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 Saturday, November 01, 2008

Why is Obama winning? Just ask the pie man

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Chris Stephen

THERE are many complex reasons why Barack Obama is expected to win the US presidency next Tuesday – and one very simple one.

He expounded on it at a campaign rally a couple of weeks ago, telling his characteristically exuberant audience that he had stopped at a pie shop the day before and met the owner who told him he would vote Republican. "I said, 'Fine. How's business?'"

Nothing more was said, because nothing more needed to be said.

The audience, recognising that Mr Obama had, in a very simple way, highlighted the perilous state of the economy, burst into a noise somewhere between laughter and howling.

Looking back, you can see a pattern in the behaviour of both Mr Obama and John McCain when that first $700 billion bank bail-out was proposed in September. Mr McCain's reaction was to announce he was suspending his campaign, would not make that Friday's presidential debate and was flying to Washington to push it through Congress.

His rival was, meanwhile, cool and collected, refusing even to comment on the plan because "I haven't read it".

Hours later, the bail-out plan failed, Mr McCain looked ridiculous, and tried to save face by un-suspending his campaign to scuttle back to the scheduled debate, where he lost on points to a better-prepared Mr Obama.

If the Democrat has looked cool, and his Republican opponent flustered, ever since, then you can thank the meltdown.

For this is no ordinary recession, but rather a crisis of confidence in the very idea of capitalism. Until approximately six and a half weeks ago, Americans lived and breathed the mantra that the market was always right. Not any more. From Wall Street to Main Street, Adam Smith is suddenly dead. And Mr McCain, once a champion of deregulation, is left looking stupid.

Until shortly before the meltdown, and indeed ever since he nominated Sarah Palin as his running mate, Mr McCain had had a modest lead.

But that evaporated with the banking crisis. Mr Obama, has seen his ratings rise incrementally, and remorselessly, driven on by a five-million strong army of backers whose $20 internet contributions will net him at least $700 million, more than the combined spending of both sides in the 2004 election – Mr McCain, thanks to his decision to opt for public financing, has a budget of only $84 million.

That great iconoclastic journalist Hunter S Thompson once observed, reviewing the chaos of Watergate, that Americans had decided it was no longer cool not to care about politics. The same mood has infected the nation now.

With ordinary Americans caught in the vice of job cuts, falling house prices and rising medical insurance bills, there is simply too much at stake not to care. Television ratings for campaign speeches are at record levels. TV channels have, for the first time in history, run out of advertising slots to offer the candidates – in the past month, Mr McCain has screened 60,000 adverts across America's maze of TV stations, and Mr Obama an astonishing 145,000.

Even states that are considered "safe" – such as Texas and Tennessee for the Republicans, California and New York for the Democrats – are hives of activity. Each weekend, convoys of cars head into neighbouring battleground states, carrying squadrons of Republican evangelicals to do battle with the million-strong Democrat grass-roots organisation

Young Jewish Democrats in New York are "schlepping out the vote" – speed dialling retired relatives in Florida and urging them to "Barack your world".

Meanwhile, right-wing talk radio stations have gone into overdrive, issuing dire warnings of holy apocalypse and End of Days should Mr Obama attain power.

Perhaps the best summation of the election among the tens of thousands bouncing around the internet is a cartoon depicting the candidates as railway engines: Mr Obama is a silver bullet train, fast, cool and maybe a little too slick; his sidekick, Joe Biden, is a big trusty diesel; Mr McCain, the oldest first-time candidate in US history, is a rattling old steam locomotive, while Sarah Palin is a toy train – and one that has jumped its plastic tracks.

Pity John McCain: try as he may to cast himself as a "maverick", the fact is he is a Republican trying to play follow-on to the most inept, bungling president the US has seen since Nixon.

While his nemesis moves seamlessly along gleaming rails, following a campaign plan that is said to have been crafted two years ago, Mr McCain stumbles from one blunder to the next.

The fault is to be found amid the demoralisation of a Republican Party that once stood for fiscal discipline and competence but has been knocked sideways by the failures of Iraq and Hurricane Katrina, to say nothing of the banking crisis. One result is that Karl Rove, the arch priest of electioneering who oversaw Mr Bush's two victories, was considered too toxic to pilot Mr McCain's bid. Instead, the Arizona senator turned to a group of former lobbyists who have proved inept, even at the dark art of negative campaigning.

Taking their advice, Mr McCain has concentrated on trying to undermine Mr Obama by highlighting his links to dodgy financier Tony Rezko, former urban terrorist Bill Ayers, wacky priest Jeremiah Wright and, most recently, PLO-supporting professor Rashid Khalidi. But in each case, the connection proved too tangential to stick, leaving Mr McCain with egg on his face.

And then there is Sarah Palin. To his credit, Mr McCain's original plan was to pick a centrist running mate, such as Joe Lieberman or Tom Ridge, to appeal to swing voters. But the Republican evangelists, the only part of the party not demoralised by the Bush years, vetoed that, so Mr McCain went to the right with Ms Palin and her "God, guns and anti-abortion" trinity. Yes, she has galvanised the conservative wing of his party but, as Mr McCain must know, they were planning to vote Republican anyway.

Ms Palin's abject failure to learn her lines saw her ratings dip, and her fall from grace was accelerated by revelations party aides splashed out an incredible $150,000 for her clothes, including campaign-friendly romper suits for her baby.

Going into the final week of campaigning, Mr McCain tried to stabilise things by accusing his rival of planning to raise taxes. But thanks to Mr Obama's advertising blitz, most Americans know he wants to raise taxes only for the wealthy. The press is full of reports of how, in the Bush years, regular Americans' income has fallen by 1 per cent, while the top 10 per cent have seen theirs rise by 32 per cent.

Then came the death blow – leaks from the McCain camp of rows and splits between him and Ms Palin, the latter described by one adviser as a "diva" more interested in positioning herself for a future career as a chat-show host than helping her boss win the White House.

"To win an election campaign, a candidate needs the three Ms – message, momentum and money. And in each category, it's a slam dunk for Obama."says Democratic expert Phil Noble.

Philip Klein of the American Spectator is more charitable: "Considering the obstacles, it's a tribute to McCain that he's still in touch in the race."

Yet this is a race Mr McCain seems destined to lose. Each day this week, the maps on the websites of CNN and the New York Times have plotted a growing sea of blue, as state after state, including some notable Republican strongholds, turns blue.

To win, he now needs a "game changer" to hammer Mr Obama in the Democrats' heartlands. And so far, he has failed to find an effective response to that simple Obama refrain: "How's business?"

The expert's insight: Obama and Kennedy are kindred spirits


William McPherson - Pulitzer-prize winning author

THE last time America saw someone like Barack Obama was with Jack Kennedy.

I remember it was the same kind of movement. Like Mr Obama, Kennedy was young, and was running against someone old – well, Richard Nixon was not that old, but he seemed old.

Kennedy drew the same kind of crowds, and they had the same kind of enthusiasm. Like Mr Obama he was very self-assured, without being the least bit arrogant, he was witty and intelligent, and he had charm. And Mr Obama, like Kennedy, looks like a man in control.

Which came first, the situation or Mr Obama? Its one of those chicken-and-egg things. The country was obviously ready for a change – we've got two awful wars and now the economy is in meltdown – and Mr Obama has become the avatar of that change.

You need to remember that he has been campaigning now for nearly two years and the situation is working to his advantage. As to what kind of a president he will make, who can say?

President Kennedy took a lot of criticism early on for the Bay of Pigs, the failed CIA invasion of Cuba in April 1961, but he gained stature with his handling of the Cuban missile crisis late in 1962.

Kennedy had this quality which was that people liked him, they looked up to him, they respected him, and Mr Obama has that same quality.

The insider's view: 'The mood's electric, but nervous electric'


Phil Noble founder, Politics Online consultancy, South Carolina

I noticed the new mood among the Democrats last week. I was to give a speech at an Obama support event in Charleston, and when I got on stage I noticed that all the speakers were white, but the audience was mostly black. I turned to the organiser, who was African American, and said 'Kerry, all the speakers are white.' He smiled and said 'that don't matter no more, we got the top guy'.

That's the mood we have down here. It's electric. But it's nervous electric. The Democrats have won only three of the last ten presidential elections. The party has been scared, we've been so close so many times, there's no complacency.

From my own point of view, having worked on dozens of election campaigns, I can't see any way for Obama to lose, short of an Act of God or invasion from outer space. To win an election campaign a candidate needs the three Ms – Message, Momentum and Money, and in each category it's a slam dunk for Obama.

What is different this time is this: Over the years, over and over again, we've said of our election candidate, 'well, he's the best we can do, he's a bum but he's our bum'. It was that way with Kerry, it was that way with Gore, Dukakis. Clinton was better, but even with him everyone understood that he was a flawed vessel, with all the stories of the bimbos and the women. This time we have a genuinely inspiring candidate. From my perspective Obama's the whole deal.

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