Despite the hot and bothered claims of some commentators on both sides of the Pacific, Obama and the Democrats have been holding a fairly stead lead — around 3% averaged over all polls — for the past three weeks, although day by day you can find almost any result you need. Rasmussen had McCain up by 1% yesterday, while the latest tracking poll has Obama back up by 5%. The lead, both across the nation and in key swing states, seems solid.

But never underestimate the ability of the Democrats to remove the as yet undigested remains of defeat from the sifted faeces of victory, with Hillary Clinton roaring back in with a speech to a gaggle of supporters that failed to give unequivocal support to Obama as the presumptive nominee, and talking airily about taking the convention as it comes, and how the party had a need for “catharsis”.

God oh God, catharsis — the same ludicrous language of personal growth and inner need that bubbles within American left-liberal politics at the least invitation. What there’s a need for of course is a dissolution of self into the party, the cause and the candidate, no matter what the misgivings about him, or the lingering bitterness of his rise.

What is Hillary’s game? She wants a roll-call, say the experts, a vote on the floor of the convention that at least establishes that she managed to garner X thousand delegates. Bill is doing his own bit for the anti-cause with his unbelievable answer to the question “is Obama ready to lead from day one?”, asked last week.

“I don’t think anyone is,” Bill replied wittily, which may be half-true — I reckon both Roosevelts and LBJ were ready to go from inauguration afternoon, for starters — but it’s an observation for the memoirs, not the campaign.

Yes, he’s the hope of America is the correct answer. But the Clintons seem determined to play up to the most stereotyped, cliched image of baby boomers as self-absorbed narcissists with a capacity for unlimited chaos. If they and the sclerotic Democratic apparatus manage to suck one or two points from the campaign and give McCain victory on the basis of taking New Hampshire or somesuch, then they will deserve to be beaten to death with a set of love beads.

Not that team Obama needs any help to stuff this up, or so it would appear. This half-heartedness, this diffidence — responding to a McCain attack but two days too late, letting the GOP get traction on ridiculous issues like the non-solution of offshore drilling, this empyrean disdain for getting in a quick jab… it’s baffling. Neither a high road strategy of ignoring McCain utterly and letting him run down his capital with increasingly whacky wild punches, nor a low strategy of going toe-to-toe, it seems to be a sort of insouciant middle road stroll, a mezzanine strategy.

A couple of weeks ago, there seemed to be a logic to it — Obama would simply look like the President presumptive, and McCain would have no choice but to try and land a punch in order to put a hole in Obama’s lead. The press would then do the rest, picking holes in McCain’s desperate strategy. Now it looks like Obama’s mellow pace has more in common with the lassitude that has beset the Democrats, essentially since the 1980s.

It’s a lassitude that results from the fact that the party of FDR and Woodrow Wilson — or even Bobby Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey — no longer has a core belief in even a modest American-style social democratic liberalism, of its role as taking power and instituting irreversible change. All there is is tinkering, a sense of doing things slightly less worse. It is a hollowed out party, and as such, prey to ego, and internal politicking. Why restrain yourself from grabbing such baubles as there are, of swallowing that slight, of not grabbing glory, if there’s nothing to subsume your rage and frustration and anger into?

The only reason the Democrats aren’t being killed by this rot from within is that the Republicans — who have had a cause to hold them together since the 90s, and back to Reagan — are now falling apart themselves. This double collapse is part of a wider shaking apart of politics in general, which is one of the reasons why Obama’s entry-level message — that there can be a connection between the system and everyday life — has filled a vacuum. Obama’s success has been due in part to his running a parallel organisation, quarantined from the creeping sense of Democratic doom. But as the Presidential race has taken over, a cross-infection has been necessary.

The question is whether it’s that that’s dragging Obama’s feet and getting in his game — or whether, once again, we are being shown that he just doesn’t have the killer within him, and any victory, if it comes, will come from the incapacity of the republicans to get out even the pitiful vote they would need to knock the Dems out. Should the Clintons, the Pelosis, the Reids ensure that ego, timidity, and caution deliver another loss , then the party is finished in its current form — but it may well take another eight years for it to be effectively reorganised, even presuming such a thing is possible.

Peter Fray

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