3/6/08 Times (U.K.) 17
After Tuesday's Ohio and Texas primaries, Barack Obama remains
the firm favourite to win the Democratic nomination. But Hillary
Clinton now seems more likely than Mr Obama to become the next
president of the United States. In stating this paradox, I am not
imagining some outlandish scenario, such as Mrs Clinton flouncing
off and winning the presidency as an independent. All I am saying is
that Mr Obama is much more likely than Mrs Clinton to be defeated by
I know that describing Mrs Clinton as a stronger candidate in the
general election than Mr Obama is at odds with the conventional
wisdom of US political pundits. My view also differs from the
findings of opinion polls.
The most recent poll showed Mr Obama beating Mr McCain by 51 to
41 per cent, while Mrs Clinton's margin of victory was four points
narrower, at 48 to 43. Either way, it might seem that the Democrats
had nothing to worry about, were it not that several other surveys,
conducted only a few days earlier, showed Mr McCain beating both
Democrats in a theoretical match. But in almost every such survey,
Mr Obama did a few points better than Mrs Clinton: so why do I
believe that nominating the former First Lady would give the
Democrats a much stronger assurance of success on November 4?
Mrs Clinton has two qualities that have so far gone strangely
unrecognised - at least in the media - to set against Mr Obama's
glamour, charisma and reputed oratorical brilliance.
Her first and most obvious quality is that she is a woman. While
official opinion, especially in the US media, self-righteously
insists that America is an egalitarian, multicultural society where
gender and race should play no role in political allegiance or
personal advancement, the fact is that this is nonsense. Everyone
knows that women and blacks continue to lag far behind white male
Americans by virtually every social and economic criterion.
Everyone also knows that what makes Mr Obama's candidacy so
exciting is not his oratory or his good looks. It is his race. The
possibility of a black president has electrified the world - and
rightly so. President Obama would become an inspiring role model,
not only for black Americans, but for oppressed races around the
world, not least in Africa.
But surely this is even truer of a woman becoming the world's
most powerful human being. In any rational comparison of frustrated
talent, women, who are half the world's population, have suffered
far more from disempowerment than Africans, Hispanics, Jews or any
other racial group.
And while economic advancement and political representation of
racial minorities has moved forward in most parts of the world, the
gap between men and women has scarcely narrowed, even in America.
Why then have American women failed to rally in sufficient
numbers to Mrs Clinton? Many from her own 1960s generation have
expressed contempt for her because, ironically, of her husband's
sexual peccadillos. But whenever Mrs Clinton seemed on the verge of
defeat, large numbers changed their minds and backed her, as if they
suddenly realised that a defeat for Mrs Clinton would end their own
Gloria Steinem, the iconic intellectual leader of the 1970s
feminist movement, crystallised this reaction in a passionate call
to arms that she issued to women voters after Mrs Clinton's defeat
in Iowa: "Why is the sex barrier not taken as seriously as the
racial one? Obama is seen as unifying by his race, while Clinton
is seen as divisive by her sex. She is accused of playing the gender
card when citing the Old Boys' Club, while he is seen as unifying by
citing civil rights confrontations. We have to be able to say: 'I am
supporting Hillary because she'll be a great president and because
she's a woman'." This article, published in The New York Times, and
syndicated across the country just before the New Hampshire primary,
is credited by some commentators with having saved Mrs Clinton's
If American women, who make up a clear majority of the
electorate, united around Mrs Clinton as their symbolic
standard-bearer in the same way that African-Americans have united
around Mr Obama, she would be unbeatable in November. And there is
considerable evidence of this effect, not only in the last-minute
victories pulled off by Mrs Clinton after her near-death
experiences, but even more significantly in her success in populous
states such as California, Texas and New York.
Mrs Clinton has won by decisive margins in every big state that
the Democrats must win to send their candidate to the White House.
Mr Obama's lead in the delegate count is based on his success in
small states with little electoral significance or in Republican
strongholds such as Alabama and Nevada where the Democrats have no
chance of success.
This brings us to Mrs Clinton's second big advantage over Mr
Obama - John McCain. Had the Republicans nominated an extremist or
obvious loser, the Democrats could have been confident enough of
winning to choose a candidate who appealed to them emotionally, even
if he did not have the pulling-power in large states demonstrated by
the Clinton machine. Now that calculation may change.
Mr Obama may have a better record on Iraq than Mrs Clinton, but
on almost every other issue of importance to the American public she
is clearly ahead. Moreover, she is a Clinton - and can hope to
reassure voters with the record of successful centrist economic
policies when she was First Lady in the White House. Mr Obama, by
contrast, is on record as being the most consistently "liberal" (in
the American sense) member of the Senate, with arguably the most
left-wing economic and foreign policy platform since George McGovern
was beaten by Richard Nixon, despite the revulsion against the
Finally there is the matter of maturity and experience. This is
Mr McCain's biggest gift to the Clinton campaign. An Obama-McCain
contest would be seen as a match of inexperience against old age. Mr
Obama hopes to win this competition by invoking the spirit of John
F. Kennedy. What he forgets, however, is that Kennedy was swept to
power on the crest of the baby boom, when the largest group of
voters was in its twenties. Today these boomers are in their sixties
or seventies - and will not take kindly to the charge that Mr McCain
is too old to be president. Given the high propensity to vote among
the elderly, this election will not be decided by a baby boom but by
a senility surge.
So the world should probably prepare for a President McCain or
Clinton. President Obama may have to wait until 2012 or 2016.