With Obama’s secret speech to the San Francisco Central Committee still playing across the airwaves, the curious disconnect between the challenges facing American society and the problems many people regard as uppermost appears to be widening. A USA Today poll, part of which was taken after Obama’s remarks became public, has the man from Illinois trailing Hillary by twenty points in Pennsylvania and though, all things being equal, the poll is about as accurate as chucking the I Ching, it’s more than likely that later, better ones will confirm a precipitous falling-off in Bama’s recent rise in downhome support.

Nor could you really blame people for turning away from someone willing to portray them as a symptom, people to be talked about, rather than to, on their own terms. Even if people in these zones know some people of whom a sudden lurch into religion or flag-waving can be attributed to losing their jobs and much more, who are they going to feel more solidarity for, their kith and kin, or the smartarse kid pointing out the fix they’re all in? Obama is smart enough to know it, too. He’s probably kicking himself from Philly to Pittsburgh over what might be another nail in the pine box not of his nomination, but of his presidential run.

Yet if you were one of the benighted flyover-zone Americans in question, the sensible thing would be to try and get beyond your irritation with the candidate’s boneheaded willingness to reveal his membership of the elite, and evaluate the policies, because let’s face it, things are melting down pretty much everywhere, pretty fast. With news that Wachovia, the country’s fourth-largest bank, is posting a $7bn loss due to sub-prime and other liabilities, and the housing price crash going global very quickly – and thus boomeranging back redoubled into the States – the actual conditions of life have a way of butting back into the endless process of identity politics positioning.

Hillary for one has taken advantage of that going way out into left-populist territory, promising the abrupt cancellation of NAFTA, and a halt on further free-trade agreements. Given that NAFTA was one of Bill’s proudest achievements, you’d think that might make for a few tense moments, if they weren’t a couple essentially raised by wolves, lacking memory or conscience or an awareness pretty much anything apart from the next throat. She’s also sheeting home the blame to China, promising bans on Chinese imports, if they don’t adjust their currency to a level more favourable to US exporters.

Come the slightly-less-unlikely-than-it-was possibility that she become president, would she follow through with that? There’s every indication that Hillary is economically further to the (social-democratic) left than Obama, whose San Francisco remarks included the notion that mid-America’s anti-trade feeling was yet another symptom – rather than a reasonably accurate assessment of the source of their predicament. But so, when he got in, was Bill, and he was pretty quickly talked around to the full global neo-liberalism thang.

What might make a different policy more likely, from either Clinton or Obama, or even McCain, is both the increasingly dire position the West finds itself in in the current global economic set-up, its apparent partial collapse notwithstanding. It may well be said that China is breaking the “rules” by adjusting its currency settings – but the whole global set up is so shonkily arranged for the benefit of the developed world that China pretty much has the right to do whatever it likes to match the protectionism and captive markets with which the West rose to economic prominence.

The myth of free trade has been debunked often, but the most recent – Ha-Joon Chang’s Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade – is one of the best, showing how partial and selective it was. The myth of it is currently being sold as a way of doing what protectionism actually achieved – maintaining an advantage of the West against the rest. The ideological nature of economics teaching in the West means that many of its economists and business leaders actually believe this, while the Chinese and Indians got a rather better education in Western intentions.

An honest defence of protectionism would simply observe that the US cannot compete with Indian or Chinese wages, and that the higher prices and possible inefficiencies of protected industries are a price paid collectively for protecting jobs and sharing the pain – one way or another, the standard of living is going to go down. This can’t be said, so a moral argument has to be made – those damn Chinese, looking after their own national interests, by exploiting our limitless desire for cheap crap.

The consequences for the US of reintroducing a measure of protection are pretty serious – having tried it with steel when the ink was still wet on the WTO treaty, it knows there is only so much it can get away with. In particular, the greater unity of Europe in the wake of the Lisbon treaty would put it in a good position to join with the East in turning the full force of WTO regulations on the US, prompting a crisis in the barely decade-old arrangement — and a clue to why it was never established in the 40s, as the Bretton Woods conference intended.

McCain it might be said, is more honest about these things — or was, briefly, arguing against the Bear Stearns bailout, before his advisors suggested that applying the doctrine of competition to … the market sounded callous. Maybe it was, but it was also a reasonable objection to the transfer of billions of dollars of public money to remove from risk the risk element.

The fact that there is no relevant moral position on something like the Bear-Stearns bailout — simply a preference for the manner of being ripped off – is an indication of the deeper-set problems which the current economic impasse is making visible.

But whatever’s going to come, if it’s going to be of any assistance to Hillary, it better come quick. Pennsylvania is next week. She’ll win it, and probably Indiana after that, while Bama will take North Carolina and Oregon and that is about it in terms of big delegate hauls. A couple of real big wins by Hillary, in parallel with a series of economic disasters, would further dispose enough superdelegates to weather the range of Obama nation, and put a heartland candidate in. You know, the one who’s worth $55 million.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey