Hillary concedes, let the contest begin

Tuesday, 10 June, 2008

Guy Rundle writes:

It could have ended last Tuesday night, with Hillary conceding, thus ushering in Barack Obama, to accept the presumptive nomination, and concentrate the full force of the moment into his great speech. Instead it ended on Saturday, while everyone was backing the SUV into the WholeFoods parking bay, to stock up on mangos not raised in cages, or somesuch.

Like Icarus falling into the ocean in the background of Brueghel’s great work Couple Backing SUV into the WholeFoods parking bay, to stock up on mangos not raised in cages , we all came home to find that Hillary — a candidate who had become a purely negative force — had concluded the primaries on her own terms, the whole hurricane-like force of Democratic party politics ending on a low-pressure note.

That’s the way the whirl ends — not with a win but a bagger.

The speech itself had the usual roll call of stuff — getting into America’s problems, the failures of Republican administrations, etc, and beginning with the usual, increasingly off-putting recitative of the people who gave money to the campaign of a multi-millionaire — the 74-year-old woman who saved her social security, the 13-year-old who sent her allowance, the 129-year-old who sold his oxygen tube, the foetus who donated a tricycle and a kidney…

In the context of a campaign that was about something very different to its rivals, these sacrifices would mean something. But Hillary’s campaign on an identikit programme has been so futile, self-indulgent and counter-productive that the list of donors starts to sound like the previous crimes of a convicted street-robber. Did little Billy Butkiss in Mudflaps, Wisconsin really intend that his blood plasma would help fund Hillary to talk about representing “hardworking white people”?

You could hardly call it quixotic — Quixote believed in something no-else did. True, that belief was that windmills were monsters, but at least the man had a distinctive programme. Little Hernando Gutierrez of Seville, who sold his rosary so I could repair my lance…

Hillary’s most insistent claim in her concession speech was that she had made it normal for a woman to win a primary, that it would no longer be an invisible barrier. Possibly so, but the worry would be that the glass ceiling might be strengthened, not smashed, by the rule-proving exception of the wife of a powerful man being the first to achieve such a success.

That’s not Hillary’s fault, and no reason for her not to run, but it has to be said that she’s more like Benazir Bhutto or Indira Ghandi than she is Thatcher or one of those umpteen Nordic women who run the Scandinavian gynocracies. Benazir got the gig because the family was fast running out of Bhuttos, and there’s a sense in which Hillary’s candidacy reinforced patriachal notions in a similar way — the sense of lese majeste, that of course Bill’s wife had the right to be, first the senator of a state she’d barely lived in, and then a front-runner.

Gloria Steinhem and others argued that Hillary’s candidacy had suffered from s-xism, but that was precisely wrong. Sure, there was the inevitable attention to appearance, dress etc – simply unavoidable because men and women have different public physicalities; culturally, it’s impossible for a woman to dress neutrally, everything signifies — but it’s worth remembering that even 20 years ago, female candidates for public office had to deal with the ‘too emotional’, ‘what if North Korea invades during that time of the month’ stuff.

No, the women whose candidacies were hobbled by sexism were the ones you never heard of, because they never got to the starting gate — lacking state-based public office, a congressional seat, or a financial base.

That is the particular remnant sexism of the American system varying wildly across the system – the US has a much better record of choosing women state governors than we do for example, but most of them have Buckley’s of moving onto the more powerful and lucrative Senate seats — but it is also the more general American political process itself that is inherently masculinist.

With the primary process becoming longer and more gruelling every four years, a tilt at the Presidency is not only not for the faint-hearted — it is not for anyone who can not bear not to try. State governors get selected by party manoeuvering and only occasionally have a hard-fought primary, lasting a few weeks. Politicians in westminster systems face the same process. So too did US politicians for most of the Republic’s life.

But now, like Berlioz’s Cellini, anyone who wants to be President must meltdown their life’s work to provide the raw material for a single, final piece that may not even set properly. The competition invites you to spend years, decades, putting in the work on a contest which statisically speaking, you are overwhelmingly likely to lose. It demands that you either have or develop the utterly irrational belief that you and only you can bring to fruition that you want to see done, that if you have that by nature, you have at least a grain of rational scepticism, which can make allowance for the doubting too.

It demands that you be willing to see scrutiny applied not only to you and your every failing, mistake and vulnerability, but also to the people you love, care about and care for — and that you be sufficiently selfish for that thought not to be crippling of the risks you’re willing to take. Deeper than will, it demands a driving need, which would leave the world — had you not applied for the job of running it — stale, weary, flat and the other one.

So it is, in other words, somewhere on the spectrum between a pissing competition and the conquest of South America — and its structure has become, I would suggest, for deep-seated cultural or other reasons, something more conducive to men than women, on average. Quite possibly that has something to do with frontier myths of masculinity — the primary system really developed in the two decades after the frontier finally closed in the 1890s, and America launched itself as an imperial power.

The rhetorical defence of the primaries is that it gives you the best candidate. What it gives you, by attrition, is someone with far more than most a big dose of narcissism, ambition, insouciance, a quasi-psychotic sense of destiny, and a disdain for the particular, the concrete, the administrative, the consistent. A more closed party system has its problems too, but it means that a good leader who is nevertheless not full of sh-t, has a better chance than a bad leader who’s an egomaniac, of getting through.

Hillary’s distinctiveness was that, over the last decade or so, she had so thoroughly conformed herself to the US political process that she could go further and harder than anyone else in the race. There is no reason to doubt the sincerity of her claim that her sense of mission was founded in part on her belief that eight years as an active first lady had given her an invaluable tutelage, uniquely allowing her to be more effective, more quickly, in the job.

Nor its accuracy. Like a trainee political sushi chef, Hillary spent years without a lot to do but watch — and thus gain an overview of how the Bill Clinton White House — herself included — failed in terms of getting something resembling worthwhile social reform through the entrenched interests (including the interests the Clintons were beholden to). Once again, that is something the Westminster system provides — either as a cabinet minister or an opposition leader you do a lot of watching, scrutinising, inevitably thinking about how you’d handle this or that crisis.

Cabinet posts in the US rarely lead to the Presidency, and there is no official opposition. The President was originally intended to be a far more limited figure — presiding not governing, as the title suggests — self-governing states within a union. S/he has become an imperial governor, subordinating domestic policies to the needs of a military global occupation — unscrutinised.

Whether out of a sense of duty, drive, will, ego, want, envy, pique or some cocktail of ’em all, Hillary made herself over to be the sort of person who could take government and then run it. Tragically for her, she was one election too late. By 2008, no-one under 50 had any actual memory of the 60s, the last great left-right battle before the west collapsed into postmodernity. The Dubya/Cheney/Rove regime had coaxed the last possibility of real division from that historical memory — and in doing so, had worn it out.

The dominant conception of politics in the West is now one of utter bewilderment — bewilderment at what a consistent programme amounts to, at how the system relates to the individual, at the abundance of cheap luxuries and the utter lack of security, at the wild possibilities of the future — from ever-advancing high tech growth to ecological disaster and all points in between — and the public was ready for someone who spoke to that sense in very basic, categorical terms.

Obama’s rhetoric, by being more general, even universal, was more particular because it speaks to that individual sense of disconnection from the mainstream. John McCain speaks to it through his persona — the ancient warrior — and his increasingly unconvincing attempt to portray the broken-down global fringe movement of Al-Qaeda as an “existential threat”. But he too may have underestimated — or simply be incapable of — the oracular, prophetic and deeply personal vision many Americans are craving at the moment. But one thing is certain — he has a better shot at it than Hillary did.

Yes, she only lost to him by 200 delegates. But it’s the degree to which he came from a standing start — no power base, no dominant political division — to match and then overtake her, that is the true measure of her loss. The pundits who hailed her as the winner in late 2007 will give equally assured diagnoses of her campaign failings.

There were chaotic failings within her campaign — but so too are there in any number of successful ones. It was less hip to the changed nature of public life in the internet era than Bama’s was, but even had it been not so, it may not have made much difference. People only needed to hear Obama to know they wanted to support him, and a dozen extra robocalls and mailshots by Hillary wasn’t going to change that.

Yet what else could she do? She was jammed up by history. Running in 2004 (or God forbid 2000) would have been too early. This was her first shot. Should Obama lose, 2012 will be her second and last one.

Therein lies the devil’s dilemma, should Obama offer her the VP slot. For should they go down in flames together, 2012 is out of the question. Yet should Obama lose alone, and McCain run a single term, 2012 starts to look better than 2008. The Obama candidacy will be looked back on as a mad adventure, never to be repeated, the US may be in even worse shape, and Hillary would suddenly look like the one we were all mad to let get away. Capable of taking every sector of the Democrats and a big slice of the middle ground, she would then be in line for a potential 35 state victory.

Meanwhile if Obama wins, he will obviously run again in ’12. So VP would be where it stops, the proverbial bucket of warm p-ss. Mind you, the bloke who said that was John Garner Nance, who basically used the office to stop FDR reconstructing the Supreme Court via a stack (he was going to expand it with friendly judges to get New Deal legislation ruled as constitutional), and thus shaped modern America more than most Presidents have.

We will see. But it would be unwise to yet declare over The Clinton Era.

Meanwhile, and enfin, let the contest begin.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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