US election : It will get dirtier still

Think of this week’s Democratic primary in Pennsylvania as the Battle of the Bulge. That winter 1944-1945 clash was the final German offensive of substance, briefly putting the Allies on their heels, but doing little to stem the war’s outcome. Without drawing the Allies-Axis analogy any further, even if some Obama supporters would like to, it seems safe to say that a similar dynamic may apply to Tuesday’s contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Polls show Clinton holding a stubborn lead over Obama and, if she wins, she will have staved off political death one more time. Yet if Clinton wins by a narrow margin - even after an unusually bad stretch for Obama, including his foolish observation about ‘bitter’ small-town voters and a horrendous debate on Wednesday — her victory will be underwhelming.

In the next two primaries, on 6 May, she trails badly in one (North Carolina) and has surrendered a one-time lead in another (Indiana). Even some Clintonites say they will pressure her to drop out should she lose both those states. And one of her prominent (unnamed) supporters recently estimated to the Politico newspaper that she only has a 10 per cent chance at the nomination.For a fleeting moment recently, it did seem that Clinton might stand a chance, when controversy exploded over Obama’s incendiary pastor, Jeremiah Wright. But Obama’s skilful address on race, coupled with the media frenzy around Clinton’s foolish exaggeration of ‘sniper fire’ in Tuzla, slammed that door.

Given her long odds, ever more Democrats watch Clinton’s continued attacks on Obama with a queasy stomach. On Friday, Democratic chairman Howard Dean urged uncommitted superdelegates to hurry up and decide, in effect calling for Obama to be the nominee. Democrats such as Dean quite reasonably wonder whether their party has become like a family that spends millions in legal battles over an inheritance, only to find there’s nothing left at the end. Though in this case the inheritance lost is nothing less than the presidency.

For as Clinton and Obama peck away at one another over honesty, patriotism and race and the like, John McCain is quietly resting, raising money, staging gauzy ‘biography’ events and laying out campaign positions to little criticism from a distracted left. And the Republicans are laying the groundwork for the same cynical but deadly brand of politics that has kept them in the White House for eight years.

Obama’s candidacy may have reached a turning point when the Illinois senator - speaking at a San Francisco fundraiser under the assumption he was off the record - made the comment that small-town Americans are ‘bitter’ about their economic circumstances and ‘cling’ to religion, guns, xenophobia and protectionism as a result. While Clinton gleefully pounced on the comments, hoping to stigmatise Obama in rural Pennsylvania, McCain and the Republican party apparatus also rushed joyfully into the fray. “I think those comments are elitist,” McCain said. “That sentence will cost Obama the election,” chimed conservative activist Grover Norquist.

One recurring feature of recent presidential campaigns has been thedisgraceful effort of the Republicans to compensate for its unpopular positions on major issues, from health care to Iraq, by impugning the character of the Democratic presidential nominee. Liberals have made this complaint for some time, but I lent it new credence after listening to a senior figure in the Bush political machine. “You guys never get it,” he said to journalists who’d been debating the politics of some newsworthy issue. “People don’t vote on issues. They vote on character.” The man knew whereof he spoke, for character largely explains how Bush won two presidential elections.

It had been the same story four years earlier. A long stretch of peace and prosperity had made Al Gore favourite to succeed Clinton. But theGOP skilfully caricatured Gore as a pedantic snob, a know-it-all who allegedly claimed to have ‘invented’ the internet. That defamation campaign, in turn, was modelled after the 1988 ridicule of Michael Dukakis as a product of pointy-headed academic Boston.

In every case, the GOP message to America was the same: the Democratic candidate is too fancy to understand your world. He is a product of a coastal elite establishment that derides real Americans. Republicans have always known how they would attack Clinton’s character: They’ve had more than 15 years of trashing her as mean-tempered, ultra-feminist prevaricator. But Obama’s comments, which can at least be construed to deride the legitimate faith, traditions and concerns of small-towners, have opened the GOP door to tarring him with the label of elitist snob.Obama can start by choosing his words more carefully. He can also console himself in knowing that the Bush Republicans have left American in such rotten shape that even the GOP’s mendacious character politics may not be enough to save them this time around. — The Guardian