Friday 17 October 2008

On a promise? Obama glides on

US election blog - part four

The consensus seems to be that the final presidential debate on Wednesday night was the best of the three in terms of general zinginess. While the candidates did discuss a number of substantive issues, however, from tax to abortion, there was little in the way of principled debate. Instead, as is usually the case, this was a competition to seem more ‘presidential’ than the other guy. In these terms, Obama won, confirming his frontrunner status, but rather undermining his claim to represent substantial change.

Obama seemed keen to reassure voters that he is not as radical or scary as the Republicans have tried to make out, and moreover that he represents the best hope of economic stability and continuity with the pre-Bush past – implicitly returning to the ‘American Promise’ theme from earlier in the campaign.

He certainly scored a point by suggesting McCain’s attempt to association him with the former terrorist Bill Ayers said more about the desperation of the Republican campaign that about Obama himself. But Obama’s frequent references to his respectable advisors, like Warren Buffet and former NATO chief General James Jones, seemed defensive and conservative. (For his part, McCain was reduced to insisting he is not George Bush, suggesting a weird inversion of the famous put-down: I knew George Bush, George Bush was a friend of mine. Senator, I’m no George Bush.)

John McCain realises he’s going the wrong way…

McCain also tried to present Obama as an extremist on abortion, someone who voted against bans on partial-birth abortion and legislation requiring medical treatment for fetuses who survive attempted abortion. The point was not so much to mobilise pro-lifers against Obama, as to put off moderates, those for whom abortion is not such a crucial issue, but who are disturbed by these more extreme cases.
Accordingly, Obama countered first by explaining how these positions had been misrepresented by McCain, and then by arguing for common ground – both pro-choice and pro-lifers could agree on the important of preventing unwanted pregnancies and encouraging adoption and so on – an explicit reaching out to those voters McCain had tried to scare off him. This was not a debate about the morality of abortion, then, but about Obama’s respectability, which he duly established.

When it came to tax and healthcare, McCain presented Obama as a big government liberal who wants to ‘spread the wealth around’. While the ‘class warfare’ tag was a little ridiculous, Obama did confess, ‘I don’t mind spending a little more’, suggesting a genuine difference over the desirability of taxes. But McCain’s alternative to government spending – ‘transparency, accountability, reform’ – seemed a little weak. The case for small government depends on people having confidence that they can achieve prosperity simply by working hard, and in the current climate McCain can’t guarantee that any more than anyone else. He tried to discredit Obama’s healthcare plan by breezily suggesting, ‘If you like that, you’ll love Canada and England.’ As commentator Joe Klein has argued, McCain may be overestimating the resonance for such sentiments at a time of growing economic uncertainty.
Of course, Obama is not proposing to socialise healthcare, and was able to rebut McCain’s invocation of ‘Joe the Plumber’ – who had challenged Obama on the campaign trail – by insisting that small businesses would be exempt from mandatory health insurance. (The subsequent revelation that Joe is called Samuel and doesn’t have a license seems to me to be spectacularly uninteresting.) What is of interest is less the specific policy differences between the two candidates than the different mood music.

McCain is banking on the electorate’s traditional suspicion of government, so his rhetoric is Reaganite even if his policies are not (Both candidates made frequent anti-corporate remarks.) Obama is more pragmatic. At a time when you can’t bank on banks, he is betting people are less precious about how prosperity is secured as long as they can go on taking it for granted. Obama’s ‘American Promise’ says just that, and it is based not on ideology of any kind but rather the assurance that this presidential president, along with his expert advisors, would be capable of getting America back on track.

If Obama goes on to win, it won’t be by defeating McCain in a battle of ideas, but by effectively sidelining him as irrelevant. The change represented by a black president supported by a generation hungry for idealism would be genuinely exciting, but politically Obama represents neither a new America nor even a practical fix for the old one, but something more like a hope and a prayer.

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