Friday, October 3, 2008
The battle of hope and experience - Economist
Will America choose the old hero who favours tax cuts for business and the rich and backed George Bush’s wars? Or the young man who promises health care for all, a swift exit from Iraq and more money for the average worker? As America’s financial system buckles, this ought to be an unlosable election for the Democrats. But it isn’t IT HAS been a time of miracles and wonders. Hillary Clinton, the “inevitable” Democratic nominee, was beaten by a man who was barely out of law school when she was trying to reform the nation’s health-care system; and that man, Barack Obama, has become the darling of the world. John McCain, a senator whose campaign was given up for dead last year, improbably surged past all his rivals to seize the Republican nomination. Voters in November will pick either a black president or a female vice-president, breaking new ground either way. And most surprising of all, at a time when the Democrats surely cannot lose, they still just might. Only once in the past half-century has a party been awarded three consecutive terms in the White House. That was in 1988, after Ronald Reagan’s two terms, when the economy was strong and the president was still popular. Neither remotely holds true now. The economy may not quite be in recession, but it certainly feels that way. House prices are tumbling, petrol and grocery prices are painfully high and wages have stagnated for years. The September meltdown of much of Wall Street has put an unexpected focus on the candidates’ grasp of the complex world of high finance. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on. By rights, Mr McCain should be shuffling towards certain defeat. Yet the polls are still very close. The main reason is that the Democrats have picked as their standard-bearer Mr Obama, a man of great gifts but significant weaknesses. Mr Obama writes brilliant speeches and delivers them beautifully. He attracts huge crowds, stirs their passions and moves them to tears. Yet he is no crude demagogue. He approaches policy questions with an admirable mix of intellect and pragmatism. His advisers marvel at his capacity to weigh complex arguments and pick solutions that seem both sensible and politically feasible. He promises much. He would withdraw American troops from Iraq as fast as is practicable. He would increase the size of the army and send more troops to Afghanistan. He would close the prison at Guantánamo Bay. Domestically, he would offer Americans near-universal health care. He would raise taxes on the rich and on businesses, trim them for the great bulk of the middle class and offer numerous handouts. He would set up a cap-and-trade system for curbing carbon emissions and lavish cash on alternative energy. To many of his fans, Mr Obama’s allure owes even more to his persona than to his policies. He is an athletic 47. Half-black, half-white and raised by a single mother, his rise from modest roots embodies the American dream. Not only does he preach racial reconciliation; his election would help achieve it. And a generation of black children would grow up with an ideal role model: a black president with a loving, intact family. Mr Obama’s election would also help mend America’s shredded relations with the rest of the world, though probably less than his foreign fans imagine. Unlike George Bush, he soothingly espouses international co-operation. His nuanced manner reassures Europeans. His surname is African, his middle name is Arabic, he has Muslim forebears, he grew up partly in Asia and his skin colour is close to the global average. A recent poll of 22 countries by the BBC found that people in all 22 of them preferred Mr Obama to Mr McCain. But only Americans can vote in American elections, and many have doubts about Mr Obama. He has the thinnest résumé of any nominee in living memory. Eight years ago, when he ran for a seat in the House of Representatives, his opponent, a former Black Panther, dismissed him by asking: “Just what’s he done?” Mr Obama was then a lowly state senator, and had also worked as a lawyer and a community organiser. Voters deemed this to be insufficient preparation for Congress. Mr Obama lost by 31 percentage points. In 2004 he was elected to the United States Senate. But many Americans hesitate to hire as the country’s leader someone with no executive experience besides running the Harvard Law Review and a series of election campaigns. Others worry that he is not as nice or principled as he seems. He won that state Senate seat by having all his rivals thrown off the ballot. He cosied up to Chicago’s machine politicians. His pastor for two decades preaches “God damn America”. For all Mr Obama’s rhetoric about reaching across the partisan divide, he has never stood up to his party to accomplish anything substantial. For all his talk about uniting his country, he has become an unexpectedly divisive figure. McCain, again The alternative is Mr McCain. Though quick-witted on the stump, Mr McCain seems less intelligent and less eloquent than Mr Obama. His age is against him: he would be the oldest first-term president ever inaugurated, and he has had recurrent bouts of cancer. He has a volcanic temper that he struggles to control. Many people fear that he is a warmonger at worst, at best a prickly individual with neoconservative tendencies who will do little to mend fences with the world. His grasp of the details of economics and finance is shaky, to say the least. But Mr McCain is also a brave politician, who has often tried to do the difficult not the expedient thing. He would stay the course in Iraq, arguing that a hasty withdrawal would spark chaos. He would stand up to Russia and Iran. Like his rival, he would close Guantánamo. On the economic front, whereas Mr Obama flirts with protectionism, Mr McCain is a staunch free-trader. He endorses low taxes, though the rich get most of the breaks. In general he favours light regulation, but he now agrees with Mr Obama that Wall Street needs firmer oversight. Also like Mr Obama, he proposes a cap-and-trade system for greenhouse gases, but he would give away the permits, not auction them. His health-care plans emphasise using competition to curb costs rather than expanding coverage. Mr McCain’s domestic platform may be beside the point, however, since Congress will be Democratic and unlikely to pass his proposals without rewriting them. On the other hand, for many moderate voters, the best argument for Mr McCain is that a Republican president and a Democratic Congress would check and balance each other. In the past, divided government has led to greater fiscal prudence, since presidents are more likely to veto the other party’s wasteful spending. Getting both parties to share the pain is also the only realistic way to tackle tough long-term problems, like the looming bankruptcy of Social Security (public pensions) and Medicare (public health care for the elderly). If voters made up their minds according to each party’s stated policies, Mr Obama would probably be a shoo-in. But they do not. The president is both chief executive and symbolic head of state. Voters want someone who has the extraordinary talents necessary to do the job, yet who also seems ordinary and likeable. Cultural cues matter hugely. So does evidence of sound judgment and strength of character. Mr Obama wins top marks for raw talent. He can also claim sound judgment: though no pacifist, he opposed the Iraq war from the start. Mr McCain retorts that he backed the “surge” before it was popular, when Mr Obama tried to block it. The two men’s life stories appeal to different groups. Mr McCain is a war hero who endured years of torture in Vietnam. He has often defied his own party in pursuit of centrist policies, such as banning torture, welcoming immigrants and tackling climate change. Mr Obama is more of an enigma. His voting record is one of the most liberal in the Senate, but in his books, he tends to present two sides of each policy argument without reaching many firm conclusions. During the campaign he has tacked to the centre. Even professional observers are now thoroughly unsure what he stands for. There is still a month to go and the economy is, to put it mildly, volatile Mr Obama has addressed some of his weaknesses by picking Joe Biden as his running-mate. Mr Biden has been a senator for 36 years and knows a lot about foreign policy. His working-class roots appeal to some who find Mr Obama detached from their problems. But he has had less effect on the race than Mr McCain’s risky—and, some say, deeply cynical—choice of Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska. Unlike Mr McCain, Mrs Palin knows little about national or international politics. But as a working mother of five who grew up shooting moose for the freezer, she appeals to small-town voters who feel condescended to by Democrats. And as a born-again Christian and passionate pro-lifer, she thrills social conservatives who have never warmed to Mr McCain. But she appals a lot of independent voters, who dislike her conservative views and worry about her evident inexperience, should she ever have to step into the 72-year-old Mr McCain’s shoes. The “Palin effect” was huge at first, but it quickly started to fade. Meanwhile, no one knows how race will affect the election. Many people, black and white, will back Mr Obama because he is black. Many will oppose him for the same reason, though few will admit as much. There is still a month to go, the presidential and vice-presidential debates still need to sink in, and the economy is, to put it mildly, volatile. After a campaign that has already lasted more than two years, it seems impossible to predict who will win. But no one can complain that Americans are not getting a clear choice.