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Hillary and Barack, as seen from Britain

COMMENTARY | February 20, 2007

Some writers are amazed that the 2008 election campaign has already started, and some are almost totally focusing on Senators Clinton and Obama. Sound familiar?

By John Burke

With the next American presidential elections 20 months away, the fact that campaigning already seems to be in full swing is flabbergasting to the foreign press. Even more so, the number of candidates that have already thrown in their hat astounds them.

As Americans direct most of their attention to the candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, so has the British press. Some columnists talk of the plethora of possibilities for ‘firsts’ in the Oval Office, but often skip right past the Mormon (Mitt Romney) and the Latino (Bill Richardson), getting straight to the meat of an already competitive campaign between two potential demographic pioneers: the woman and the African American.

Hillary has been on the radar for quite some time, having already resided in the White House and endured the closely-followed Lewinsky scandal. But as Obama-mania has swept the US, its closest ally has become increasingly curious.

Rupert Murdoch’s conservative daily The Times, having been disappointed by the present Republican administration, has set an especially keen eye on the Democratic Party’s top contenders, almost inextricably linking the two as they begin the long battle towards the 2008 DNC in Denver:  

The Guardian jibes at the American democratic system, opining that a population “Obsessed by personalities (has) forgotten what democracy is for.” The “highs and lows” of the candidates are the main focus “rather than the real social issues”:

“Watching the contenders for the Democratic Party nomination… there was nothing bad enough you could say about the Iraq war, the budget deficit or the state of healthcare. There was also nothing concrete that most of the candidates would say about what they would do to fix them. With little of substance on offer, delivery was everything.

“Americans, such demanding consumers in every other aspect of their lives, curiously expect little from their political leaders. They hold the principle of democracy dear; but the purpose of democracy remains elusive. The notion that "the people shall govern" is the cornerstone of American political identity - even if the nonchalance with which they watched Bush steal the 2000 election revealed a disturbing reluctance to defend it. Yet the idea that elections should be the mechanism for effecting real change barely seems to register - which is why it was relatively easy for Bush to get away with robbery.

“The weekend before November's midterms, for example, I walked up the Las Vegas Strip asking people if they thought the coming elections mattered. Roughly one in five either did not know the elections were taking place or had no intention of voting. Yet precisely 100% said they thought the elections mattered…

“Everybody knows that, if counted (a significant if), their vote will make a difference to who is actually elected. But few expect that whoever they elect will really make any difference to the issues they care about. And so voting takes on a ritualistic quality. Like Independence Day or Thanksgiving, it marks a date on the calendar not for changing America's politics, but for celebrating its promise.

“Whether one participates or not seems less important than the fact of the event itself. The consensus view of November's elections is that voters turned their back on the war and the Bush agenda and opted instead for a new course in favour of bipartisanship and troop withdrawal. But the truth is that most of them turned their back on the elections. The fact that, at only 42%, this was the highest midterm turnout for 36 years is merely an indication of how entrenched this condition has become.

“The point here is not that there is no difference between the two main parties but that the difference is insufficient to make a significant impact on the lives of large numbers of Americans. The problem is not that people don't want or need change - the poorer you are, the less likely you are to vote - but that they have long since given up on the idea that voting is the way to get it…

“It's not difficult to see why. Elections are big business…The mainstream media dances dutifully. Reporters somehow never encounter non-voters, instead constructing a country hotly debating the issues and weighing up the candidates. Obsessed by polls and personalities, they have a surreal fixation about who is up and who is down, with little indication of why we should care. They have barely digested the results of one election before they move on to devour the next.

“It's almost two years until the presidential elections. We can only hope that between now and then progressive movements will again see the candidates' opportunism as their opportunity and bring their influence to bear on whoever decides to run. In the meantime, with little of substance to debate, the media are reduced to discussing strategy and style… Enjoying the race, and ignoring what lies beyond the finish line.”

One Times of London columnist rejects a Barack Obama candidacy, claiming that “charisma” is not a sufficient gauge for determining a president and citing three main reasons why he doesn’t he doesn’t have what it takes while praising Hillary Clinton:

“Mr Obama’s claim to the White House is ridiculous for three interconnected reasons.

First, we have seen this sort of thing so many times before. The American press craves the idea of a serious ‘horse race’ so much that it will award a lame mule with a fear of flying the status of Pegasus.

“Secondly, Mr Obama is spectacularly underqualified to be President. He has been in the Senate for 25 months. There are probably craftsman repairing things in that building who have been there longer. The notion that being no more than an enthusiastic tourist in the American capital is the same thing as serving an apprenticeship to become the most powerful person on the planet is profoundly disturbing.

“The United States once had a race problem in that black people were effectively excluded from the political process. Forty years on it has the reverse dilemma — those who would dismiss a white figure because he was unprepared for the most prominent national position will not do the same for a black one.

“The third — and by far the most worrying — part of this saga is the way that Mr Obama rebuts this criticism on the rare occasions that he is confronted with it. When he was pressed in a recent interview for detailed positions he replied that, unlike others in the 2008 struggle, he had already expressed himself in two books that had sold well.

Extensive research confirms that Kermit the Frog has also released two tomes that attracted a substantial share of dollars (Before You Leap and One Frog Can Make a Difference). As far as I am aware, Kermit is not in line for the Democratic nomination next time, but since this is a party that has put up John Kerry and Al Gore that cannot be discounted. And Kermit has been on the scene for several decades — unlike Mr Obama.

“To which, the robust retort from the Obama camp is the “c” word. He has charisma…

“Now I know that there are those who consider Mrs Clinton to be Lady Macbeth revisited. In several respects she is not my type, either. But note the following. She is astute. She has shown in six years that she is an extremely capable senator. She is undoubtedly qualified for the huge responsibility that she seeks. She might not be as effective an electoral politician as her husband, but she has more discipline, principle and resolve and would be a better President than him. The idea that she could be usurped by some passing American Idol is outrageous…

“Charisma is the most overrated attribute in politics…

“The reality, on either side of the Atlantic, is that — while personal charisma is the icing on the cake — proven competence is the cake itself…

“Not all of those whose appeal is based on charisma are cads, chancers or charlatans, but, as the pollsters would put it, such a supposition is within the margin of error. Mr Obama has an intriguing life story but should not and will not (yet) be President.”

Written in December 2006, before Obama announced his candidacy, The Times predicted that he would run and urged a vote in his name because “He’s black and he’s not Hillary”:

“There are two main reasons that the senator is generating such interest. The first is a cold, hard Democratic calculation: that he is not Hillary Clinton. Or more accurately, that he is the most appealing national figure whom Democrats see as a plausible candidate to stop Mrs Clinton from cruising to the party’s nomination.

“There is a so far unproven but nonetheless deeply held conviction in influential Democratic circles, even among those who admire her, that for all the former First Lady’s formidable advantages she is simply unelectable. This conviction is matched by an equally firm belief that, as things stand, given the strength of the current likely field, and barring the entry into the race of someone with real appeal, she simply cannot be denied the party’s nomination.

“Mr Obama, they think, can with one bound, release them from the prison of a Clinton candidacy. This is because of the second main reason for Obama-mania. There is something almost mystically appealing about his potential presidency…

His popularity so far suggests he has real political skills to match the irresistible narrative….

“For a nation in which race is a continuously reopening sore, the prospect of an Obama presidency is genuinely thrilling. What’s more, he actually opposed the war in Iraq too. “And what better way to demonstrate to the world that America is ready to heal the tears in the fabric of international relations of the last five years than by electing someone named Barack Hussein Obama.”

The Times writes that Hillary Clinton is “A victim of caricature and her own excessive caution.” And her ultimate downfall may come from her original decision on Iraq:

“The biggest obstacle between Hillary Clinton and the White House is Iraq. It shouldn’t be that way, of course. Iraq is President Bush’s war, and the golden legacy for his successor should be freedom from responsibility for all but the decision on leaving.

“But more than other contenders for the next presidency, Senator Clinton is entangled in her 2002 vote backing the invasion, and her struggles to explain what she now believes. It has brought to the surface the wide resistance to her bid for the presidency.

“But the uncertainty about her beliefs is also a problem for Clinton. After two terms of ideology, Americans may find a prescription of pure passion and conviction an alarming formula — yet doubt about her guiding principles is costing her ground in the polls.

“That is now the charge against Clinton on Iraq. She explains her 2002 vote by saying: ‘I would never have expected any president, if we knew then what we know now, to come to ask for a vote. There would not have been a vote, and I certainly would not have voted for it.’ Her supporters winced at the apparent evasion; her detractors seized on the phrases as evidence of the political calculation they see in all her policies (as they do in her choice to stick by her husband).

“That is a wilful distortion of motives. It is understandable that she might have chosen to save a long marriage and to revive her own career, after years as a consort in Arkansas and the Lewinsky humiliation. To claim that she banked on the sympathy that her husband’s treatment of her would engender presents it as a reliable political commodity, rather than the risky association it surely was.

“Her faults are not those of cynicism but of excessive caution, of conviction that there is a ‘right answer’ to be found, and of splitting policies into small pieces in that quest.

She does not have Bill Clinton’s gift of making the world seem bigger and more hopeful. Myopia and carefulness do not make for charisma, but after Bush, they are not a disqualification.”

One conservative Times columnist has it out for Hillary, but considering her political record, he’s finding it “hard to hate entirely reasonable Hillary:”

“Among my many guilty pleasures… hating Hillary Clinton was once near the top of the list. The senator from New York somehow managed to arouse every one of my love-to-hate zones. She was a self-righteous feminist (boo) who married her way to power (double-plus-boo). She wanted to turn American medicine into the National Health Service (grrr) and all her friends were wealthy lawyers (triple eye-roll). She was Lady Macbeth when she wasn’t some goo-goo liberal ideologue. There were as many ways to despise her as she had hairstyles. Then we even got to hate her hairstyles as well…

“(Despite these faults) Clinton has been an almost painfully reasonable, centrist, sensible senator. I’d like to hate her but she’s foiling me every time. Take the Iraq war. She voted for it but with shrewd reservations. 'If we were to attack Iraq now, alone or with few allies, it would set a precedent that could come back to haunt us,' she told the Senate before voting to give Bush authorisation. 'For all its appeal, a unilateral attack, while it cannot be ruled out, on the present facts is not a good option.' In retrospect those were wise words — but they are not helping her now with an increasingly anti-war Democratic base, especially since she continues to refuse to disown her vote…

“Is Clinton ‘fighting’ the Bush administration’s Iraq policy or trying to ameliorate it? Both, I’d say. It’s a perfectly rational position for a grown-up politician to take. When you consider her statements as a whole throughout a confusing, dynamic, dangerous war, what comes across is reasonableness and responsibility. ‘I am cursed with the responsibility gene. I am. I admit to that,’ she told The New York Times last week. ‘You’ve got to be very careful in how you proceed with any combat situation in which American lives are at stake.’ Quite so. But the line between prudence and calculation can be a thin one. And at times the centrism seems almost pathological. 

“The question in American foreign policy should never be whether one is a realist or an idealist. It should always be which blend of each is appropriate in the face of any specific challenge. I have no doubt, for example, that the first Bush administration in 1988-92 was too realist; and that the second one, which we are currently enduring, is too idealist. But who do we trust to get the balance right in the future?

“Hillary is essentially saying that we should trust her. She is giving us a clear signal of what a second Clinton administration would be like: all the centrism and responsibility of her husband’s eight years but without any of the charm. Is that what Americans want? It seems that what they want is a form of escapism (in the form of Edwards), charisma (in the shape of Barack Obama), or integrity (in the guise of John McCain). But when the decision nears and the stakes, especially abroad, begin to seep in, might Hillary be right? Might they actually be yearning for dullness, competence and responsibility? Americans historically elect presidents who are an antidote to the flaws of the previous one. Nixon begat Carter who begat Reagan. When you think of George W Bush, the word ‘reckless’ springs to mind. And what is the antidote to reckless? 'I am cursed with the responsibility gene,' said a candidate last week. She may be revealing extremely good political instincts. Or she may, of course, be calculating again.

"Dammit. Hating her was much easier."

That should read "shouldn't attempt it".
Posted by Diane Clay - Talk Radio Host in Montana
02/21/2007, 11:33 AM

Just because it's difficult, doesn't mean we shouldn't try to create One America out of the two or three we have now. We have naturally the pessimism of the intellect, but that must be combined with the optimism of action.

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