If film and television are to be believed, campaigning for President is largely an unglamorous business, and involves eating a series of nondescript meals, sleeping in a succession of cookie cutter hotels with identical rooms featuring the same bland colour scheme, inoffensive air freshener and a homogenous selection of cable television news channels. It is in this milieu that John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama probably find themselves at the moment.
Spare a thought for Mrs. Clinton in particular. It is easy to picture her seated in her hotel room after a long day of campaigning, her dyed blonde hair no longer carefully sprayed into place, her bright yellow jacket open at the collar, a cup of tea in hand to soothe her throat, and her tired blue eyes shifting back and forth as she reviews the newspapers.
Shuffling between the journals of record would yield variants of the same story: lists of states that have been captured by Obama, his smiling visage shown in full colour, and articles wondering about the demise of her once certain ascension to the Presidency.
As Mrs. Clinton pauses to sip her tea, she may wonder – “Where did it all go wrong?”
To be sure, she will be partially the author of her own demise, should it occur. One would have expected her and her husband to show more care and discretion than to inadvertently bring up the spectre of racial politics; Bill in particular showed a lack of diligence by bringing up Jesse Jackson’s reliance on the African American vote in South Carolina and comparing it to Senator Obama’s success.
Furthermore, there is a fundamental contradiction at the heart of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign: she could either campaign on the basis of providing a break with the past or a return to it. She has not made this choice, and has tried to suggest she is both the candidate of a halcyon age gone by and the future at the same time. The idea of going into the future by somersaulting backwards is a symptom of cognitive dissonance.
However, her contradictions and her mistakes provide only a partial explanation of the Obama phenomenon. If in 1992 the theme music was provided by Fleetwood Mac crooning, “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow”, this year’s tune should belong to REM, specifically, “It’s the end of the world as we know it…and I feel fine.”
Adversarial politics has been in vogue for approximately sixteen years: they arrived with the term “spin control” used in conjunction with “war room”. Acolytes like James Carville were paid to declare “wah” on the Clintons’ enemies, shaking the media tree until the ripe fruit of public opinion fell at their feet. Conservatives responded in kind; since 1992, there has been an explosion in the number of right wing talk radio programmes and books. The internet sharpened the rhetorical knives further; websites such as Free Republic and the Daily Kos go head to head on a daily basis, referring to each other’s acolytes in the basest terms possible.
Meanwhile, almost unnoticed, the wider electorate has been growing sick of the partisanship. The fastest growing political affiliation in the United States is “independent”. According to recent polling data, self identified “moderates” outnumber “liberals” and “conservatives”. The ceaseless combat is devoid of meaning to this segment, who see both sides as being extreme, and the clashes as unproductive. For example, there is no solution in sight to the pressing issue of illegal immigration; an attempt by Senators John McCain and Edward Kennedy to steer a middle course were shot at from the extremes on both sides, and the bill failed. Good, say the extremists: better to have no solution, than a solution with which we disagree, even in part. The disaffected know better.
The phrase “paradigm shift” is bandied around far too much by political scientists; it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that it will get used when politicians change the palette of their tie colours from pastels to sharper hues. However, in this instance, this over-utilised phrase is apropos. Senator Obama is instigating a shift by embracing the concerns of this “ignored centre”. Furthermore, he is speaking their language by eschewing partisan combat, and appealing to hope, talking consistently about positive change, and adding for emphasis, “Yes we can”.
A textual analysis of (the Grammy Award winning) “The Audacity of Hope” provides further clarity on Obama’s awareness. For example, he was extremely careful to identify both Republican and Democrat colleagues with whom he worked and admired. A telling episode was his recollection of a trip to the Ukraine with Richard Lugar, Republican Senator from Indiana. Not only were relations portrayed as businesslike, but cordial; Obama clearly intimated that he respected Senator Lugar’s long experience in foreign affairs and had learned from it.
Obama has taken the further step of eschewing the idea that one side or another has a monopoly on accurate critiques. For example, while he rejects the Right’s hostility towards the United Nations, he is candid enough to admit that it is often a sinecure for third rate bureaucrats, and that its appointment of nations like Zimbabwe to sensitive bodies concerned with human rights is absurd.
The voters are obviously in the mood for this mixture of optimism and pragmatism. It is a response that is transcending boundaries of race or economic class: polities as diverse as Maine and Hawaii have both plumped for Obama by substantial margins. Most recent polls suggest that he would win in November. Politicians who are trapped in the adversarial model (like Mrs. Clinton) are having difficulty coping, particularly as they have too much history to offer a substantial break with the past.
On the Republican side of the divide, voters driven by a similar animus have pushed Senator McCain over the top: his practical, if cantankerous mentality has been proven a virtue. That said, this willingness to deal with those he disagrees is perceived as a vice that drives the likes of commentator Ann Coulter to screeching distraction and may lead the Far Right to sit at home in November.
It’s as well that the Coulters and the Clintons should be worried. It’s the end of the world as they know it. But the now not-ignored centre feels fine.
To be fair, Mrs. Clinton retains significant advantages; she has a well oiled electoral machine. It is an open question as to whether enthusiasm is enough to overcome discipline, and whether the tide of history is washing in strongly enough to subsume a campaign that was so painstakingly constructed over a number of years. Beyond this, Senator Obama faces a formidable opponent in Senator McCain, who appears to understand the new mood; he showed wisdom in saying he will refrain from any personal attacks. The end of the world may not come tomorrow, but a new one is waiting to be born; at the very least, this election has given us a glimpse of what is to come.