One of the most important books to read about American politics is Jeffrey Toobin’s Too Close To Call , the story of the 2000 Florida recount (or you can watch the Kevin Spacey HBO movie based upon it). Toobin’s book is vital not for its account of hanging chads or crooked voter rolls per se, but for its excoriating portrayal of the utter spinelessness of Al Gore, Warren Christopher and the rest of the well-connected white Democratic establishment.
As the Republicans organised gangs to picket and invade the Dade county election centre where the recount took place, the Democratic core refused to match them toe-to-toe, paralysed by a fear of how they would be portrayed in the media, fear of their own grassroots and the possibility that they might take over the party, but paralysed above all by a simple failure of the will, a fatal lack of conviction in their own politics, their own worthiness, the meaningfulness of their own mission.
That paralysis of the will has been the fatal flaw in the Democratic party for a generation, the flaw of a party whose political process became tangled up in the moral reasoning of identity politics, the disease of American liberalism expressed as an incapacity to act if action might do wrong by anyone, offend anyone, trample on any rights.
It’s politics from the super-ego, the conscience, and living there shrivels the will, the political id. From the 80s onwards, no Democrat has been immune from it, not even Bill Clinton — remember Clinton’s first big-presidential act? It was addressing, and fumbling, the issue of gays in the military. A worthy issue – once you’ve launched a new economic, healthcare and foreign policy — but could you choose a worse one with which to launch an entire administration?
The Democrats have made this error for year-on-year. Because their left-liberal politics is set in a deeply parochial Americanism which founds itself on rights and a notion of individual virtue, the moral claims on its political process became open-ended as the identities that could claim rights proliferated. As the Democrats fragmented into the Many, the Republicans became the One, the political-spiritual representatives of America. They imbued their supporters with a sense of certainty and purpose, while the Democrats merely transmitted more uncertainty and anxiety.
Whatever mistakes Obama is going to make, failure of will is not going to be one of them. The poet Alan Wearne once described Gough Whitlam as “relentless as a toccata” and that’s the feeling — a sense of utter purpose, structured with a deep internal logic — that you get from the Obama campaign at the moment.
From Iowa to Indiana he took the presumptive nominee apart primary by primary, with a message that was almost devoid of policy content, keeping discipline as he was goaded for a lack of content – and, as soon as the nomination was won, almost without drawing breath, turned round and launched a flotilla of policies designed to appeal to all the “Reagan Democrats” that people have said he would lose.
In the space of a few days, we’ve had his support of FISA — the wiretapping bill that gives telecoms who illegally tapped phones legal immunity, for the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision striking down hand gun bans, for the continuation of the Bush adminstration’s use of “faith-based initiatives” to distribute social welfare, and now his endorsement of military national service.
The series of moves has left the media punditocracy reeling, the McCain campaign blindsided, and the left fuming — all of which is perfect for Obama, electorally speaking. It’s his early and unequivocal, full-throated roar that he’s in this not merely to win it, but to gain a mandate and build a platform for a two-decade Democrat reign.
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It’s the launch of a fifty-state strategy, with the aim of taking at least 25 states — the standard blue-state set, plus Iowa, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Missouri, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado, and even Montana. Bill Clinton took a few of these but he was helped immensely by Ross Perot, the most successful third party candidate ever. Obama’s been touted as the next Bill Clinton, but we’re beyond that now. Obama wants to be the next FDR.
What are the risks in this strategy? The obvious one is that he will fail to turn out the new voters that have been a cornerstone of his strategy for outflanking the right, especially in southern states. But the bulk of these new voters aren’t really interested in wiretapping, and they may well be gun-owners. Obama is hoping to turn out new voters on the basis of real change — first with a general message of hope, and later, well after the convention, with a more comprehensive economic and social policy that will be much like the Blair/New Labour third way/radical centre idea.
Education will be dealt with by means of privately run state-owned schools, and even vouchers, healthcare by simplified, subsidised access to private insurers, and so on. By talking about these things he’ll get new voters. By going to the centre on laura norder stuff, he’ll keep old ones.
Another, greater, risk, is that he may be taking his fundraising base for granted. New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks, in one of his endless half-bright, half-deluded pieces, suggested that Obama’s claims to having a low-rent fundraising base was a lie, since the amount of contributors who had given less than $200 (check) was only 45%. Only 45%! In other words, almost half his funding base are nickel-and-dime contributors, compared to around 20% or lower for McCain.
Obama is relying on these donors to fill the coffers to a degree that will allow him to grind McCain into the dirt — and force him to spend money in hitherto one party contest states like Alaska, where Obama ads have been appearing since last week. But donors are more than voters — and they may well have stronger opinions about Obama falling into line with the Bush administration. Is Obama being too clever by half? It’s very possible.
But to understand this election you have to understand what the Republicans have so far failed to — that Obama is not working off any map, chart, strategy, that has ever been deployed in an American presidential campaign. Why? Because in any sense other than a legal one, he’s not an American. Born and going through adolescence in the multitracial Pacific colony of Hawaii, raised in Indonesia, immersed in the radical left in California and New York, his father an African socialist, his mother an anthropologist, Obama casts a cold eye across the country he is petitioning to rule.
He understands, what many American liberals, deep down, cannot, that the modern world has been shaped by brute, mute power, by forces of money, guns and race, not rights and ideas. In that respect, he thinks like a Republican and puts the moral strivings of his party colleagues in parentheses. Having stewed himself in Nietzsche for a year of his youth, he knows that the whole game is to find the will to power, to actually want to win the damn thing, to be willing to whatever it takes.
Getting in touch with that is ninety per cent of the game. Easy? Mondale couldn’t do it. Nor could Dukakis, nor Gore, nor Kerry, nor all the people around them. I can’t claim that his presidency, should he win it, will be substantially different from any other alternative, but it’s damn refreshing to see a left candidate who wants the damn thing, and knows he wants it.
Having hitherto wondered aloud about his diffidence in debates, I’m coming to the conclusion that this was all part of a running dead strategy. Now, I suspect, we’re seeing the first signs of his game, and after the convention, I suspect he’ll take McCain apart. Prove, as the man said, that I lie.
And McCain? He was in Colombia today, part of a desperate strategy to appear with actual representatives of a president — Uribe, Washington’s last man in South America — rather than before eighteen old ducks and drakes at a Kentucky retirement home. His visit coincided with the army’s successful rescue of a number of FARC hostages, a matter of timing so far beyond suspicious as to raise a giggle.
But for once, who could care, as those released included Ingrid Betancourt, head of the Colombian Green Party and former Presidential candidate, who was abducted in 2002. She was almost certainly betrayed to the FARC by the right, who now hold government, as she was on track to be the first Green party President in the world. Just before she was taken in 2002, she was in Australia for the global Greens conference. Her children were in hiding, in another country, and she made it clear that her abduction or death back in Colombia — from either the right wing militias or the FARC — was only a matter of time.
You don’t often come face-to-face with courage itself, but that was one time, and everyone who met her that weekend felt that. To a degree, that touched and changed my life and that of others. To hear that she’s alive is news of a joy so unalloyed, a joy the quality of which, politically at least, I’d almost forgotten. The what and why and how will all emerge later, and most likely everything will be diminished but for now Ingrid Betancourt emerging alive from the jungle will do to be going on with. Ya es de dia.