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Emulating the Man From Hope

By Toby Harnden

Republicans with a predilection for wishful thinking had been supposing that John McCain's opponent in November was going to be another Jimmy Carter or Mike Dukakis. But although Barack Obama might not have been able to get him on the phone this week, the new Messiah of Hope has been doing a passable of emulating the Man from Hope.


In January 1992, Bill Clinton flew back from the campaign trail to Arkansas to send Ricky Ray Rector to his Maker. A retarded double murderer who had lobotomized himself with his own gun, Ray told his guards to save the pecan pie from his last meal so he could finish it after the lethal injection.

The execution enraged the Left. By 2002, the Supreme Court had ruled that such state killings were unconstitutional. Clinton's sanctioning of it may have reeked of cynicism but it was masterful politics.

Still fresh in the memory was Dukakis's bloodless and bureaucratic answer to Bernard Shaw of CNN's debate question about whether he would back the death penalty if his wife Kitty was raped and murdered. At a stroke, Clinton proved that he was no Dukakis.

Obama's a Mid-western senator rather than a Southern governor so he won't have the opportunity Clinton had to fly back home to order the execution of a retarded man. But he did have the next best thing this week - the Supreme Court's 5 to 4 decision that quashed the execution of a Louisiana man who raped his eight-year-old daughter.

Without a blink, Obama aligned himself with the Court's four conservative justices - John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito - who had voted to uphold the death penalty for child rape. The father of girls aged nine and seven, he seized the opportunity to display populist revulsion and take a hard line against a despicable crime. Not for him the cool rationalism of Dukakis.

The following day, Obama had another chance to align himself with Scalia and Co rather than Stephen Breyer, David Souter and Ruth Bader Ginsburg - the kind of justices he's indicated he favors.

Showing a determination not to become another Al Gore - whose opposition to gun rights arguably cost him the 2000 election - Obama spoke warmly of the decision to overturn the District of Columbia's handgun ban.

Throw in his jilting of the Netroots by supporting the FISA bill and his decision to abandon his pledge to seek a public funding deal with McCain and it's clear that Obama is determined to appeal to the Centre and elements of the Right.

Ensuring he's covered all bases with respect to losing Democratic presidential candidates, Obama's also been doing his best to prove he's no John Kerry. Giving notice he won't be Swiftboated, he said last week that "if they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun".

Cue howls of derision from the Left and cries of, 'What happened to the politics of hope?' That's a legitimate question. But after Carter, Walter Mondale, Dukakis, Gore and Kerry what Democrats want most is a winner. Having already cornered the market on hope and change - no matter what Obama does, McCain's not going to take that away from him - he needed to prove he was tough enough.

To have accepted public funding and its accompanying spending limits would have been an insane act of unilateral disarmament. Yes, there's a danger of Obama sullying his hopemonger reputation and coming across as just another politician. But who has ever won the White House without being political?

Obama has worked deftly to court Hillary Clinton and her voters without deferring to them and appearing weak. While telling female members of the Congressional Black Caucus to "get over it" might have been going a touch too far, his reminder that Camp Clinton had portrayed him as a Muslim and not ready to be commander-in-chief.

By refusing to bow to the new Conventional Wisdom that poor Hillary fell victim to a wave of Obama-inspired sexism, he solidified his position as Democratic alpha male.

Although the media's working assumption has been that this will be a general election as close as those of 2004 and 2000, there are signs that Obama is building the foundation for a resounding victory. Four months is an eternity in politics and anything can happen but McCain supporters are right to be gloomy at the moment.

Some national polls give Obama a sizeable lead. But more worrying for Republicans are the state polls, which show Obama having an edge in Iowa, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado and Michigan with Florida, Missouri and Nevada within striking distance. Should the currrent state polling trends continue, Obama could be headed for a landslide in November.

Meanwhile, McCain seems strangely off form. While telling reporters that he was "very pleased" with the Supreme Court's gun decision, he looked barely happier than he did when being held prisoner in Vietnam. An emerging storyline of a man who never uses the internet and takes weekends off - though heaven forfend anyone making his 71 years an issue - needs to be nipped in the bud before it begins to define him.

Bill Clinton wasn't in Unity, New Hampshire yesterday when Obama and his wife staged their show of togetherness. And it may be quite some time before we see the former president stumping for the Illinois senator.

Obama secured the Democratic nomination in part by disavowing the "old politics" of Bill Clinton. But the way he's begun his general election campaign shows that he's convinced that emulating the Man from Hope is the way to win in November.

Toby Harnden is US Editor of The Daily Telegraph of London. His blog is at http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/foreign/tobyharnden

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