Monday 13 October 2008

McCain and Obama: whipping who-knows-what?

US election blog - part three

As the third debate between the two presidential candidates approaches, Barack Obama has a clear though slim lead over John McCain, but the Republican has promised to whip his opponent’s ‘you-know-what’ on Wednesday night. This follows last week’s apparent descent into attack mode, with Sarah Palin accusing Obama of ‘palling around with terrorists’ and Democrats dredging up McCain’s part in the savings and loan scandal of some two decades ago. But with with an eye on the crucial middle ground, neither campaign can afford to risk alienating undecided voters by appearing vindictive.

Nicely, nicely?

McCain even felt the need to defend Obama against more scurrilous attacks at a Republican rally last week. And the Obama campaign was quick to distance itself from Democratic Congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis’ suggestion that the Republicans were ‘sowing hatred’ like 1960s segregationist George Wallace. The gloves may be off, but the candidates are dancing cautiously around one another, conscious that overtly negative campaigning can seem unstatesmanlike as well as cynical, and backfire badly. And now the Alaskan ‘Troopergate’ probe has found Sarah Palin did abuse her authority as governor, she may be in a less strong position to make the attacks on Obama that McCain would rather not.

McCain’s choice of the words ‘you-know-what’ might indicate more than coyness, then. For all the candidates’ eagerness to have out a vigorous debate, it is still not clear exactly what is at stake in the campaign. McCain’s and Obama’s tentative strategies for dealing with the financial crisis resemble competing brands rather than representing competing worldviews. (The economic situation slightly favours Obama simply because the Republicans currently have the White House rather than because the Democrat is especially convincing.) While many of the candidates’ respective supporters are happy to go on fighting the phony culture war, party strategists seem to understand this can do as much harm as good. But how do you fight a campaign on ‘the issues’ when the issues don’t substantially divide the candidates?

Wednesday night’s debate is likely to be dull, and that’s likely to favour Obama. If Americans decide ‘change’ is what they want, Obama is a more obvious choice than McCain, with or without the ideas to back it up. And with Obama apparently gaining ground in the South, especially Virginia, this could be an election that sees genuine changes to America’s political map. Thus far, that change seems to have little to do with the campaign itself, but with three weeks to go, that too could change.

Dolan Cummings is co-producing the Battle for America strand at the Battle of Ideas festival in London on 1-2 November 2008

Part one of this blog: The scene is set: the phony culture war election
Part two of this blog: Taking a break from politics to fix capitalism?

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