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Constitutional conventions: best practice

Barack Obama will be the next President

The networks are calling crucial state after crucial state for Obama, and Nate Silver at has just called the whole race. Upsets can always happen, but I think we can rely on his judgement. There will be more on this historic result tomorrow at openUSA.

The strange death of Republican America

The United States president has been near-invisible in the election of his successor. But it is a referendum on his rule all the same, says Sidney Blumenthal.

Senate races to watch

If the Presidential race provides insufficient drama tonight, watch out for the results of the Senate races also taking place. There look likely to be some real nail-biters. Foremost among these is the match-up in Georgia between incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss and Democrat Jim Martin. The race looks so close that it may end up in a December runoff, prolonging the election season yet further. Another close race is in Minnesota, with comedian Al Franken challenging Republican Senator Norm Coleman. This should have been a solid Democratic gain this year, but Franken has proved to be a less than ideal candidate, with the race essentially tied in the polls.

The outcome of these races should interest us all, even if we are not Minnesotans or Georgians. The workings of the Senate mean that a minority of over 40 can effectively stall any legislation, so the Democrats are desperately hoping they can reach 60 seats. It looks unlikely at the moment, but if this is truly a landslide for Obama, he may have sufficiently long coat-tails to get his party there. Amid all the excitement and triumphalism that would surround an Obama victory, we should not forget that he may have a difficult time bringing about the change he has promised.

Update: The Democrats have managed to win Elizabeth Dole's seat in North Carolina, a pleasing result for them...

2006: McCain 510-Obama 28

The Huffington Post is carrying an intriguing story regarding a survey conducted exactly two years ago by polling company SurveyNow, gauging the balance of voter support across the country in the event of a hypothetical Barack Obama-John McCain presidential showdown in 2008.

Interviewing 600 voters in each state, SurveyUSA was able to extrapolate that an Obama candidacy would take Illinois, Hawaii and the District of Columbia-and that's it. This would have left him with a grand total of 28 total electoral votes, and culminated in a landslide victory for John McCain.

If Howard Wilson was right in his assertion that a week is a long time in politics, then this should prove ample evidence that two years is a very very long time indeed.

2006 SurveyUSA Electoral College Map

Only in America (part IV)

In the fourth part of his exchange with KA Dilday, Anthony Barnett argues that Obama sees the US as part of the world, not apart from it. Catch up with part 1, part 2, and part 3.  

Dear Kay,

Senator Obama - and I SO hope by tomorrow morning it will be "President-elect" Obama - agrees with you. In an otherwise masterful opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, he writes, 

I'll finally finish the fight against bin Laden and the al Qaeda terrorists who attacked us on 9/11, build new partnerships to defeat the threats of the 21st century, and restore our moral standing so that America remains the last, best hope of Earth.

Right up to the implication of your last clause I agree with you that 

What Obama has demonstrated goes beyond the example that, no matter how far-fetched it seems, one can achieve one's dreams. He has shown people that there are many different ways to be black; that one can be comfortable and at home with people of all races and religions; that intellectualism is valuable to anyone of any race; and that America has done it again.

I'd say he has done more in that he has shown people of all colours, including white, that there are many different ways of being themselves, that their skin and background is not their fate. (And intellectualism is valuable - hurray! Have you tried to say that here in Britain?)

Here is the main point: America is special, yes. It is different. It is unique in its own way. But so too in their ways are all other countries. America is especially special because it is so powerful. But this is not inspiring - look what it has done with its power, from Vietnam to Iraq. Yes, Obama represents another America from Bush. The immense importance of his campaign is that it means one cannot say about George W Bush's Guantanamo-USA, "That's it folks - there is no other America".

Only in America (part III)

In the third portion of her exchange with Anthony Barnett, KA Dilday argues that majority-minority dynamics in the US would make an Obama presidency unique and incomparable to the rise of Lula, Bachelet and Morales in South America. Previous letters: part I and part II. Read on: part IV.   

Dear Anthony:

It's the day of reckoning and I am taut with nervousness, so I'm pleased to be distracted by our discussion.

You question whether Barack Obama's success makes American exceptional. I still believe that it does. But I do acknowledge several of your points: blacks in America have a much longer history than the dominant ethnic minorities in the United Kingdom or in France or in most of Western Europe for that matter. And I agree that the US is woefully behind in matters of gender. Just witness the "taming" of Michelle Obama and Hillary (then Rodham, forced to change her name to) Clinton, both of whom had to downplay their own intelligence and accomplishments to fit into Americans' notion of a potential first lady.

So why does Obama's success make the United States exceptional?

Obama vs. McCain: the view from the anti-war Left

The Stop the War Coalition was founded seven years ago in response to the invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent attack on Iraq, gathering immense popular support as it brought over one million people into the streets of London on 15 February 2003. These heights have not been reached since; even as the war has dragged on, the anti-war left in the UK (as well as its counterpart in the US) has somewhat dropped off the radar. The recent financial crisis further crowds out the anti-war agenda in the public arena. But as I discovered last night at a meeting on the subject "the US election, the economic crisis and the war", the group is still going strong and working hard towards peace, naturally maintaining its own interests in the outcome of today's election.

There was an assumption running throughout most of the discussion that Barack Obama will win, however Moazzam Begg (ex-Guantanamo detainee) said, "surely, whether it's Obama or McCain, things can only get better".

Despite flashes of high praise for Barack Obama ("Let's recognise that Obama will be far and away the most intelligent President in thirty, maybe forty, years") there was an air of scepticism, both generally ("I don't think problems are solved by leaders no matter how good they are") and specifically - regarding his foreign policy.

Jonathan Steele summed it up, saying, "Barack Obama made a principled objection to the war - it's true that he has made concessions on that stance since becoming a candidate but I think that he does want to get out of Iraq with some kind of dignity." He then went on to criticise Obama's pledge to withdraw troops from Iraq within sixteen months of attaining office as only referring to combat troops. A large number of troops would remain to train Iraqi troops (Steele points out that UK forces are doing this already, and that it doesn't have to be undertaken within the country) and defend the embassy (one of the largest in the world). There is also the problem that all of the troops taken out of Iraq would be sent to Afghanistan, and that Obama could send some into Pakistan. There was further criticism that "he still seems to be talking about a military solution not a political one."

The general consensus was unremarkable in concluding that an Obama victory would be the best thing for Iran, herald some change in Iraq, while raising major concerns about the situations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Shy Tories and Misleading Polls

There's been much talk this year of the Bradley Effect, or the Wilder Effect, or whatever name you want to give to the phenomenon of polls overstating a black candidate's support. It is bound to be one of the things which keeps anxious Democrats up tonight. But, as Harvard's David Hopkins has shown, there is no convincing evidence that this effect still exists.

So, for those left-leaning readers looking for another reason to worry, I submit the Shy Tory Factor. British readers will remember that the pollsters badly overestimated Labour support in the 1992 general election. Even the exit polls got the result wrong: this strongly suggested that Tory voters were either failing to speak to pollsters or lying about their choice. The most widely-accepted explanation for this was that the Conservatives had become 'politically incorrect'.

This is simply my own speculation, backed up by a handful of anecdotes, but it is possible that the same thing is going on in America today. In many (though certainly not all) parts of the country, Barack Obama is the 'politically correct' choice, for a variety of reasons - not just race, but also Bush's abysmal approval ratings and the cultural image of the Republican party. This is certainly something to bear in mind if the exit polls show an Obama lead. They also had Kerry ahead in 2004, and we all know how that turned out.

Election Night: When will we know the victor?

International viewers of the US elections will be hoping that the outcome is decided soon. If it is not, some of us will lose any chance of sleep as we suffer for our time zones. With that in mind, I have compiled a list of early-voting states which may foreshadow the eventual results.

The polls close first (11pm GMT) in Indiana and Kentucky. Both states have historically been Republican, but if Indiana seems close, that will at least be an indication that Obama's support in the polls has not been misleading - something many Democrats are fretting about right now. If John McCain loses Indiana, that may be the first fall in a landslide.

Next come Florida, Georgia, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Vermont and Virginia, with polls closing at 12am GMT. Unfortunately, many of these states may be too close for the networks to call any time soon. Victories in Virginia or Florida would give Barack Obama an almost impregnable lead in the electoral college. Success in New Hampshire would give John McCain cause for cheer - the state has voted for the eventual victor in every election since 1964, with the exception of the last one.

Then, at 12:30am GMT, the polls close in North Carolina, Ohio and West Virginia. This is where it gets interesting: any of these states could flip, and a flip in any one of them would be telling. If North Carolina votes Democratic for the first time since 1976, Obama will have made deep inroads into the South. If he loses Ohio and West Virginia, he will have failed to close the deal with the Clinton Democrats he needs.

By 1am GMT, enough votes should have been cast to settle the race, with 18 states closing their polling stations. That does not mean that we will know the outcome yet - although the earlier results may have given us a pretty good idea. If not, this will be the time that for us to hang onto our sofas as the election workers tally the votes in Pennsylvania - a crucial 'swing' state, and one of McCain's few paths to the White House.

Here's hoping all readers have an enjoyable election night - and return to openUSA well-rested in the morning, for analysis of what the outcome means, and what lies in America's future.

Taking Obama seriously

The United States presidential race is the most exciting and energising in years. Barack Obama has made it so, and in a way that opens a new era of political possibility, says openDemocracy's founder Anthony Barnett.

(This article was first published on 6 February 2008)

Only in America (part II)

In the second part of an exchange with KA Dilday, Anthony Barnett argues that the novelty of Obama's candidacy places the Democratic nominee in the company of leaders across the Americas. Kay's first letter can be read here, as well as part III, and part IV.

Dear Kay,

I well remember our conversation. I also recall how I first started to listen to and read Obama in January and thought, "Damn, he really means to win and can." It was because of his deliberate appeal to conservatism. It meant he was genuinely serious about the presidency - and not in running as a radical, let alone as a "black" (as Jessie Jackson, at least in part, did). So here is to your dish of crow! May I garnish it in just two evenings time! 

But will - or would - Obama's election mean that the US is exceptional? Or that it is the beacon for humankind? Or at least that it is more liberal or tolerant than western Europe as you suggest? Here also we argued. First things first. It was not even slavery in America that was so exceptional. It was the civil war. Without the civil war the South would surely have abandoned slavery of its own accord. Instead, it suffered its appalling devastation and long aftermath as revenge was administered on the coloured through Jim Crow. To overcome this is to become normal. 

Obama presents himself as a candidate who will heal division. Like all good doctors, he joins exceptional self-belief and a measure of modesty. The immediate division he seeks to heal is also the civil war of the Sixties - in a word, "Vietnam" - that echoed your original civil war. But I want to emphasise that this healing, if it happens, will make America more healthy and normal, not boost its exceptionalism.

Europe's unrealistic expectations

In an open letter to the next occupant of the White House, Charles Grant, Director of the Centre for European Reform called for a change of American direction. Europe was concerned, he wrote, at US failure to boldly commit to climate change initiatives, and the lack of US support for the International Criminal Court. Grant also hoped for the more restrained use of hard power after attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan. In short the letter called for a leader who would heal transatlantic relations, widened by excessive US unilateralism. "Dear George Bush," the letter began, dated January 2001.

Europe must be suffering from an acute case of political déjà vu right now; eight years after the end of Clinton's presidency the message from the "Old Continent" is depressingly familiar. Europeans expect the next American president to reorient US foreign policy, engaging seriously with multilateral institutions and forging close partnerships with Europe on a range of important issues, from curbing greenhouse emissions to curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Across the continent, excitement at the end of the Bush presidency is palpable. From inauguration countdowns on Facebook to the huge crowds Obama drew in Paris and Berlin, Europeans are looking forward to the next American presidency with relish. Implicit is the assumption that a change in American leadership equals a convergence of US and European policies. Optimists highlight Obama's lofty "citizen of the world" rhetoric or McCain's criticism of excessive "lone ranger" diplomacy. Yet the stark similarities between Charles Grants' letter and contemporary European criticism of the US should caution against such hopeful expectations.

Why Democrats should pray that they win, and Republicans should want to lose

Every four years, Republican and Democratic loyalists work themselves to the bone trying to get their Presidential candidate elected. On the decisive night, they stay up late, waiting for the returns and exit polls, offering religious and secular prayers. Millions in America and Europe, myself included, will be doing just this on November the 4th.

In light of this, it seems almost churlish to suggest that we should not always want our chosen candidate to win. Nonetheless, I would argue that this is so.
Exhibit A is Kerry's loss in 2004. At the time, it devastated many liberals and Democrats. But with hindsight we can see that it allowed the depth of George Bush's failures to sink in with the American public, potentially leading to what Karl suggests will be a generational shift in the US's politics. There was a cost for that, of course - the failures were allowed to continue, in Afghanistan, New Orleans and, at least early on, in Iraq. But after the Republicans botched their reforms of social security and then lost control of congress, they were not able to accomplish much for good or ill. At the risk of going out on a limb, I think that Democrats should be glad of Kerry's loss.

Many commentators have suggested that this is also an election one shouldn't want to win, due to the dire state of the nation's finances and the economic downturn that looms. Fairly or unfairly, parties tend to get blamed when they are in charge during recessions, and, if the experts are to be believed, the one on the horizon will be long and deep. However, I doubt that this will hold if Obama is elected. The Republicans appear to own these troubles in the public's mind. If on the other hand McCain won, a sharp downturn in his first term could damage his party's brand yet further. I hope that affords some comfort to his supporters if he loses on Tuesday.

There is potentially another factor partisans should take into account, though. Parties do not exist simply to maximise their years in office, whatever the aims of some individual politicians may be. Their theoretical purpose is to bring their vision of change to the country. Crippled though the next President may be by a skyrocketing national debt and tough economic times, he will have an almost unparalleled opportunity to alter America's direction. Two long years of campaigning have shown that the voters want change. The original meaning of 'crisis' was a decisive situation or turning point. If America is facing a crisis then Democrats - and those of us rooting for them from abroad - should hope that they are the ones who get the chance to determine its outcome.

2008: The fifth 'pivot point' in US history?

Given that the barriers of race and gender have been progressively eroded throughout the prolonged campaign season, many people have argued that this year's general election is something extraordinary by most measures.

For Yale law professor Akhil Reed Amar, however, the 2008 election represents a potentially profound turning-point in American history.

As Richard Reeves reports, the New York Historical Society recently hosted a conference entitled "Do Elections Matter?" To kick-off the event, Amar put forth his thesis that the United States has experienced four "pivot point" elections in the 219 years since the founding fathers forged the country's constitution: 1800, 1860, 1932, and either 1968 or 1980.

In each case, Amar argued, socio-historical forces conspired to ensure that the outcome of each election shaped the direction of the country and the dynamics of its politics for generations to come.

For example, Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson defeated Federalist John Adams in 1800, and over the next six decades the foundations for the Democratic Party in its current form began to emerge; Abraham Lincoln's victory in 1860 marked the beginning of Republican dominance well into the next century; FDR and the socialist New Deal Democrats set the agenda for much of the post-War era; finally, Nixon's presidency (or Reagan's, depending on your personal perspective) coincided with a golden era for conservatives, which now appears to be steadily waning.

A crucial catalyst to these elections all having the impact on the direction of American society  that they did is that they all occured against a backdrop of three important trends: economic decline, over-reactive wars, or a climate of paranoia based on perceived enemies abroad which subsequently results in the repression of civil liberties at home.

As Amar points out, these very issues resonate as strongly in this year's election as the four pivot point elections that preceded it--given the recent economic meltdown in Wall Street and looming recession on Main Street, the high cost and unpopularity of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars amongst the general public, and the repeal of a number of civil liberties via legislative measures, deemed necessary as part of President Bush's ‘War on Terror'. Consequently, in years to come we may expect to see the 2008 presidential election prove as influential an electoral event as these aforementioned elections.

While Amar's thesis is intriguing--if perhaps a little too quick to dismiss victories from figures such as Wilson, Carter and Clinton as arberrations simply because they polled below the 50 percent threshold--it also reflects a belief increasingly expressed by members of the media and academia alike that this year's election will bring a pronounced and quite profound sea-change in the social and political landscape in American culture.

More significantly however, in contrast to what Democrats and many members of the media may say, Amar's thesis suggests that this seismic historical shift will not nescessarily be on the condition of an Obama victory on November 4th.

Clinton got it wrong

There is something of a winge over in the Guardian by Harold Evans. Great editor though he was it strikes me that his judgement on the media coverage of Obama is wrong - in an important way. He says that Obama has been given a soft ride because he's black and attractive,

In the Democratic primaries, there was a pattern on CNN where the short news videos of Clinton rarely let you hear what she was saying, but the short news videos of Obama let his words come through. I mentioned this to a CNN editor who said, "Oh, that's our young video editors, they just find Obama more exciting."

The young and affluent liberals have been captivated by Obama's charisma, the unstated notion that electing a black man will be absolution for the years of discrimination and prejudice, and the expectation that Obama's undoubted appeal to the outside world will repair America's image. All understandable, but these emotions have been allowed to swamp the commonplace imperatives of journalism: curiosity and scepticism.

All the mainstream national outlets were extraordinarily slow to check Obama's background. And until it became inescapable because of a video rant, they wouldn't investigate the Reverend Jeremiah Wright connection for fear of being accused of racism. They wouldn't explore Obama's dealing with the corrupt, now convicted, Chicago businessman Tony Rezko. They haven't investigated Obama's pledge to get rid of the secret ballot in trade union affairs. After years of inveighing against "money in politics", they've tolerated his breach of the pledge to restrict himself to public financing as McCain has done (to his cost). Now the LA Times refuses to release a possibly compromising video, which shows Obama praising Palestinian activist Rashid Khalidi at a 2003 banquet, saying its promises to its source prevent it from doing so.

Come off it! The US media is always soft on all credible presidential candidates. Maybe it is because of the undue reverence thay have for the presidency. McCain has clearly had the softer ride. It only emerged recently that he is addicted to playing crap. The only study I read of obsessive gamblers is that they are hooked on losing, they play time and again becasue they get a buzz from pain of loss. It is this, not the pleasure of winning, that they are addicted to. Has there been a proper media investigation of this as a qualification for the presidency? Or other telling aspects of the Republican candidate? I think not.

So what is motivating Evans? As you can see from the rest of the article, it is a complaint about the unfair way Hilary Clinton was treated, for example,

MSNBC ran a non-stop campaign for Obama propelled by the misogyny of its anchors

I predict we will see a sour, Democrat watch on Obama, sneering if he turns out to be the somewhat conservative candidate he has always positioned himself as being. Here is Evans again,

Let's hope the consequences of electing "the one" will be as wondrous as the press has led the voters to believe.

How generous and hopeful can you get? Could this undigested bile come from the fact that the Hilary supporters always claimed that Obama could never win and now that it seems he might are bitter with the belief that it could have been her? I remain persuaded by those who always said that she could never win. Clinton versus McCain would have re-run the wars of the sixties to his advantage.

But there is one fact that bears repeating time and again to the Hilary supporters especially when they assert that what did her down was sexism and prejudice. She made a judgement call and got it wrong. Had Hilary voted against the war she would have been the Democratic Party candidate, not Obama. It was her willingness to triangulate with war and his to put his career on the line by setting out why the invasion of Iraq was wrong that put him on the path to where he is and condemned her, rightly to the judgement of the new generation. 

If he wins, it won't be the media that won it for Obama, it will be the fact that he called it right on the defining issue and then thanks to the web he could be seen and heard.

PS: On McCain being a gambler addicted to losing, perhaps this puts him in a 'win-win' situation! (Tks Antara).

Number crunching

Heading into the last weekend before the election, here's a handy tool to keep all the polls and predictions in perspective. The Takeaway condenses the spectrum of political projections in this "prediction tracker" below.

The spectre of the "second Holocaust"

A few months ago, the Washington Post published a story recounting the attempts of the African American political theorist Danielle Allen to get to the bottom of the false claim that Barack Obama is a Muslim. Allen's Internet archaeology turned out to be as interesting as the actual answer - the origin of the claim seems to be a rather odd and anti-Semitic character named Andy Martin, who has recently reappeared in the Fox News "documentary" "Obama & Friends: The History of Radicalism." Allen's quest helped bring to view how smears circulate in our "new media" environment.  

If you've been following the American elections as obsessively as I have, you might also have noticed another odd, and even more inexplicable meme that has been circulating in Republican circles: references to the possibility of a "second holocaust." Most recently, an email was sent by Pennsylvania Republicans to Jewish voters in the state warning that "Jewish Americans cannot afford to make the wrong decision on Tuesday, November 4th, 2008. Many of our ancestors ignored the warning signs in the 1930s and 1940s and made a tragic mistake. Let's not make a similar one this year!"

According to the October 25 Associated Press story that reported this bizarre and offensive attempt to associate Obama with National Socialism and the genocide of Jews in World War II, the email further "warns ‘Fellow Jewish Voters' of the danger of a second Holocaust due to the threats to Israel from its neighbors and touts Republican presidential candidate John McCain's qualifications over those of Obama." 

Republicans have disavowed this particular email, but in fact the rhetoric it uses is consistent with statements that both McCain and Palin have been making in interviews and speeches. For instance, in a 19 September post on its "Political Radar" blog, ABC News reported that "Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin warned against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's pursuit of nuclear weapons for a ‘second holocaust.'" According to Palin's remarks at a rally in Minnesota, "John McCain and I are committed to drawing attention to the danger posed by Iran's nuclear program and we will not waver in our commitment. I will continue to call for sustained action to prevent Iranian President Ahmadinejad from getting these weapons that he wants for a second holocaust."

Despite recent talk of Palin's tendency to "go rogue," it seems unlikely that she came up with this line of argument herself. Indeed, back in July, as MSNBC reports, John McCain went on Israeli television and, again a propos of Iran, declared, "I have to look you in the eye and tell you that the United States of America can never allow a second Holocaust."  

In the final week of the campaign the attempt to link Obama to Iran and alleged threats to Israel has become one of the McCain camp's central talking points (second only to the anachronistic attempt to portray Obama as a "socialist"). The "death to Israel" smear is being repeated in advertisements, direct mail campaigns, "Joe the Plumber" pronouncements, and other detritus of the campaign's last gasp efforts.  

McCain: I am Spartacus...

...or rather, "I am Joe." The ad below also boasts a cameo by the McCain campaign's new puppet of the Protestant work ethic, "Tito the Builder".

Obama's 30-minute documercial

The Obama campaign dominated the airwaves yesterday, using its considerable financial muscle to buy half an hour of prime time programming on most of the major networks (as well as specialty channels like Black Entertainment Television - surely not the best use of resources?) The results can be seen here:

Having called Colin Powell's endorsement powerful, I risk revealing myself as a bit of a softy by admitting that the mawkish music and hard-luck stories worked on me as they were intended to. As Obama narrated the tales of hard-working families, struggling workers and retirees forced back into the workforce to get decent healthcare, one could be forgiven for thinking one was watching a tear-jerking documentary. Treacly? For sure. But also quite effective. Obama's documentary-cum-infomerical outperformed the usual programming in its 8 p.m. timeslot, drawing a total audience of 26.3 million. I doubt as many people would have been willing to listen to a politician lecture them for half an hour.

The advert took few risks - unlike McCain, Obama is not in a position where that would be necessary or wise. The four individuals and families chosen were spread evenly accross the crucial swing states and demographics, with a black couple and an Hispanic teacher sandwiched between two white households. None of them looked anything like the young acolytes whom some critics imagine Obama supporters to be. In between their stories, we heard moderate Democratic governors from midwestern swing states offer their endorsements. One could almost hear the boxes being ticked off as a retired Brigadier General reassured voters worried about Obama's credentials as Commander-in-Chief.

In the end, it is hard to imagine this commercial changing very much. Earlier in the campaign, it might have put to rest some voters' worries about a relatively unknown new figure on the political stage by showing him looking both moderate and presidential. But, if the breakdowns of the polling which followed them are anything to go by, it seems that the debates have already accomplished that. Nonetheless, it can hardly hurt to make Americans more comfortable with the man who in six days' time will likely be their President-Elect.

Update: According to the BBC's Friday night news bulletin, Obama's audience was in fact 33 million. 

Palin 2012: an update

A week ago, I wrote about the possibility of a Sarah Palin candidacy in 2012. Since then, Palin and those close to her appear to have brought this closer to reality by distancing themselves from John McCain. That makes sense if she wants to continue her ascent through the Republican ranks, because recriminations are sure to abound if McCain loses in six days' time. In fact, they have already begun. Joining a growing crowd of conservative commentators and intellectuals, moderate Republicans like Tom Ridge, the former Governor of Pennsylvania, have criticised the choice of Sarah Palin as running mate. (Ridge was widely believed to have been one of McCain's preferred VP picks before concerns about his base pushed him to choose someone more conservative.) Meanwhile, those further to the right have suggested that McCain's problem was that he was not conservative or aggressive enough.Palin has at times come close to voicing this latter critique, publicly urging McCain to "take the gloves off" and make Jeremiah Wright more of an issue. She would certainly not be the moderate wing's choice of candidate in 2012. I argued a week ago that moderates' criticism of her cannot fail to do some damage, but that non-moderates have a disproportionate influence in the primaries. Since then, discussion of her chances in 2012 has intensified, as evidenced by this summary in The Week.  I disagree with the dissenting voice quoted there, who suggests that people like me overestimate her political talents. Uneven though her performance has been this time around, she has shown an ability to draw huge crowds and intense support, and before her brand was tainted she enjoyed widespread popularity. Even more telling are her earlier achievements, which include unseating an incumbent governor in Alaska's Republican primaries, a truly impressive feat.This is not to deny that Palin would face significant challenges. Additional conservative critics may yet emerge once the campaign is over and the need for them to bite their tongues ceases. Assuming McCain loses, she is bound to attract some of the blame. Her popularity in Alaska shows signs of decreasing from its (very high) initial base, and events there may yet damage her. She will face formidable opponents, possibly including a better-funded Mike Huckabee and a re-energised Mitt Romney (whose former staffers have been involved in spreading anti-Palin spin to reporters, according to the American Spectator).  And, awkward though it is to say so, her looks - which constitute a significant part of her appeal for some people - will begin to fade as she goes from 44 to 48.

Obama's "closing" argument

Ahead of a 30-minute "infomercial" to be aired across most US TV networks tonight, Obama spoke rousingly in Ohio yesterday. Billed as his "final argument", the speech mixed the older, loftier rhetoric of the primary season with the more measured and earthly tone of recent months. Not once did Obama allow himself a smile. This was a totally sober speech, concluding with the now familiar invocation of "Hope" as its grim battle cry.

He placed the flailing economy at the fore, consistently abstracting the crisis above the candidates themselves (in clear contrast to the McCain campaign's plunges into the personal). Obama repeated his commitment not to make "a big election about small things". Yet he responded to the more absurd attacks on his supposed "ideology" by strongly defending his platform.

"Government should do what we can't do for ourselves," he said, in arguing the great role government has to play in engendering prosperity in the country, before really sticking to his guns: "John McCain calls it socialism, I call it opportunity." But there is more at stake in this election than vying policies.  Showing that he could meld the political scrapper with the high-minded orator, Obama returned to his rhetorical best towards the end of the speech. "In one week, we can come together as a nation and as a people and choose our better history." As ever, Obama was finely aware of the power of narratives in this election. Both McCain and Obama have drafted stories of themselves as individuals and leaders. But only Obama's campaign has appealed to a renewed narrative of Americanness that in its craft and warmth has that strange (and often dubious) power to inspire.

Howard Dean's "Democratic revolution"?

In a piece noting how Howard Dean's career has turned around since becoming Democratic National Committee Chairman, J. Patrick Coolican argues that the Democrats' bright electoral fortunes in the past couple years are a clear validation of the "fifty state strategy" Dean himself launched in 2005.

By allowing candidates to move closer to the centre over issues such as gun control and abortion rights in certain areas of the country, Coolican argues, the Democrats have become far more competitive across the United States; moreover, Coolican suggests that "Republicans better find themselves a Howard Dean, and fast" if they want to arrest the slow bleed from red to blue that is expected to continue at polling booths next week.

While Coolican is right to praise Dean's energetic stewardship of the Democratic Party in the past three years, and his protracted efforts to court conservative voters, I would be hesitant to suggest - as Coolican strongly implies - that we are witnessing or are on the cusp of some kind of "Democratic Revolution" similar to the one masterminded by Newt Gingrich and his GOP peers in 1994.

Unquestionably, the Democrats are likely to reap even greater electoral spoils in the House and Senate, and are tantalisingly close to securing an overall majority in both. However, is this surge of support fuelled by some enthralling ideological vision for the future outlined by the Democratic leadership, or a substantive legislative and policy agenda serving as a roadmap to traverse the difficult times ahead?

Melanie Phillips the miserablist

At least one person in Europe isn't going all soft and misty-eyed for Obama. The irascible Melanie Phillips recently penned a fevered attack against the presidential hopeful, warning that Obama "will take an axe to America's defences at the very time when they need to be built up." While The Spectator may not be regular fare across the pond, equally frenzied denunciations of Obama have become common in the last few weeks in the US. Evangelicals beseech their co-religionists to vote for McCain in order to stave off a "far-left agenda [that] would take away many of our freedoms as a nation, perhaps permanently." Elected Republicans try to tar and feather Obama as a radical: "With all due respect," Senator George Voinovich, a Republican from Ohio, said, "the man is a socialist." In terms that echo the shrillest of these fear-mongers across the pond, Phillips claims an Obama victory would invite apocalypse.

For a hack who imagines the end of western civilization around every corner, Phillips unsurprisingly finds the most self-destructive instincts of the west in him. "Obama stands for the expiation of America's original sin in oppressing black people, the third world and the poor," she writes. "Obama thinks world conflicts are basically the west's fault, and so it must right the injustices it has inflicted."

According to Phillips, Obama is the epitome of the guilt-ridden, multicultural self-hater. His inevitable failures as president would not only be those of diplomatic compromise, but of cultural and historical surrender. Overreaching minorities will be coddled within their obliging societies. Terrorists will become objects of politically-correct sympathy. Iraq and Afghanistan will be evacuated. Israel will be sacrificed to the Arabs. Obama will strip the US - and ultimately, the "West" - of the right to assert its identity and strength. Under an Obama presidency, there will be no safe buffer zone - political and psychological - between the west and the rest.

Of course, Phillips has no real interest in looking at Obama seriously. She only wants him to be a woodcut in her shadow world of demons and angels. So it makes sense that her rant impresses other paladins of the clash of civilisations (see the comments below her piece on The Spectator website). It's as willfully deaf to reality as they are.

The extraordinary story of Ashley Todd

A remarkable story has been unfolding (or should that be unraveling?) over the last few days in Pennsylvania. It is the story of Ashley Todd, a local McCain campaign volunteer who on Thursday claimed that she had been mugged by a looming African-American who then spotted her McCain bumper sticker and proceeded to beat her up and cut the letter 'B' into her cheek, telling her "you're going to be a Barack supporter". Here is a picture of her after the alleged attack:
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Todd's story soon crumbled as the police found she was nowhere to be seen on the CCTV camera covering the ATM where she claimed the mugging took place, and administered a damning polygraph test. On Friday, she confessed that the whole tale was a hoax, designed to damage Obama. This was not the first such hoax she had pulled: in the primary season, she had been a supporter of Ron Paul, and claimed that in retaliation for this her car's tires had been slashed. She seems to have a history of mental illness, and perhaps our judgement on her should not be too harsh.
The more interesting judgement to make is whether we should blame conservatives for jumping on this story as eagerly as they did. Both McCain and Palin called Todd with their sympathies before her lie was exposed, and their campaign pushed the story on the media, with its Pennsylvania communications director confidently relaying a dramatic version of the story to reporters complete with imagined dialogue from the black assailant ("You're with the McCain campaign? I'm going to teach you a lesson.") that he seems to have contributed. Prominent conservative blogger Ace of Spades initially claimed confidence in the story on the basis of Todd's extremely sketchy evidence.
This is all pretty embarassing for those concerned. But I don't think such gullibility is an exclusively right-wing problem. We shouldn't forget the scores of hoaxes that America's left has fallen for, including the recent Duke University lacrosse team rape scandal. The real lesson of Ashley Todd is to remind us of something both sides of the political spectrum really should have learnt a long time ago: there are plenty of disturbed people out there, some of them will make wild allegations, and when they do we should wait until getting some real evidence before believing them, however much they tickle our political fancies.

The "liberal" media strikes again

Unsurprisingly, the New York Times has endorsed Obama over McCain. The pillar of American print media remains the bete noire of a particularly virulent segment of conservatives, convinced that the broadsheet is at the centre of a "liberal, elitist" national media. During the Republican convention, Sarah Palin singled out the paper as an exemplar of high-falutin' coastal snobbery. 

It's difficult to gauge bias in such a venerable fixture of the American media landscape, one which in almost all respects is painfully centrist and middle-class in its sensibilities. Yes, the paper's op-ed page is predominantly populated by left-leaning columnists, and its editorials mostly take left-leaning positions. But there is little to the suggestion that the paper in the sum of its parts is somehow "leftist"; it was the New York Times, after all, that resurrected the spectre of Bill Ayers by recently making the ex-radical front-page news.

Were Obama to go on to win the presidency, many grumbling conservatives will fault a "pliant" media for giving the Democrat the edge. As Peggy Noonan writes in the Wall Street Journal, "The press knows who the press is for, and it isn't generally the one to the right." While Noonan goes on to blame McCain's own failings - not media bias - for his seemingly impending defeat, the image of a press corps swooning for Obama will remain a part of the narrative of this election campaign. 

But when only 18% of Americans get their news from print media, the grey lady looks more like a straw man. Talk radio and the explosive mix of news and opinion on 24/7 news channels have steered American discourse clearly to the right in the last fifteen years. In the end, newspaper endorsements don't count for much. And - despite Palin's protestations - nor do the east coast's "liberal" rags.

Spot the difference

If there's one name guaranteed to provoke the ire of US liberals, perhaps even more so than that of W himself, then it is surely Ralph Nader. Eight years on and the Democrats still haven't forgiven the perennial independent candidate for "spoiling" their chances in 2000 by taking enough votes in Florida to ultimately cost Gore the Whitehouse.

What Nader has consistently pointed out of course (and there are studies which back him up on this) is that his voters are not simply awkward and self-indulgent Dems - they are voters from all parties and none tired of the dominance corporations hold over the political process. With Republicans and Democrats in virtual agreement on all the main issues, he asks, why shouldn't he run? What right do Democrats have to his votes?

Ahead of his latest bid for the Whitehouse, this familiar theme is reprised by Nader in a CounterPunch article on the Presidential debates. It is an analysis which won't make it anywhere near the mainstream media of course (especially not with election day so close) but it is nevertheless a valuable reminder that amidst the feverish expectation of "hope" and "change" there are powerful and persisting institutional features that militate against any radical break in policy come January 2009.

Nader sees convergence across the board, but let's take one example: foreign policy. Nader writes:

If anyone can detect a difference between the two candidates regarding belligerence toward Iran and Russia, more U.S. soldiers into the quagmire of Afghanistan (next to Pakistan), kneejerk support of the Israeli military oppression, brutalization and colonization of the Palestinians and their shrinking lands, keeping soldiers and bases in Iraq, despite Obama's use of the word "withdrawal," and their desire to enlarge an already bloated, wasteful military budget which already consumes half of the federal government's operating expenses, please illuminate the crevices between them.

Is Nader being unfair on Obama? Obama's opposition to the Iraq war, which dates back to 2002, is frequently offered as an example of a genuinely different approach to international affairs than the belligerence of McCain - and there is certainly some truth in this. But note how Obama's critique of the Iraq war is not a principled critique, but one made on grounds of cost and efficiency. He does not deny that the US has the right to invade foreign countries in violation of the UN Charter based on some cooked-up pretext. Indeed, on both Pakistan and Iran he has declared himself willing to do much the same thing, risking even bloodier disasters than Iraq. On Afghanistan, all serious military analysts now agree that "victory" (whatever that means) is not possible, yet still Democrats in the US, like their liberal counterparts in the UK, continue to insist that this is the "good" war and demand an escalation in troop numbers. And when Obama goes out of his way to portray himself as a "friend" of Israel, the message is clear: don't expect the US to cut back on its military funding for Israel or embrace the international consensus on a two state settlement.

Take a look at the article for yourself and see if you agree with Nader about the narrowness of the political spectrum in the US. I would suggest that, even if you disagree with Nader's politics, it's difficult to dispute his claim that there is a high degree of convergence between the two main parties, and not just on foreign policy.

But, you might object, isn't this just democracy in action, with both candidates chasing the "median" voter? In a properly functioning democracy we would expect a range of views to be offered and debated. Certainly voters have a right to expect this when, contrary to popular belief and the efforts of the mainstream media, opinion polls consistently show that Americans favour a peaceful non-interventionist foreign policy, rejecting the role of the US as global hegemon in favour of multilateral engagement through international institutions like the UN. In this context, it is not difficult to understand why third party candidates like Nader can attract strong support on the rare occasions they're allowed in the media spotlight.


What Obama's team tells us about him

Friends in America tell me that, with an Obama victory continuing to look likely, the chatter on cable news shows has begun to move on to the question of what sort of President he would be. Though this point is often overstated by those on the right, it is true that he is something of an empty book. The main thing we have to go on (besides his campaign book and policy proposals - hardly the most reliable sources, driven as they are by a concern with electability) is his choice of advisers.

Fortunately, a comprehensive National Journal article on this is highly reassuring. Obama has assembled a team of over three hundred seasoned professionals, divided into a dozen large policy groups. Heading this troupe are not the militant leftists of Andy McCarthy's imagination, but senior officials from the Clinton administration, like Tony Lake and Susan Rice.

Obama's team is relentlessly mainstream. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of Austan Goolsbee, Obama's chief economic adviser. Goolsbee's acquaintances describe him as a "committed centrist", and you may remember that he got Obama into trouble in the primaries when he (allegedly) told Canadian officials that his candidate's harsh words on NAFTA were merely political posturing to assuage the leftist Democratic base. Nonetheless, he is not lacking in partisan pluck - you may enjoy this video:

For more insight into the other members of Obama's policy team, I urge you to read the article I referred to above...

The wrong turn (4): a real choice

In this penultimate section, Rosemary Bechler takes another look at the career of Sarah Palin in this context of Anglo-American feminist ambition and asks where we are heading.

Part one of five began on the election campaign trail.

In the second section, Rosemary Bechler looked at some US feminist thinking that she argues provides a better critical approach

Part three saw a lesson in the Greenham Common experience

The wrong turn (3): siren voices

Rosemary Bechler revisits an earlier set of  Anglo-American feminist ambitions.

Part one of five begins on the election campaign trail.

In the second section, Rosemary Bechler looked at some US feminist thinking that she argues provides a better critical approach.

Part three finds a new resource in the Greenham Common experience...

The wrong turn (2): 'hegemonic masculinity'

Rosemary Bechler looks at some of the discussion around the ‘feminist vote' in the US elections. 

Part one begins on the election campaign trail

In the second section, Rosemary Bechler looks at some of the best of US feminist thinking in international relations.

The wrong turn (1): ‘half a feminist vote'

Rosemary Bechler looks at some of the discussion around the ‘feminist vote' in the US elections. What does it tell us in particular about Anglo-American feminist ambitions today? Do they reflect hard-won insights over the last twenty years? 

Part one of five begins on the election campaign trail.

Al Qaeda "endorses" McCain

It seems Islamist insurgents do read openDemocracy's SWISH reports. Just as Paul Rogers urged, a poster on an al-Qaeda-linked website has suggested that a John McCain presidency would better serve the purposes of the jihadist movement than an Obama one. Revelling in the financial crisis gripping America, webby Islamists hope to further drain US resources in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Keeping the US involved in these wars "requires [the] presence of an impetuous American leader such as McCain, who pledged to continue the war till the last American soldier... Then, al-Qaeda will have to support McCain in the coming elections so that he continues the failing march of his predecessor, Bush."

The message, found and translated from a password-protected website monitored by the SITE Intelligence Group, went on: "If al-Qaeda carries out a big operation against American interests, this act will be support of McCain because it will push the Americans deliberately to vote for McCain so that he takes revenge for them against al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda then will succeed in exhausting America till its last year in it."

Neither the McCain nor the Obama campaign have responded strongly to the message, which seems to play quite clearly into Obama's hands. The Democratic candidate's camp would be wise to keep fairly quiet about the message, lest they are seen to be playing politics with the musings of "terrorists".

Palin 2012?

Whether or not she becomes Vice President next year, the prospect of a Palin candidacy in 2012 has to be taken seriously. If McCain wins this election, he would be 76 by the end of his first term, possibly too old to run again. Granted, Reagan was 78 when he left office, but his age proved a political problem, and the actuarial tables for John McCain are worse given his brutal incarceration in North Vietnam and history of skin cancer. If, on the other hand, McCain loses, then there is a chance that he will drag Palin's political career down with him. But she is far more popular with the conservative base than he is, and is already positioning herself to escape blame should the campaign fail by distancing herself from some of McCain's tactics. (Her messages on this front have been somewhat mixed, however. First, she implicitly criticised McCain for not launching more personal attacks on Obama. Then she criticised the campaign's use of robocalls. The day after, she released a robocall of her own.)

Assuming that John McCain does not seek the Republican nomination in four years time and Sarah Palin does, how would she fare? She certainly has ample and pasionate support in the conservative base that votes in the party primaries. However, her star is fading significantly outside that base, with her unfavourability numbers skyrocketing. This souring of attitudes towards her may well fail to seep into the primary electorate, leading them to choose a candidate who may be unelectable. But, as the Democrats' choice of John Kerry four years ago demonstrated, primary voters can be moved by (perceived) electability as well as ideological purity. And there is growing criticism of Palin among elite voices on the right, amplified significantly by Colin Powell's quietly devestating critique of her in his endorsement of Obama. However much these voices may find themselves isolated at the moment, they cannot fail to have some impact.

Update: See this, from the Washington Post's report on the poll they've just carried out with ABC: "McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, has become a drag on the GOP ticket: 52 percent of voters said McCain's selection of her makes them doubt the types of decisions he would make as president, a reversal from a Post-ABC poll following the nominating conventions."

Cartography of a massacre

The McCain campaign seems ready to concede Colorado, New Mexico and Iowa to Obama, focussing its energies instead in teetering southern states - e.g. Virginia - and, bizarrely, in Pennsylvania. Obama is thought to hold a considerable advantage in Pennsylvania, but the state once described as "Pittsburgh and Philadelphia with Alabama between" must seem winnable to the McCain campaign. The gamble makes gory reading for the Republican (map below from


Campaign style: the view from Germany

I've been wandering around Frankfurt's annual book fair this weekend when I stumpled upon a presentation by German journalist Christoph von Marschall, former Washington correspondent of the Berlin-based daily Tagesspiegel, who was presenting his new book on Barack Obama. It was not so much the size of the crowd that was drawn to the event, but rather the audience's level of knowledge about the US election campaign that struck me most. It seemed as if everyone knew Obama as intimately as von Marshall (claimed he) does. And although Germans tend to see America more negatively these days than at any time before, there was great admiration and anticipation in developments on the other side of the pond.

But this observation of the importance that the US still has for the "ordinary German" was not the most interesting part of the event. After the author had finished his presentation, the audience was eager to spark a debate (which I had seen at no other occasion at this fair). A lady brought up a provocative question that dominated the rest of the evening. She was wondering why Americans accepted the way in which the campaigns adopt strategies of defaming each other, at times using false allegations, alluding to stereotypes, spreading rumours that are obviously untrue and generally engaging in a battle of smears. Why is negative campaigning tolerated?

This is not to imply that election campaigns over here are clean and fair, but they certainly dive to lowly depths in the US. Does this stem from the difference in how "freedom of speech" is valued on either side of the Atlantic? Or rather due to a more diverse, and possibly more radical, media landscape in the US? I'm not quite sure and thought I'd put this up for debate here. So what do you think? Why do American elections always seem to scrape the bottom of the barrel? Or am I mistaken and there is no actual difference between what transpires in Europe and in the US?

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