The lost election year

Godfrey Hodgson
15 May 2008

Hillary Clinton won a handsome victory on 13 May 2008 in the Democratic primary election in West Virginia, whose people are among the poorest, most racially homogeneous, and least educated in the United States. But her success there will not erase Barack Obama's lead in delegates secured for the Democratic Party's convention in Denver in August 2008, nor arrest the glacial slide towards her rival's selection as the party's candidate to challenge Senator John McCain in the United States presidential election of 4 November. The series of endorsements Obama has been receiving from the Democrats' "superdelegates", as well as from the former presidential aspirant John Edwards, only reinforces the sense of inevitability about his - eventual - candidature.

openUSA is a new part of the openDemocracy network, publishing daily commentary and analysis of the 2008 election - both from the United States itself and around the world - and links to the best campaign coverage To access openUSA, click here
The Clinton camp claims that its candidate's victories in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia show that she can win "swing states", and that therefore she has a better chance of defeating John McCain. Much poll evidence suggests that Obama would in fact be a stronger challenger. But these calculations aside, the nature of the Clinton campaign has cast a political shadow over the entire presidential contest.

A stony trail

Hillary Clinton's campaign in West Virginia confirms the impression her tour across the economically blighted industrial midwest had already left: that she is framing the contest for the Democratic nomination as a contest between African-Americans and their upper-middle-class sympathisers against the white working class - "hard-working families", as she calls them, as if African-Americans spent their days lying in the sun munching on watermelons.

The last few primaries have shown how far the 2008 campaign has degenerated from the high hopes so many Americans cherished when the campaign began. Democrats had hoped to build on national disenchantment with the Iraq war and the irrelevance and class bias of the Republicans' domestic policies to present the nation with a clean and clear new vision of American politics. A key ingredient was to end the pernicious influence of lobbyists and influence-purchasers in American politics, part of a wider project to restore principles of fairness lost under the gross and growing inequality of the George W Bush years. The failures in economic management exposed by the "sub-prime" mortgage crisis of 2007-08 underlined the Democrats' argument that this had to be a "change election".

Godfrey Hodgson was director of the Reuters' Foundation Programme at Oxford University, and before that the Observer's correspondent in the United States and foreign editor of the Independent. He reported the presidential elections of 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976 for various British and American media, and was co-author (with Lewis Chester and Bruce Page) of the best-selling account of the 1968 campaign, An American Melodrama (Viking Press, 1969). Among his other books are The World Turned Right Side Up: a history of the conservative ascendancy in America (Houghton Mifflin, 1996); The Gentleman from New York: Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (Houghton Mifflin, 2000); More Equal Than Others: America from Nixon to the New Century (Princeton University Press, 2006), and A Great and Godly Adventure: The Pilgrims and the Myth of the First Thanksgiving (PublicAffiars, 2007)

Among Godfrey Hodgson's openDemocracy articles on American politics:

"The next big issue: inequality in America" (13 September 2006)

"America against itself" (19 February 2007)

"The politics of justice" (9 July 2007)

"The United States: democracy in trouble" (30 September 2007)

"America in 2008: the next realignment?" (6 November 2007)

"Washington discovers Islamabad" (27 November 2007)

"The United States election: time for ‘change'" (10 January 2008)

"'Superdelegates' and the US election" (25 February 2008) The intra-party competition had to be resolved before the challenge to the Republicans could be launched. A vigorous contest to decide which Democrat would best be able to advance this vision was inevitable. But the high hopes have long dissolved in a primary campaign marked on Hillary Clinton's side by a regrettably personal approach towards her opponent, which has drawn some of its energy from the partisan rumour-mongering and innuendo about Obama circulating on the internet and enthusiastically recycled by Republicans (see Anthony Barnett, "What Obama is up against", openUSA, 15 May 2008).

The Clinton campaign's use of the views of Obama's former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, was especially calculating - and it is impossible to avoid the subtext of racialisation present in the furore. The insinuating discourse of West Virginia is in this light part of a pattern that began with Bill Clinton's comparison of Obama's campaign with that of Jesse Jackson's in 1984, thus implying that for all his polish the appeal of the Illinois senator would hit a racial wall.

Under a rain of rotten fruit and dead cats, Obama has behaved with restraint and dignity. The speech he delivered after the Jeremiah Wright story first broke ranks with the most thoughtful and serious reflections on race in America. The scholar Garry Wills even compared it to Abraham Lincoln's great speech at the Cooper Union in 1860, an event that put Lincoln into the frontline of potential candidates for the presidency on the eve of the civil war.

True, the intense pressures of the campaign have led Obama to retreat from his determined embrace of a high-minded "new politics" of "change", and to engage in some of the compromises that his earlier rhetoric seemed to disown. He has also made mistakes, most seriously in portraying as "bitter" the attachment of voters in some decaying post-industrial areas to guns and religion - even though there is something in the substance of a remark he would have been wiser not to utter (at least in this way). His admirers hope that he retains his bold vision of how American politics could be transformed, and the confidence that he can really change the system (see Anthony Barnett, "Taking Obama seriously", 6 February 2008).

A blank screen

The dominant political story of 2008, then, has so far disappointed expectations that this would be one of the great election campaigns - fit to stand with 1912 or 1968, a thoughtful and searching examination of what is wrong with the American political system and how it can be improved.

The intemperate tone of the Clinton campaign shares a large part of the responsibility for this. But it is striking too to see how much the media (and innumerable commentators) misread the campaign's dynamics - from the belief that each party would be able to choose its candidate on or soon after "super Tuesday" to the view that Senator Clinton had accumulated a "war chest" that would enable her to crush all opposition, from the dismissal of McCain's chances to the puffing beyond all credibility of implausible champions such as Mitt Romney or Fred Thompson.

The media's unreliability of judgment, however, is less important than the fact that it has also focused on and (as in the various TV debates between Clinton and Obama) amplified trivia and mudslinging at the expense of questioning about ideas for change and serious policy issues.

At the very moment when the United States needs a debate that reaches for the heights of political debate rather than wallows in the shallows, this has been another of the year's failures of democracy.

A missed path

In principle, the intense nature of Democratic in-fighting and the relatively painless emergence of the Republican nominee mean that Senator McCain will reach the decisive phase of the election campaign - which starts after Labor Day, in early September - with his policies, his record and even his character largely untested.

McCain is an authentic war hero, a man whose conduct in prison and under severe and repeated torture is beyond praise. He has also been an independent and unpredictable legislator who has stood apart from the conservative legions on Capitol Hill - especially on climate change. Yet his support for the war in Iraq (and indeed for intensifying the American military effort there) and his undefined or modest economic policies do not inspire cast doubt on his judgment of the scale of the problems facing the country.

The Democratic contest has eaten valuable time and resources that could have been spent on building a unified effort ready to mobilise behind a single candidate - though it can also be argued that the very energy of the party's internecine fight has increased the motivation of its supporters. It is very late in the day for them to build the kind of coalition necessary for a resounding victory in November - one that includes (as did Franklin Delano Roosevelt's in 1932 or Lyndon B Johnson's in 1964) unhappy industrial workers from the midwest and African-Americans, Harvard professors and naturalised immigrants, senior citizens and idealistic students.
Hillary Clinton can hardly be blamed for fighting on, even after most of her own party think she has lost. There is even something admirable in her combative stance and persona, as she hurls defiance and even reinvents herself as a leading member of her husband's administration.

Yet by extending herself so far, she may have made it more difficult for the Democrats to defeat John McCain. Even more seriously, she has helped deprive her party and country of the campaign that might have led to the true realignment that opens the way to what so many Americans (and not only Democrats) want: liberating the United States's politics from the influence of money, lobbyists and the corrupting practices of the Washington Beltway.

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