Yes you can, Mr President
And so it’s actually happened. The American electorate did something I wasn’t sure they would be able to bring themselves to do: they put a Democrat back in the White House.
President Barack Obama – who’d have thought it, just two or three years back? Even today it feels … Unreal. A dream.
At the end of August, I wrote a post “McCain’s all-or-nothing choice” in which I discussed John McCain’s campaign and his selection of Vice Presidential candidate. I really did think it would be the critical moment of the campaign, and while conceding that “after things settle down and she starts campaigning, this may yet prove to be an inspired choice that wins the Republicans a third term” I decided that, in my view that day, the selection was “overkill, a knee-jerk overreaction to the Obama threat, a desperate attempt to overcompensate but which instead does far more damage than the original problem.”
I stand by that, and by the view that this was the moment when John McCain lost the election. Sure, other things happened afterwards with a huge impact on the election: the collapse of the global banking system, for example, and McCain’s chicken-with-no-head response just before the presidential debates, all sent his campaign into a death spiral. But I really think it all stems from the moment he chose Palin as his running mate.
That was the point he lost faith in “the maverick” and all that he had been until then. I’ll admit, I was quite a fan of McCain back in 2000 when he was the outsider challenging Bush. What would the story of the last eight years have been like if he had pulled that off back then? He seemed decent, honourable, and full of common sense non-ideological policies. And by the start of 2008 he seemed to be back in that same groove and I was liking him better than the strident, rather obnoxious messages coming from the Democrat front runner – Hillary Clinton.
But once he won the nomination, something happened to McCain. It was almost like that was his last fight – he hadn’t expected to get past that one, and didn’t have anything left for the final push. He was out of gas. And as he ran out of momentum, so the Republican establishment machine jumped on board and hijacked his candidacy, leaving McCain looking like he was being worked on strings out front barely believing what he was now saying.
Was Palin McCain’s choice or the GOP’s? I like to think it was imposed on him, because I want to think the best of McCain: that the GOP advisors ground him down and told him that Palin was the only option, and beat all the reasons why she was the best choice into him until he felt there was no other choice. In which case I also have to confess to believing the conspiracy theory – that the GOP machine was actively intent on self-destructing the McCain candidacy in order to set up Palin 2012 for their resurrection. Only, I don’t expect they thought she would crash and burn quite so badly: by pushing her into the limelight so soon they may have made her unelectable in four years time too.
Once Palin was selected, McCain never seemed in control, and only occasionally seemed passionate about the campaign. Ironically some of his best moments were when he stood up to his own party for Obama, embarrassed by racist and ignorant comments from his own core constituency.
I’ll be honest: back in the summer I didn’t think Obama would be able to win this. I wanted Hillary to get the nomination because I felt that she had the better chance of beating the Republicans. All her dirty laundry was long in the public eye (was Obama’s?); her negatives were high, but then again they were unlikely to get any worse now (whereas would Obama’s positive ratings hold up once he was the official candidate?); she was a seasoned campaigner who would keep going remorselessly till the bitter end (could Obama?); her campaign machine was ruthlessly efficient (was Obama’s?)
Turns out that Obama didn’t have dirty laundry to emerge, despite the Republican attack machine digging for dirt with all its might; Obama’s positives not only held, but rose as he proved himself to wider audiences in the debates; and as for campaign machines, ave we ever in history see a team so inch-perfect than the one that Obama put together and which propelled him to last night’s victory?
Obama should have been an easy rival for McCain: just the experience card alone should have been decisive for him. Obama’s tendency toward cerebral, intellectual arguments should set large parts of the country against him; and yes, Obama’s skin colour should have given McCain an unassailable lead in key parts of the American heartland.
But McCain threw away the experience issue when he selected Palin – in fact he ended up with it being the GOP ticket’s Achilles Heel instead, which was quite a feat. The economic situation played perfectly into the Democrat’s hands too, as the voters – worried for their homes and their pension funds – wanted someone who looked like he knew what he was talking about, not running around waving their hands in the air in blind panic like the Wall Street traders – and McCain – were doing.
And as for skin colour … Well, there are plenty of analysts today saying that Obama’s election – and the fact that all American citizens will now be represented to the world and to the US itself by a young, black family means that the US has finally laid to rests the divisions of slavery, of Civil War, and of civil rights marches just four decades ago. Well, I’m afraid it doesn’t – large parts of the country will be as bitterly, implacably opposed to a black president now as they would have been in the 1960s.
But it’s undeniable progress. A huge leap in the battle to end racial divisions once and for all. If Obama can live up anywhere close to the hopes and expectations that American (and world) citizens have for him this morning, then in eight years time the idea of a black President of the United States won’t be a novelty, won’t be a dangerous radial idea: it’ll be the norm, A success. An everyday part of life. And that will be the way to change hearts of minds, because the children of America and the world who grow up under an Obama presidency will look at the world, at race, and at America in a profoundly different way than those of us who have been labouring under a Bush presidency.
So, no pressure then, Mr President. All that we ask is that you become one of the greatest and most inspiring leaders of all time, and to change the world. If that sounds like an outrageously tall order, well – you applied for the job! And millions and millions of people think you can do it. Don’t let us down.