|Home | Contact us | Links | Archives | Search|
Barack Obama deserves the nomination. It is not yet clear whether he deserves the presidency
May 8th 2008 - IN CARTOONS there is often a moment when a hapless character, having galloped over a cliff, is still unaware of the fact and hangs suspended in the air, legs pumping wildly, until realisation dawns, gravity intervenes and downfall ensues. Hillary Clinton's campaign looks a bit like that this week. After her heavy loss in North Carolina and her barely perceptible victory in Indiana, a state she needed to carry triumphantly, Mrs Clinton's campaign is surely close to its end.
As The Economist went to press, Mrs Clinton was publicly still promising to keep on fighting right the way to the Denver convention. That remains her right. But it is hard to see what she, her party or her country can gain from the struggle.
This is largely to do with mathematics. After this week's two primaries, Barack Obama now leads by 166 elected delegates, and counting in the declared “superdelegate” party bigwigs only reduces his lead to 152. A mere six states are still in play. Mrs Clinton would stand a good chance in the first two, West Virginia and Kentucky. But thanks to the Democrats' proportional system, all the states will divide their delegates fairly closely. Mrs Clinton thus needs to win around 70% of the remaining superdelegates—a tall order when she will be behind in the popular vote. Even if she manages to get the hitherto disqualified primaries in Florida and Michigan counted (which, as it stands, would be unfair because nobody campaigned in one and Mr Obama was not on the ballot in the other), then she will come up short in terms of delegates and almost certainly in the popular vote count as well.
If Mrs Clinton bows out in the next week or so, her reputation as a tough fighter—one who has definitively forged a personality separate from her husband's—will have been enhanced. The only justification for her struggling on (assuming the money is there for her to do so) and probably plunging her party into legal warfare, would be the idea that her opponent is somehow unworthy of the nomination—in particular that Mr Obama is bound to lose in November, or that he is bound to be a poor president.
Neither charge stands up. This newspaper has hardly embraced Obamamania: we would still like to know more about what the young senator stands for; we have been appalled by some of the anti-capitalist rhetoric he (like Mrs Clinton) has spouted on the campaign trail; we worry about his strategy for leaving Iraq. But Mr Obama has plainly jumped over most of the hurdles the primary season has laid in front of him.
True, Mrs Clinton seems more popular among white working- and middle-class Americans. That puts Mr Obama at something of a disadvantage against John McCain, the Republican nominee. But arguments about Mr Obama's allure to white voters boil down rather too often to a coded argument about race: would America elect a black man? The United States still has big problems with race (see article), but its effect in the general election may be exaggerated.
Mr Obama's main problem with white voters may have more to do with class than race. To the white working man and woman, he has been seen too often as an aloof elitist, who can't drink whisky, displays a suspicious familiarity with the price of an arugula salad and memorably bowled a deplorable 37 in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Toffishness doomed John Kerry; but with Mr Obama, a child of a single mother who sometimes used food stamps, that picture is surely reversible.
Meanwhile, Mr Obama attracts other voters in a way Mrs Clinton never has. For every white bigot who switches sides because of Mr Obama's skin colour, there is likely to be a white independent—especially a young one—running to support him. The data show that young people, both black and white, prefer Mr Obama. Against Mrs Clinton, Mr McCain might have swept up all the independents; with Mr Obama he will have to split them. Mr Obama has raised money from close to 1.5m individuals, far more than anybody else ever has. That will stand him and his party in good stead come November. Each of those donors will be working hard to make sure that their investment is not wasted: an army of footsoldiers to fight the Republicans.
The other point of the primary system is to see what somebody is like under pressure, and to measure their presidential character. Mrs Clinton, for instance, has stood out, thus far at least, by her refusal to quit; Mr McCain by his refusal to compromise on either Iraq or free trade. Mr Obama is a less feisty sort, but he has exhibited enormous grace under pressure. In the past few weeks he has had to cope not just with a fresh set of outpourings from his turbulent former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, now mercifully disowned, but also with Mrs Clinton throwing the kitchen sink—and a lot of sharp cutlery—at him. Mr Obama's refusal to follow her (and Mr McCain) in supporting an idiotic summer suspension of the petrol tax, crude economic populism at its worst, was especially notable.
There is one final reason why Mr Obama is almost there. More than any other candidate this year, he has articulated an idea of a nobler America. That is partly because of who he is. When Mr Obama's parents married, in 1960, a union such as theirs, between a white woman and a black man, was illegal in over half of America's states. Now their son stands at the threshold of the White House. But it also has a lot to do with what he says and how he comports himself. Despite considerable provocation, he has never wavered from his commitment to bipartisanship—nor from the idea of America once again engaging with the world. There are severe problems with the details, on which Mr McCain will hopefully push him even further than Mrs Clinton has, but the upside of an Obama presidency remains greater than that of any other candidate.
For all these reasons, Mr Obama in our view now deserves the Democratic nomination. It is surely not worth Mrs Clinton dragging this to the convention. It is time for her, at a moment of her choosing, to concede gracefully and throw the considerable weight of the Clintons behind their party's best hope.
Source: The Economist