This primary election cycle is a story of phases. John McCain stumbled through them. From a status of certain nominee, he teetered towards a certain cash-strapped defeat. He then stormed back, pushing Mike Huckabee aside, and clinching the necessary delegates. All this, despite the devotees of McCain-hating gathering on the sidelines with purpose.
Hillary Clinton has undergone a similar revival. Victories in Texas, Ohio and Rhode Island verify the only thing that is certain: the more the pundits punt for a candidate, defeat is bound to be around the corner. Obama still has his nose, despite being bloodied, in front. Hillary’s victory in terms of delegate numbers is not merely mathematically improbable, but even impossible.
With such a scenario, Clinton can only hope for an anti-democratic insurrection, something which the Democrats may not be averse to providing. Clinton now shifts the argument to that of the experienced struggler. The Clinton turn is again at play. Bill may have taken a few steps back in promoting his wife, but he continues to hover.
Hillary does not have the emotional switch her husband does. Bill could, and still drops a tear on cue, apologizing when the political stage demands it. Such emotional turns helped Hillary in the initial phases, the tears, the feelings, that sense of being ‘one of them’. But her approach now is one of focused belligerence: battle and mettle.
She has also found weaknesses in Obama’s stratospheric rhetoric. Obama looked somewhat shakier in the latest primaries, even if he did not have much reason to. He recoiled at Clinton’s rhetoric on his position on NAFTA. He also proved less aggressive on Clinton’s weak spots – health care, the notorious welfare ‘reform’ and throwing the effects of free-trade back at the Clinton camp. The exit polls in Ohio, and to a certain extent Texas and Rhode Island suggest that voting patterns may be returning to those of February 5.
All this also points to another thing. The main argument against the Democratic contest between Obama and Hillary is this: that a sparring show is somehow debilitating to unity in the face of a formidable opponent. Maureen Dowd (March 5, NYT), for instance, makes the case that the Democrats are engaged in the ultimate nightmare scenario for the voter: identity politics. ‘All the victimizations go tripping over each other and colliding, a competition of historical guilts.’ Misogyny does battle with race – is America, she laments, going to the polls on whether it is less racist or misogynist?
The Democrats will bleed themselves – Denver will come to resemble Chicago in 1968. The Republicans, revived and restored, will take the scraps away from an immolated opponent.
This negative, seemingly self-destructive scenario may well happen, but it occludes two things. In the first instance, the Republicans won’t necessarily know whom to target. Presidential strategies demand presidential opponents, but we don’t have the line-up. The Democrats might be confused and unable to see through the glass darkly, but the Republicans will be even less clear. Unable to train their guns on a suitable candidate, the GOP will have to do something it has struggled to since 2006 – look appealing. McCain faces his own battle on that score.
Then, there is this scenario: Overwhelming, saturating attention will be focused on the Democratic camp. For the first time in years, the Democrats will seem interesting. The debate between Clinton and Obama will rarely straddle Olympian heights, and Clinton will continue to gnaw at her opponents entrails. The truth is, they have a lot to talk about, and Americans will listen.
Publicity is the oxygen that drives the political machine. With the Democrats constantly featuring, McCain may be out on his ear. He will have to work on keeping his puzzled party in strict GOP rank-and-file. He will also have to keep in the limelight, and positively. The Democrats may be having a dragging domestic, but the Republicans under Bush exited the conversation on American politics years ago.
Many voters in November, notwithstanding McCain’s reconciliatory credentials, will not forget which party pushed America into the economic and military purgatory it now finds itself in. And a Mesopotamian purgatory of 100 years is quite a stint, whichever side of politics you come from.
BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org