Friday, February 16, 2007

Presidential Runners Jump The Starting Gun

My piece from today's Tribune on the early Presidential primaries in the US. It is, of course the newspaper that George Orwell wrote many of his best essays for.

I do my best..

An unprecedented year before the first actual primary election, the candidates are already waving their placards. The hidden subtext on most of them is “send money to this address.” Any serious candidate has to raise some $100 million– and prepare to blow it all in a very short period. Many states, including major ones like Florida and California, are concentrating their primary dates together in the early part of the year, which means that candidates will have to rely more than ever on expensive TV advertising – not to mention jet rental – to get their messages across.

However, how many of them actually have a message? Or more pertinently, a message that not aimed into attracting the millions needed for the campaign.

By old British Labour standards, Congressman Dennis Kucinich is easily the most principled of the pack. So he definitely won't get the campaign financing, nor will he get the media’s endorsement as one of the favourites. Sadly, integrity does not necessarily imply charisma. Sometimes, it is not enough to have the right policy – as the comedian said "It's the way you tell 'em."

So far consensus on the Democratic side anoints Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as the front-runners, with John Edwards, Joe Biden and others as outsiders. Hillary has an early lock on the money, where her husband’s skills in charming billionaires out of cash were as legendary as his ability to get interns on their knees. She has been trying to appear folksy and human. In reality, the softest thing about her is her teeth, and her real policy has no complexity at all. It is to get herself into the White House by any means necessary.

Over the next year we will see some desperate triangulation as she tries to rally the traditionally liberal segments of the Democrat voter base, blacks, women, unions, gays and the like, while persuading those with money that she will look after them. In particular her support for starting the war and her half-hearted opposition to continuing it, while pandering to the hawkish pro-Israeli campaign contributor by beating the drums for a war in Iran, is going to make her husband's line on marijuana use appear to be the epitome of candour.

Unlike Hillary, Barack Obama unequivocally wants out of the Iraqi maelstrom, but no one is sure of the rest of his policies. However the articulacy and sincerity he exudes are both traits that no recent President has combined, so no wonder he is under attack.

The very lack of experience that his opponents accuse him of could also be an asset, unlike rivals with more Senatorial seniority who have spend several terms brown-nosing campaign contributors. The jibes about his lack of experience are somewhat desparate. George W. Bush’s experience as governor of Texas, with no power except the one he never used too commute the death penalty, was hardly up there with the great political apprenticeships. Carter, Reagan and Bill Clinton all made it on the basis of governorships with no national experience. Nor can Hillary and George W. claim that being respectively the spouse and son of a president is the same as actual experience.

In the complex shifts of the primaries, the unknown factor is how Obama's candidacy affects Clinton's positions. She would prefer, like Tony Blair, to take her base for granted so she can concentrate on swing votes and fundraising from rich lobbyists. But she is now forced to fight off Obama's challenge from a more liberal position.

Watch out for coded attacks from her camp. Already it is being questioned whether the son of a Kenyan father and a White American mother can really be black, and merit the black vote the way that, it is implied, the pure white Hillary can. The school he attended as an infant in Kenya, has, totally spuriously, been described as an Islamic madrassa. Many more winged arrows of outrageous innuendo will be swooshing his way over the next year.

If it is any consolation, on the Republican side, two of the main contenders, Senator John McCain and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani are having a similar internecine battle. Both have previously taken moderate positions, but have to stand on their heads to appeal to the die-hard Christian right. As mayor, Giuliani, despite the halo that inadvertently dropped on his head on September 11, surrounded himself with dubious characters who will now be brought up in evidence against him, as will the socially liberal positions on abortion and the like that he adopted to get elected in New York. Announcing ones divorce at a press conference without telling the spouse was hardly a triumph for family values either.

Perhaps the saddest is McCain, who was thoroughly slimed last time by the Bush team, but has since licked the slime and said how tasty it is. He is moving to the right at close to light speed, but must still worry that the Bush dynasty, despite his loyalty, will suddenly produce someone like Jeb Bush out of the hat, and slime McCain all over again.

It will be an interesting year, but like mud-wrestling, it's much better to be a spectator than a participant, and even then little hope of edification.

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