2/15/08 Daily Telegraph (London) 25
Barring a miracle - not a trivial qualification since Mike
Huckabee believes in them - John McCain will be the next
Republican presidential nominee.
That presents Americans with a highly respectable range of
choices for next November, since McCain, Hillary Clinton, and
Barack Obama are all members in good standing of the American
and "international community'' establishments.
It also presents Republicans with a dilemma: which opponent
should they prefer? If the test is which of the two would be
easier to beat, the polls point clearly to Clinton. The most
recent poll shows her neck-and-neck with McCain in a match-up,
whereas Obama would be seven points ahead of the Republican.
Also, the Republicans could go after the tough and divisive
Clinton without giving offence. They would have to handle Obama
- an inspiring unifier and the first black candidate with a
serious chance - with respect verging on deference.
Any real agonising may be unnecessary, however, since almost any
Democrat is favoured to win against almost any Republican in
2008. Democrats are raising far more money, and turnouts for
their primaries and caucuses have been twice as numerous as the
By these tests, even if Clinton would be easier to beat than
Obama, both are so favoured to win that this distinction hardly
matters. What does matter therefore is whether there is an
important distinction between them in how they would govern.
Some conservatives set aside their distaste for Clinton at this
point and discover unsuspected virtues in her. She is tough,
competent, experienced, and centrist (in recent years at least).
Maybe she would not want the historical responsibility of losing
a war and so would continue the fight in Iraq. Perhaps she would
compromise with the GOP on healthcare in order to avoid the
humiliation of a second failed national plan. Some of these
things are, indeed, possible.
But over time, she would use the power of the White House,
joined to that of the Congress, to push healthcare, education,
child care, social security, immigration, taxation and much else
Leftwards. There would be little or nothing in domestic policy
to compensate conservatives for this expansion of the managerial
welfare state. And Clinton is a finished product. She will not
change politically now.
Obama is more tentative, ambiguous and even self-contradictory.
He is running as a unifier who wants America to transcend race
and ethnicity. But his record of voting and legislating has been
firmly liberal on racial (as on most other) issues.
Republicans tend to discount his rhetoric while minutely
examining his voting record. Usually that is sensible, but on
this occasion it may mislead.
Much of Obama is a work in progress. He is most clearly liberal
on Iraq policy where he promises a "drawdown'' of troops that
would be completed in 16 months. But it is not hard to imagine a
President Obama responding to a "surge'' in Iraqi violence by
"responsibly'' stretching out the time-scale of American
And while Obama proposes roughly the same higher tax plans as
Clinton, he recognises the need for countervailing measures to
reduce what would then be a top tax rate of more than 50 per
cent. His healthcare plan is also cheaper than Clinton's.
In short, after interviewing economic advisers to all the
candidates - probably surer guides on this than the candidates
themselves - Martin Hutchinson of www.breakingviews.com
concluded that Obama was the most centrist of all the Democrats.
It is race and ethnicity, however, where the really
revolutionary impact of an Obama victory would be felt. The mere
fact of a President Obama would change both America and the
world's view of America - just as the mere fact of a Polish Pope
undermined Soviet rule in eastern Europe. It would give
Americans a better opinion of themselves, rather as Reagan did,
and perhaps launch American politics on a new "trajectory''.
But what sort of trajectory? In his study of Obama, A Bound Man,
the black conservative writer Shelby Steele traces this to a
conflict within Obama's soul created by his upbringing. To
oversimplify a subtle argument, Obama in the absence of his
father sought a sense of belonging in his racial identity,
joining the Black Student Society, striking nationalist
attitudes, and going along with explanations that blamed
relative black poverty on white racism.
But this quest for belonging through race afforded him little
but psychological comfort, for Obama knew from his own life that
his success is because of the habits of diligence, self-reliance
and responsibility instilled in him by his loving mother and his
(white) grandparents. Stressing racial identity offered nothing
like the road to a better life that these virtues opened to him.
Expressed in political terms, that contrast becomes: should
Obama urge young black people to seek advancement in racial
identity? Or should he urge them to develop the responsible
virtues, the property of no single race, that have helped him to
How Obama answers that question should determine how he shapes
policies on education, health, welfare. One kind of answer would
keep him attached to conventional Democrat policies of race
preferences, group rights, government action, etc.; the other
kind would push him towards colour-blind Republican policies of
rights and responsibilities.
But which answer he gives might well be shaped by how the
election influences him. If Obama were elected President, he
would owe his victory to the votes of Republicans and
independents as well as of Democrats.
It is not fanciful to predict that he could be the first
Democrat since Lyndon Johnson to win a majority of the white
vote - even against McCain. Political calculation alone would
mandate that he govern in such a way as to keep the good opinion
of these Republicans and white Democrats.
But he would also know that these voters had placed their trust
in him in an unusually serious way. They would be looking to him
to govern in the spirit of a colour-blind national unity and to
encourage the "vigorous virtues'' in all ethnic groups.
It would be a very cold-hearted statesman who could resist the
power of such hopes - but a very brave one who would risk the
storm of fulfilling them.