Cheap political point-scoring

I suppose its hardly a surprise, but still… this bit of David Cameron at PMQs had me harumphing. To quote the BBC:

Gordon Brown and David Cameron have clashed in the Commons over the reasons for Barack Obama’s US election victory. The Conservative leader said the change offered by Mr Obama contrasted with Labour’s offer of “more of the same”. He also taunted Mr Brown over his recent claim that with the economic crisis “this was no time for a novice”.

The idea of David Cameron trying to somehow identify himself with Barack Obama as a agent of change is a bit… jaw-dropping.

There is some parallel, in that both are young politicians running against unpopular incumbent governments; but somehow I don’t foresee the world finding his story quite as exciting. An Old Etonian from a wealthy banking family becoming Prime Minister; ooh, what an inspiring story of struggle against the odds.

A European Obama

There’s an Associated Press article you can read all over the web including, for example, MSNBC, titled Europe has a long wait for its own Obama. I’m not going to comment generally on ‘Europe’, or even in detail on the UK, except to say that the most obvious difference is the relative recentness of large-scale non-white populations in Europe. It’s been 50 or 60 years now, so that excuse is wearing thin, but it’s still somewhat relevant, I think; even in a democracy, most people who reach positions of power and authority do so from a solidly prosperous establishment background, which is not the situation new immigrants are generally in. So with 8% non-white population, most of whom have been here for three generations or less, even if the UK was completely free of racial discrimination (which it obviously isn’t), the odds would probably still be against us having had a non-white Prime Minister by now. As a comparison, 6% of the population is Welsh, and we’ve only had one Welsh Prime Minister in 300 years.

And one point I’d take from the way the US election has panned out is that all votes are cast for an individual. It’s not very long ago that the press was busy asking whether America was ready to vote for a black president; the answer seems to be yes, but that wasn’t necessarily obvious in advance. You can only find out the answer by having the election; and until you have a candidate, no-one can know the answer because it’s impossible to judge your own responses until you have a real person with a name and a face and a set of policies and a campaign. America may not be ready to vote for ‘a black man’, but they are ready to vote for Barack Obama.

Similarly, it might be difficult to imagine a black or Asian prime minister, but then it would have been difficult to imagine a woman in 10 Downing Street until Margaret Thatcher came along. Do I actually think it’s going to happen any time soon? No, absolutely not. In fact, given the way the parliamentary system works, you can pretty much guarantee it won’t happen for at least six or seven years. But would the British public be willing to vote for a dark-skinned candidate for PM? It’s impossible to know, but if, like Obama, they were charismatic, eloquent, unflappable and running against a staggeringly unpopular incumbent, I wouldn’t bet against them.

This financial crisis is a bit of a buzzkill.

I haven’t commented much, because I don’t think my political instincts are that brilliant even for the UK, let alone a country I haven’t visited for over a decade. But I’ve been enjoying the US elections ever since the primaries: the Americans always do democracy on a bigger scale than the rest of us, but this time round it has been more dramatic than ever. Not so much political theatre as political epic. The Cinton vs. Obama storyline alone was more exciting than anything that’s likely to happen in our own next general election; and it kept on getting more remarkable. I mean really: Sarah Palin! You couldn’t make it up. It adds to the fun, of course, that it definitely means the end of Bush and probably a Democrat in the White House.

But since the world’s financial sector apparently started circling the plughole, I’ve been unable to take the same kind of simple pleasure in the whole thing.

This is genuinely scary. When apparently well-informed people start making comparisons with the Great Depression: eep. Even if they’re saying things like ‘with the right government intervention we should be able to prevent this turning into anything like the Great Depression’: still eep. What Sir Alex Ferguson once called ‘squeaky bum time’.

Neither candidate has exactly covered themselves in glory over this issue. McCain’s stunt of ‘suspending’ his campaign and rushing back to Washington was the undoubted low point, but neither of them has said anything that convinces me that they have exceptionally clear insights or solutions to offer. Neither of them has made a strong and unambiguous case either for or against government intervention. I understand that since they are not in office and are in the middle of an election campaign, they are in the worst possible position to be unbiassed and pragmatic; perhaps it’s too much to expect to ask them to rise above the politics of the moment. But they haven’t. Neither of them has managed to step in and fill the leadership void left by the complete disintegration of Bush’s credibility.

When asked in the debate how the crisis would affect their spending plans, both of them fluffed the issue: Obama just restated all the things he wants to spend money on, and McCain came out with some ludicrous crap about cutting earmarks. I’m not expecting them to come up with new plans on the fly, several months in advance and without knowing how the situation will change, but it would have been nice to see them engaging seriously with the question.

And that leads me onto the last point: this is a horrible time to become President. I will be thrilled to see Obama elected, insha’Allah, but I think the job may be a poison chalice. Just to take healthcare: there’s no doubt at all that America can afford a proper healthcare system, since Americans already pay more than everyone else for healthcare as it is. But it is money that will have to come from somewhere, and the state of the economy will not make the politics of it any easier.

Frankly, even if it wasn’t for the economy, the next President would have enough on their plate dealing with Iraq. It may be that there there is no good exit strategy from Iraq, but we who invaded the country have some responsibility for what happens to it. As the shop sign says: you break it, you’ve bought it. I would vote for Obama, if I had a vote, at least partially from a belief that he wouldn’t have invaded Iraq in the first place, and therefore that he is hopefully less likely to get into some new foreign adventure of his own. But I don’t have any faith that he knows how to sort out the mess in Iraq now. Would McCain do any better? I don’t know. I suspect that to do the job properly would take decades, and I don’t think there’s the political will in America to commit to that kind of timescale anyway. The Iraqis might not be thrilled either.

All of which adds up to: It’s a lot harder than it was a few months ago to look forward to the election with a sense of optimism.

» the picture, Last Chance, is © huangjiahui and used under a by-sa licence.

Why Obama won the nomination

That post title probably ought to have a question mark at the end.

It is ridiculous to suggest that there was a single reason why Obama won it — or why Clinton lost it — but I’m going to do it anyway. I really think that a lot of it came down to timing. Politicians tend, when they first arrive on the scene, to have a honeymoon period; few people have managed to have it quite so precisely when they need it as Obama. His moment as flavour of the month, when he was at his most shiny and new and exciting, seemed to just coincide with Super Tuesday. The news media has the attention span of a three-year-old and is always attracted to ‘news’; to newness.

Clinton had great difficulty competing for the spotlight at the crucial moment because however historic her candidacy was, it wasn’t news. She has been an international figure for nearly two decades; everyone has known she was going to run for president for years; she entered the race as the candidate to beat, with a huge campaign fund and a high public profile. She was expected to do well; any other narrative was always going to be more exciting and more newsworthy.

Obama as a mosaic of US state flags; used under a CC by-nc-nd licence

That’s not to say that newness was the only thing Obama had going for him; novelty value will only get you so far. Ask Mike Huckabee. There are lots of reasons why Obama excites people: he’s an excellent public speaker, if a slightly ponderous gravitas is your thang; he’s young, he’s intelligent, he looks good; and lots of people are excited by the idea of a black candidate. I just think if he had come into the race as a more familiar figure, perhaps from a failed run for president four years ago, or from a prominent job in national government — someone the public had already had a chance to form opinions about and get used to, in fact — he would have found the campaign noticeably heavier going.

I’m not suggesting that there’s some appalling skeleton in the Obama closet which would have come out in the meantime. And I’m not trying to make some kind of accusation or complaint; I don’t suppose anyone has ever made it to be a presidential candidate without a few slices of luck along the way. I just think it’s an observation worth making.

» ‘Barack Obama made out of US flags‘ posted to flickr by tsevis and used under a by-nc-nd licence.

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