US election : Clinton writes McCain’s strategy

When Gerald Ford took the oath of office at the end of the Watergate affair, he declared: “My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over.” Barack Obama did not use those words in Minnesota last night on June 3, though plenty of his fellow Democrats would have found them apt. The longest, closest primary campaign in US history — a contest that cut deep into some of America’s most neuralgic areas — has finally come to an end. The people of Montana and South Dakota concluded what the citizens of Iowa began exactly five months earlier, putting Obama within touching distance of his party’s nomination for president.

The final hours did not run smoothly. Before the polls closed, news agencies reported that Hillary Clinton was ready to accept defeat. But then Clinton officials said

the story was wrong, and that their fight goes on. This is what people mean when they speak about fighting to the bitter end. Besides

the mudfest at Saturday’s Democratic rules committee meeting, the last days were marked by Bill Clinton giving an encore of his red-faced act, this time denouncing a journalist as “slimy” and a “scumbag”, later prompting his aides to relay his regret for such “inappropriate” language. The dimming of the former president’s reputation has been one of the sadder consequences of this endurance test of an election season.

Forget how exhausted the key players are after the fight of their lives: the election of 2008 has only just begun. The battle whose reverberations will be felt across the world for the next four years, is the general election on November 4. Barring a mass defection of Obama delegates to Clinton, that showdown will be between the Illinois senator and John McCain. If the world had a vote, it’s pretty clear who would win: a YouGov survey of British voters this week shows Obama would rout McCain by 49% to 14%, and it’s a fair guess that the constituencies of Africa North, Europe West and Asia Central would go the same way.

The Obama camp will strain not to point out that much of his problem is the damage inflicted on him by Hillary. For the past three months, she has sought to do to Obama what Republicans have long tried, usually successfully, to do to Democrats: to paint him as an “elitist”, an out-of-touch intellectual with radical ideas outside the mainstream of American life. Republicans destroyed Adlai Stevenson that way in the 1950s and famously did the same to George McGovern, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry, the last with brutal panache. “Hillary is the first Democrat to use that same approach against a fellow Democrat,” says Jacob Weisberg, editor of Slate.

It means that McCain’s attack lines against Obama are already written for him. He simply has to pick up where Hillary left off, presenting Obama as a black McGovern, pointing to his leftist friends, questioning his patriotism, casting him as the denizen of university towns remote from “the real America” — and with both an intolerance for high-carb breakfasts and a poor bowling arm to boot. Viewed like this, the conventional wisdom that the Clintons have done Obama a favour, by battle-hardening him in time for November, may be too hopeful. They may simply have blown holes in his armour, through which McCain merely has to aim straight. The shape of the coming contest has changed in another way. At the start of the year, it seemed as if 2008 would pit two ideologically similar figures against each other. Obama was the post-partisan who would reach out to independents; McCain was the maverick Republican with a knack for appealing leftward. Both would end up in the centre.

That’s not how it looks now. Obama has been exposed as the Democrat with the most “liberal” voting record in the senate, while McCain has sought to secure his conservative base by asserting his tax-cutting instincts and echoing Bush on the economy and healthcare. It means that the general election campaign begins with both sides behind traditional, partisan lines.

Nowhere is the gap between them clearer or wider than on the question that matters most to the global electorate watching this battle: US foreign policy. Just this week, McCain has ramped up the aggressive rhetoric on Iran while still clinging to the faith that made him predict in March 2003 that invading Iraq would be “one of the best things that’s happened to America”. Obama, meanwhile, suggests direct talks with Tehran and a withdrawal of troops from Iraq. McCain calls Obama the Hamas candidate and an appeaser; Obama says McCain offers nothing more than a third term of the Bush presidency.

The result is a contest whose stakes could not be higher and which will hinge on the battle of definition. Can Obama brand McCain as a crotchety, Meldrew-ish version of the discredited Dubya? Or can McCain cast Obama as a naive novice who belongs in the student seminar room? The phoney — if gripping — war is now all but over. The decisive conflict is about to begin. — The Guardian