the candidates and amongst the students and voters choosing between them. Last week, two first-years at Christ Church organized a debate in which speakers from the college and from the Union answered questions in character for each candidate. (For the record: Obama and McCain won the mock nominations, McCain the mock presidency.) David James, a PPE student speaking as Mr Obama, observed a ‘sharp divide between those who are very interested and those who follow very little snippets in the news,’ but agreed that it was difficult to escape the press coverage. The Union, for its part, shared in the Super Tuesday proceedings by hosting a delegation from the UK division of Democrats Abroad (according to Secretary Charlie Holt, no corresponding Republican group exists, a testimony to exactly how much the GOP values the much-vaunted ‘special relationship’). A sizable, diverse crowd of Obama devotees celebrated their candidate’s capacity to inspire and chanted, at regular intervals, ‘Yes We Can.’ A smaller Clinton constituency responded with their rather plagiaristic ‘Yes We Will.’ However, the Hillary camp did count among its members ex-President Luke Tryl and Standing Committee member Leo-Marcus Wan, the former of whom spoke to the Democrats Abroad that evening on behalf of his favoured candidate, while the latter had already represented her at the Christ Church debate the prior week in a blond wig and ear-grating accent. Mr Tryl emphasized that America must ‘regain its standing in the world’ and address its image as a state that is ‘isolated, bullish, and concerned only with its own interests.’ He stated that he has supported Mrs. Clinton because ‘the world can’t take chances’ and may possibly join her campaign in America later in the year. Speakers for Obama countered by observing that Mrs Clinton’s much-mentioned ‘experience’ can often mean ‘politics as usual,’ that their candidate panders less to Washington lobbyists than his rival, and he stands a better chance of repairing relations with America’s enemies and former allies abroad. In truth, with only three or four listeners undecided at the outset, the debate was largely a formality. But the degree of enthusiasm was unusual among students considering the fact that they were discussing a foreign election in which they were not eligible to vote.
Regardless of the outcome of Super Tuesday, or even of the election, I have been heartened, as a native New Yorker, by the hopeful interest shown with regard to the election abroad and by a momentary lull in the casual anti-Americanism that often suffuses discussions of our nation’s politics. I am also pleased, for once, to be choosing not amongst greater and lesser evils but amongst candidates from both parties whom I feel I could endorse without cynicism or compromised beliefs.
In Mr McCain, despite his – in this journalist’s view – antiquated, improbable views on Iraq, I recognize a likely Republican nominee whom I can genuinely approve of, even after eight years of astonishing mis-government by the party at home and abroad. McCain’s independent views on immigration, climate change, the religious right, and government spending separate him from the Republican stereotype that has long tarnished America in the eyes of most international commentators. In Mrs Clinton, I see a tried-and-tested politician who stands a very good chance of defeating a Republican opponent in November; though she would not be my choice for the nomination, I believe that her policies are for the most part sound and I would not be ashamed if she were to be the next commander-in-chief my country. In Mr Obama – who, in the interests of full disclosure, has been my preferred candidate for some time – I have found a gifted, articulate politician who challenges the stereotype of his profession as one too morally stunted and too casually corrupt for young people ever to care to enter. Obama’s intelligence, charisma, independence, and consistency – on Iraq and elsewhere – represent, to me, the best hope for a ‘face of America’ that the other world powers can respect.
In any event, whether our readers share my particular biases or not, I hope that they will benefit from the summary of the current state of the primaries below, and that they will recognize in the election a crucial opportunity for a cessation of the rather brutal political climate that has prevailed on a global scale since the outset of the Bush administration.The Republicans
For the Democrats, Super Tuesday has proved only the first of a series of contests in the struggle for the presidential ticket. Yet for the Republicans, it has provided exactly what the newspapers promised: one candidate with a clear path to the nomination. That this candidate is Senator John McCain is the result of one of the most surprising political reversals in the past few decades. As the press has noted ad nauseum, McCain had nothing more to his name in July 2007 than a sputtering campaign and an unpopular voting record. His optimistic outlook on Iraq, his opposition to the Bush tax cuts, and his bid for gentler immigration laws provoked the bedrock of his party to brand him a traitor. As 2008 began, however, a collusion of lucky circumstances conspired to propel him to the front of the race. The troop ‘surge’ in Iraq temporarily brought reality closer to McCain’s impression of progress there, and furthermore, after the turmoil in the credit markets and the emergence of a possible US recession, the economy replaced Iraq in exit polls as the most important issue in the election. This benefited McCain’s businessman rival Mitt Romney, but it also drew attention away from his own controversial views on Iraq. Also, McCain’s early momentum after New Hampshire and South Carolina was sustained by the consistent ineptitude of the other candidates’ campaigns.
Rudy Giuliani, the other Republican rebel, eschewed the early primaries and instead staked his candidacy on a single prolonged campaign in Florida. But the Floridians did not necessarily like him any better on long acquaintance, and consequently favoured McCain. Mike Huckabee had surged to a surprise victory in Iowa, but he had little chance of attracting voters beyond his evangelical base. McCain was left as the only really viable candidate standing, his wartime heroism and his independent decision-making translating into a reputation for integrity remarkable in the scandal-ridden Republican Party. On Super Tuesday, he carried the crucial states of New York and California, as well as Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, New Jersey, Oklahoma, and Arizona. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney collected his expected wins in Massachusetts and Utah as well as in a few smaller states. Nevertheless, delegate totals display a clear triumph for McCain, who will now most likely be the Republican nominee in November.
McCain has already secured the resigned Giuliani’s support, and it remains to be seen whether the Republicans will now turn their attention away soon from infighting and unite in creating a viable strategy to combate the Democrats in November. McCain’s successes have given the Republicans new life and perhaps even another chance at the White House. Nevertheless, the Republican status quo is still the party of Bush, Rove, Rumsfeld, and failure, and the Republicans will have to counteract this image without estranging their hawkish, religious base if they are to keep the presidency. The DemocratsDue to its sequential quibbles and impenetrable processes of delegate selection, drawing firm conclusions from Tuesday’s Democratic contest was not unlike divining the next season’s crop yield from the entrails of a bull or decoding the pronouncements of the Delphic oracle. Delegates were awarded to candidates proportionally based on the number of congressional districts won, so even clear-cut leads in major states could not guarantee overall victory. To complicate the issue further, no candidate came into Super Tuesday with an obvious advantage; Iowa and South Carolina had voted strongly for the one, New Hampshire and Nevada for the other. Nevertheless, the Democratic caucuses of February 5th did produce a frontrunner, and that frontrunner is Hillary Clinton. The media furore surrounding her rival, Barack Obama, had often obscured the quiet, steady successes of Clinton’s campaign, her ability to discount the transient pronouncements of the press and to focus on under-served or under-publicised groups of voters. Thus, although Obama had recently been gaining on his rival in the national polls, Clinton nonetheless made off with all of the major states voting on February 5th – New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and California.
Of the four great prizes that Obama failed to capture on Tuesday, three were easily explicable. New York was Clinton’s home state, and New Jersey is closely linked to it. Furthermore, Clinton had already secured a cautious but priceless endorsement from the New York Times, the state’s premier liberal newspaper, despite massive support for Obama among the young (like myself) and among city luminaries such as entertainment personalities and hedge-fund managers.
Like New York, California boasts a crowd of celebrities, college students, and others who have campaigned for Mr. Obama, but it is also home to a large constituency of Latino voters, a group with which Clinton has been particularly strong. Though a leading Spanish-language newspaper actually pledged its support for Obama, racial tensions between blacks and Latinos in inner-city districts and a leaning towards Clinton among low-income voters permitted her a 32-point lead in the Hispanic vote. She also led by 18 points among women – despite a recent California rally for Obama attended Caroline Kennedy, Oprah Winfrey, and Governor’s wife Maria Shriver – and performed well amongst the absentees, many of them older professionals or expatriates, whose ballots take longer to be counted.
But how did Obama lose Massachusetts, a state in which he had secured the endorsements not only of Senator John Kerry and Governor Deval Patrick but of the hallowed Kennedy clan? Though Clinton had long been leading in its preliminary polls, Massachusetts would at first appear the perfect venue for an Obama campaign. It is generally prosperous; it is fairly freethinking; it boasts a constellation of leading universities within which support for Obama is very strong. Yet although Obama won easily there amongst those who identify themselves as very liberal, Clinton defeated him amongst self-described conservatives and moderates. Clinton’s success in Massachusetts, then, is a belated testimony to her ability to accomplish exactly what her campaign set out to do in the first place: to offer a centrist option for those wary of excessive change.
Obama is by no means out of the running; though Clinton now claims about a hundred more delegates, he may still persevere in upcoming caucuses of Ohio, Virginia, Texas, and Washington DC. Nevertheless, the Super Tuesday results have halted his momentum, and his campaign will have no choice but to play catch-up. The Clinton campaign machine has skillfully undermined those qualities that once set him apart from his political peers. Obama was once a post-racial candidate, but the Clintons have branded him a black candidate; as a result, he is carrying significantly black states in the South but losing in heavily Hispanic districts and perhaps elsewhere. Obama has been lauded by Republicans and depicted as a ‘unifier,’ but Clinton’s success among moderates and independents in the Massachusetts caucuses show that wavering voters can no longer be counted upon to swing his way. Obama’s campaign must draft a fresh strategy, address weaknesses, and regain appeal among centrists in order to reverse the trend.