So finally, we know who the two main candidates will be in our general election here in the US this November. Yesterday evening, Barack Obama pulled past the magic number of 2,118 delegates needed to win the Democratic nomination. That, after the Democratic Party had finally held primaries or caucuses in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.
I watched CNN for much of yesterday evening. John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Obama all gave significant speeches. Hillary’s was almost– but not quite– a farewell speech. She has not yet conceded the nomination to Obama, but indicated she would make a decision fairly soon. I think her delivery of the speech was the strongest I have ever seen from her, though the content was pretty poor. Not just that she didn’t acknowledge Obama’s by-then obvious victory. But her speech also lacked substance.
What were more interesting to me were the speeches of the two remaining, big-party presidential candidates, MacCain and Obama. McCain’s was truly pathetic. He was speaking in New Orleans (which he insisted on calling New Orleyans, not ‘Norlins’ as most locals there do.) In that proud city that was once a hub of African-American-Cajun culture he had gathered about 200 people, all of them apparently “white”. Also, as one of the CNN commentators noted, McCain managed to assemble a crowd of such an age that he seemed to be the youngest man in the room.
I was interested to see the degree that he– like Obama– focused his speech on international issues, primarily the situation in Iraq and the whole question of the use of the US military in international affairs. I guess I’d thought that rising economic worries here at homer might have already shifted the topic of debate between the candidates from international affairs to economic affairs. But that doesn’t seem to have happened at this point.
McCain’s delivery was wooden and self-conscious.
Then came Hillary’s speech, given to a crowd that was larger but certainly not huge, in the basement gym of Baruch College in New York. As I said, her delivery was excellent. The crowd seemed dominated by ardent and somewhat cult-like Hillary-supporters. I guess they’ll need a bit of time to come to terms with her defeat. She, obviously, needs to show some clear leadership in bringing them around to give enthusiastic support to a Democratic ticket that she won’t be heading. (There’s been a lot of talk about whether Obama will choose her as his Vice. She certainly seems to be angling for that. That’s a tough decision for him to make.)
And then we had Obama’s speech, which was delivered in the same sports stadium in St. Paul, Minnesota, where the Republicans will be holding their convention this September. In this notably “white”-dominated state, Obama had packed the 17,000-seat stadium, and according to local police there were an additional 18,000 people gathered outside, as well. His people are a little cult-like, too… But I guess that in the American system, if any candidate succeeds in generating enthusiasm and buzz, then a gathering of his/her supporters could appear cult-like from the outside. It’s something to do with the intense personalization of the system here.
He was accompanied to the stage by his radiant-looking spouse, Michele Obama, a tall, extremely competent woman, who exchanged a hug and a playful little knuckle-punch with him before she left him alone under the Klieg lights to deliver his speech.
Right near the beginning he announced, “Tonight, I can stand before you and say that I will be the Democratic nominee for President of the United States.”
He then moved right into addressing his presumed opponent, McCain– something he has already been doing for some weeks now, as the certitude of his imminent victory in the Democratic primaries has grown ever larger. He described McCain as “a man who has served this country heroically,” immediately adding: “I honor that service, and I respect his many accomplishments, even if he chooses to deny mine. My differences with him are not personal; they are with the policies he has proposed in this campaign.”
I think that displayed just the right amount of respect and collegiality toward McCain, though with an appropriate small edge of feisty criticism.
Here was where Obama delineated his approach to international affairs:
- there are many words to describe John McCain’s attempt to pass off his embrace of George Bush’s policies as bipartisan and new. But change is not one of them.
Change is a foreign policy that doesn’t begin and end with a war that should’ve never been authorized and never been waged. I won’t stand here and pretend that there are many good options left in Iraq, but what’s not an option is leaving our troops in that country for the next hundred years – especially at a time when our military is overstretched, our nation is isolated, and nearly every other threat to America is being ignored.
We must be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in – but start leaving we must. It’s time for Iraqis to take responsibility for their future. It’s time to rebuild our military and give our veterans the care they need and the benefits they deserve when they come home. It’s time to refocus our efforts on al Qaeda’s leadership and Afghanistan, and rally the world against the common threats of the 21st century – terrorism and nuclear weapons; climate change and poverty; genocide and disease. That’s what change is.
Change is realizing that meeting today’s threats requires not just our firepower, but the power of our diplomacy – tough, direct diplomacy where the President of the United States isn’t afraid to let any petty dictator know where America stands and what we stand for. We must once again have the courage and conviction to lead the free world. That is the legacy of Roosevelt, and Truman, and Kennedy. That’s what the American people want. That’s what change is.
The arguments I emphasized there all look like good and compelling ones. (Though I think that linking a withdrawal from Iraq to to more reliance on the UN– there and elsewhere– would have been better than linking it to a sort of “blame the Iraqis” meme?)
Anyway, his delivery of the speech was– as always– spectacular. Obama is a truly gifted rhetorician, along with his many other talents. Anyway, crafting and delivering a great speech requires huge understanding at the levels of both raw intellect and human affairs.
So here we are, with the national attention now shifting to the general election contest. If it were just about McCain and Obama, then I think McCain would have an extremely tough job of winning. Obama’s greatest strength is the authenticity with which he can represent his “change” agenda– this at a time when the vast majority of Americans are evidently fed up with the present situation (economic and military) and have a very poor opinion of Pres. Bush. McCain is not only 25 years older than Obama (and looks and acts it); in addition, he is closely allied to Bush’s policies on all issues, except climate change.
But it is McCain’s party association with Bush, who still holds considerable levers of power in the country, that makes me wary of predicting any easy victory for Obama. As head of the executive branch, there are any number of actions Bush and his people could take that he might hope would help push the election toward his fellow Republican.
Yes, even including actions in the arena of war and peace. This would certainly not be the first time this has happened… (Wag the Dog, anyone?)
However, initiating any kind of election-related, pre-election attack on another country would be a very risky business, at two levels:
- 1. It would most likely, in today’s global political climate, stir up a very extensive and damaging hornet’s nest internationally, and
2. It might not even have the “desired” effect on an electorate at home that is, I believe, considerably savvier about the risks of international escalation than the US citizenry was back in the 1990s. Indeed, a pre-election escalation or attack, against Iran or any other possible target, might even backfire at the polls. Remember what happened to Jose Maria Aznar when he tried a last-minute escalation of his rhetoric against the Basques?
From this perspective, I believe that the more we can educate the US electorate at home about the very real risks that would be incurred internationally by any unjustified US military attacks against other countries, the more we might be able to deter the Bushists from launching any such attack.
But launching a Wag the Dog attack isn’t the only thing the nation’s chief executive and his employees can do between now and November. They could also, oh, to mention one wild and crazy example, schedule some show trials to start in September? Something connected with 9/11? With a huge related media operation? That would serve in those vital last weeks before the election to work the electorate back up into a tizzy of fear and xenophobia… ?
No, they wouldn’t stoop to doing that, would they? Would they?