There’s No Drama Like American Politics

This piece was published today in Mail Today. Here’s a PDF.

All pundits know that political commentary is best done in hindsight. The ongoing primaries to pick presidential candidates in the USA bear that out. For more than 60 days now, the political stage has been beset by twists and turns that no writer of thrillers would dare use in a novel -which reader could keep track of so much? – and commentators have consistently read the tea leaves wrong, for no fault of their own. The real world is so complicated, with so much happening, that political analysis, when it is not safely in the past tense, is like predicting the weather by doing a survey of how flags are blowing. 

Consider the primaries last week in Ohio and Texas. Hillary Clinton won those two states, thus keeping her campaign alive, and pundits are unanimous in agreement that this is significant for John McCain, who was confirmed as the Republican nominee on that day. But in what way?

It is possible that Clinton’s wins boost McCain’s chances. It ensures that Clinton and Barack Obama stay at each other’s throats for the next few weeks, damaging each other, as the Democratic Party gets more and more polarised internally. If Clinton is the nominee, many Obama followers, disgusted by the tactics of her campaign, won’t vote for her. If Obama is the candidate, many Clinton fans, who have been convinced that he is not worthy of being president, will withhold their vote. Even if they don’t vote for McCain, they do enough damage by not voting at all—such elections often come down to mobilizing the base. 

This holds even if Clinton and Obama are somehow persuaded to come together on the ticket. After projecting himself as a harbinger of change, Obama will lose his campaign’s raison d’etre if he agrees to serve as the vice presidential nominee under someone he has painted as a Washington insider, representative of the same-old same-old. And after banging on for weeks about how Obama isn’t ready to be president, what pitiful rationalisation can Clinton trot out to be his vice-president? 

There is also a view that the ongoing Democratic battle hurts McCain by denying him media attention. All the drama is now in the Clinton-Obama brawl, and that’s what the press will focus on, with McCain delegated to the inside pages. Also, by the time the Democratic nominee emerges, he or she will be battle-tested rather than damaged. 

Both views could be wishful thinking, depending on which camp you’re in. Or they could be sage prognoses. We’ll know later.


Only a high dose of a potent hallucinogen could have prompted a pundit to predict this scenario just two months ago. McCain, for one, had been out of the reckoning for months. His campaign had imploded around the middle of last year, and Rudy Giuliani, Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney had led the polls since. Thompson had fallen off a bit, but was the only credible conservative left in the race, while Mike Huckabee made a strong surge in the Iowa polls just before voting season began. Then the planets, no doubt with eyebrows raised, aligned themselves.

As the Economist wrote – in hindsight, of course – for McCain to win the Republican nomination, “Mike Huckabee had to beat Mitt Romney in Iowa, Rudy Giuliani had to pursue a deranged strategy, Fred Thompson had to contract narcolepsy, and the ‘surge’ had to go well.” Check, check, check, check. Send a Hollywood suit such a script and he will reply, “This is too far out, make it real.”

On the Democratic side, Clinton was inevitable before Iowa, and history after she came third there. But then she baffled commentators by winning New Hampshire, which some pundits ascribed to her tears on the campaign trail when asked about how she copes with the rigours of lusting for power. (Well, not those exact words, but you get the drift.) Apparently, she was ‘humanised’ by that.

It had been forecast that Bill Clinton would be Hillary’s biggest strength, but he charged onto the scene and cost her votes. He referred to Obama’s opposition to the Iraq War as a “fairy tale”, and by comparing Obama’s win in South Carolina to Jesse Jackson’s wins there, insinuated that like Jackson, Obama’s appeal was restricted to African-American voters. Condescending to Obama’s supporters wasn’t the smartest thing to do; neither was failing to plan after Super Tuesday, assuming that Clinton would be the nominee by then.


Obama won eleven in a row after Super Tuesday, as Clinton became more and more desperate. But Obama was no more an unstoppable force than Clinton had been an immovable object. Clinton needed to win in both Ohio and Texas to stay in the hunt, and a series of events gave her an opening.

First, Obama was caught pandering, which should be as routine for a politician as swimming is for a fish – but voters mind when it is transparent. Free-market supporters had been worried at Obama’s anti-NAFTA rhetoric, and had hoped that he was just pandering to the base, and would shift to more sensible policy talk after he won the nomination. Well, his chief economic adviser, Austan Goolsbee, was revealed to have told a group of Canadian officials exactly this, to assuage their concerns. When the news became public, Obama’s campaign mismanaged it, at first denying that such a meeting took place, which was proven to be false. 

At around this time, Obama’s controversial friendship with a shady Chicago real-estate dealer, Tony Rezko, resurfaced in the media as Rezko went on trial. And Clinton released a rather Republican commercial, claiming that if your kids were asleep at 3am and the phone rang in the White House, you’d want Clinton to pick it up, because she had the experience to deal with it. Obama’s campaign created a brilliant counter to this, pointing out that you’d want the phone to be picked up by someone who had made the right call on the Iraq War – but apparently that wasn’t enough.

Did Clinton win Ohio and Texas because of her negative campaigning, the Obama goof-ups regarding Goolsbee and Rezko, or because of the demographics, which favoured Clinton? Even in retrospect, it is hard to say – and the Obama camp is painting those losses as a victory for him, because he cut Clinton’s double-digit losses to much smaller margins. Still, one thing is clear – barring a miracle, or some seriously mischievous planets, Obama will have won more pledged delegates than Clinton at the end of this. So why is she still in the race?


To win the nomination, Clinton will have to convince the superdelegates – Democratic Party officials who will effectively decide the nominee – to ignore the results of the primaries. She can give a number of reasons for this: If she manages to win the popular vote by then, which is possible if she wins the remaining races heavily, she can cite that as a reflection of the popular will; or she can point to the fact that she’s won the bigger states; or she can argue that the states that will be crucial in November are the ones which she has won; or she can point out that many of Obama’s wins came not in the primaries but in the caucuses, which attract a lower turnout and are, thus, ‘less democratic’; or she could ask them to vote with their conscience and select who they personally prefer; or, if push comes to shove, she could speak her mind and point out that she is a Clinton, she’s entitled to power, and anyone who stops her is part of a vast right-wing conspiracy.

Meanwhile, in the midst of the drama of last week, George W Bush endorsed John McCain for president, and no one noticed. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I’m sure the pundits are divided on the matter.

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