Clinton, McCain and America´s money election

12.03.07 Publication:

It seems to happen every time. The American presidential election campaign begins, and I start to protest. Why should an election campaign start so early? There are still more than 18 months to go before the vote, in November 2008. Why should there be so much emphasis on money, with regular reports on how much Hillary Clinton, or Barack Obama, or Rudy Giuliani have raised from their supporters? But then I succumb. I get hooked by the story, by the drama. It is not “Desperate Housewives” but “Desperate Candidates”, and their stories and their relationships are addictive.

            Partly, it is because the 2008 contest is arguably the most open presidential contest since 1968. Just like in that year, there is no president running and no vice-president seeking to run as an incumbent. Partly, too, it is because that openness has attracted an unusually strong array of candidates, many of them already familiar faces, both nationally and internationally. In many American elections, the game is one of choosing between various obscure governors—such as Bill Clinton, in 1992, the little known governor of Arkansas, a place few foreigners would be able to locate on a map.

But also, the appeal of this election arises because of another parallel to 1968. Like in that year, the central issue of this campaign is how to deal with a failing American war: then Vietnam, now Iraq. The great challenge for all the candidates will be to find a way to condemn a war, and the Bush administration’s conduct of it, that will still be going on throughout the campaign and, crucially, that the winner will then have to deal with on the very day of their inauguration in January 2009. How to be a critic of current policy without thereby imprisoning your own policy as president: that is the fascinating dilemma.

            In such a situation, the advantage sits with the outsider. That is why Rudy Giuliani, the Republican who was mayor of New York on September 11th 2001, is presently leading the opinion polls for his party’s nomination. This is despite the fact that his well known views on subjects like abortion and gay rights should make him anathema to the Republicans’ powerful Christian conservative groups. But unlike John McCain, a Vietnam hero who is also disliked by those conservatives, Giuliani has not been a Senator and so did not have to take any formal position on the Iraq invasion when it took place in 2003. He has a tough reputation and can appeal to patriotism, thanks to his record as New York’s leader in 2001. But he has room for manoeuvre on Iraq.

            The same is true of Barack Obama, the black senator from Illinois who is challenging the long-time Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton, in the opinion polls. Elected only in 2004, he does not share Mrs Clinton’s problem of having to explain a vote for the war in 2003.

            Six months ago, this contest looked sure to be one between John McCain and Hillary Clinton. The rise of Giuliani and Obama now make that far from clear, which is also why following the fund-raising is a more important activity than one would wish. Party donors like to back a winner. Opinion polls so early in a campaign may reveal only shallow preferences from voters who haven’t really had to think properly about the candidates. Financial reports are different: people tend to think pretty hard before handing over their money.

            So the right advice is that given by “Deep Throat”, the source for Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in their Watergate exposures of Richard Nixon: “follow the money”. For the time being, that still favours Clinton and McCain. I suspect it will continue to favour McCain, for his military background and maverick history are likely to give him credibility among Republicans. But Barack Obama could pose a real threat to Mrs Clinton, for he stands for a potent mixture of change, youthfulness and optimism. He will need to find something more to say about the war than simply that he was against it. If he manages to do so, the money will flood in his direction. Keep on viewing. This time it surely won’t be boring.