The presidential election
America at its best
Jun 5th 2008
From The Economist print edition
The primaries have left the United States with a decent choice; now it needs a proper debate about policies
IT IS hard to believe after all the thrills and spills, but the real presidential race is only now beginning. In any other country, the incredible circus that has marked the past year could not have occurred. The business of choosing the main contenders for the top job would have been done behind closed doors, or with a limited franchise and a few weeks of campaigning. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, by contrast, have spent well over a year in the most testing and public circumstances imaginable—and that was just to get to the final five months.
The Republicans settled on their candidate more quickly, but theirs was still a marathon by anyone else's standards. And the end of it was surely the right result. In John McCain, the Republicans chose a man whose political courage has led him constantly to attempt to forge bipartisan deals and to speak out against the Bush administration when it went wrong. Conservatives may hate him, but even they can see that he offers the party its only realistic hope in November.
The Democratic race has been longer and nastier; but on June 3rd it too produced probably the right result (see article). Over the past 16 months, the organisational skills and the characters of the two contenders have been revealed. Mrs Clinton, surprisingly in the light of all her claimed experience, was shown up for running a less professional and nimble campaign than her untested rival. She has also displayed what some voters have perceived as a mean streak and others (not enough, though) saw as gritty determination. And she could never allay confusion about the future role of her husband.
Mr Obama has demonstrated charisma, coolness under fire and an impressive understanding of the transforming power of technology in modern politics. Beating the mighty Clinton machine is an astonishing achievement. Even greater though, is his achievement in becoming the first black presidential nominee of either political party. For a country whose past is disfigured by slavery, segregation and unequal voting rights, this is a moment to celebrate. America's history of reinventing and perfecting itself has acquired another page.
But will he play in Pennsylvania?
But that does not make Mr Obama the new messiah. The former law teacher has had obvious problems convincing America's middle-class voters that he understands their concerns. He has also displayed a worrying, somewhat Clintonian slipperiness on difficult issues, both trivial (whether he would wear a flag-pin) and significant (whether he would talk to rogue states). His victory, it must be noted, has been wafer-thin: in terms of delegates, a couple of hundred out of 4,500; in votes, only a few tens of thousands out of 35m. In the end, the Democrats have, very narrowly, opted for the candidate who has put together a novel coalition of blacks, young people and liberal professional sorts, rather than the candidate of their more traditional blue-collar base. How this coalition fares against the Bushless Republicans remains to be seen.
For what America's voters, and the world's fascinated spectators, have not had so far is much of a policy debate. Yes, there were bone-aching arguments between Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton as to whose plan for health care would work best. And yes, Mr Obama refused to endorse Mrs Clinton's bad plan for a gas-tax holiday. But on the whole, it has been a policy-light contest for the simple reason that there was very little to choose between the two Democrats either on domestic or on foreign policy. Small wonder, then, that the Democratic race focused on character more than content.
All that has now changed. With his victory speech in Minneapolis on June 3rd, Mr Obama took the fight to Mr McCain. Though there are a fair number of things on which Mr Obama and Mr McCain, admirably, agree (a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions, the immediate closure of Guantánamo and a more multilateral approach to diplomacy, to name just three), there is a lot more that they disagree over.
Blood, treasure and votes
The choice will be starkest over Iraq. Mr McCain backed the war in the first place, and he proposes to stay the course there no matter how long it takes. Mr Obama opposed the “dumb” war from the start and has pledged to withdraw all combat troops within 16 months, though he has lately wriggled a little on this commitment. Although most Americans now think the war was a mistake, polls suggest that Mr McCain's determination to see it through may stand him in better stead with voters than Mr Obama's determination to pull out whatever the consequences, especially since the tide of war seems at last to have shifted firmly in America's favour. In general, Mr McCain will offer a much more robust approach to security issues than Mr Obama—and that may help him.
That said, the war is clearly receding as a political issue, just as concerns about recession are growing. America no longer has a Hummer economy (General Motors is considering selling off the gas guzzler). And there are clear choices about how to fix it. Mr McCain offers orthodox supply-side solutions, stressing deregulation, free trade, competitiveness and the use of market mechanisms to cure the problems in everything from health care to education to pensions. The trouble for him is that America is already a pretty deregulated place, and many voters feel that globalisation has brought them much less than was promised (and bankers a lot more). Mr Obama offers a very different vision: more spending on education and training, an expensive expansion of health care to (almost) all Americans and better benefits for the unemployed. His problem will be convincing sceptics that his sums add up, though it may well be that voters, battered by falling house prices and rising oil prices prefer not to worry too much about that.
Both candidates have their flaws and their admirable points; the doughty but sometimes cranky old warrior makes a fine contrast with the inspirational but sometimes vaporous young visionary. Voters now have those five months to study them before making up their minds (and The Economist will be doing the same). But, on the face of it, this is the most impressive choice America has had for a very long time.
I think it's pretty much true what they say, despite all the apocalyptic complaining going on around here.