From The Economist print edition
America wants change; it just can't work out what sort of change
IF A week is famously a long time in British politics, five days can be an eternity in America. On January 3rd Barack Obama defeated Hillary Clinton by roughly 17,000 votes, out of around 220,000 cast, in Iowa's Democratic caucus at the start of the presidential nominating season. It was the vote that launched a thousand editorials: the charismatic young black senator was compared to Jack Kennedy, Martin Luther King and even Ronald Reagan. France's Libération hailed the man who “will restore America's image in the world”. The nomination, not to mention the presidency, seemed Mr Obama's not by election but by global acclamation.
On January 8th Mrs Clinton staged her comeback, winning in New Hampshire by an even tinier margin (some 7,500 votes), to the surprise of pollsters who had been predicting a trouncing for her. Now, suddenly, the talk is of the triumph of experience over hope, of the crushing power of the Clinton machine, of the next chapter in the remarkable story of the Comeback Kids. Meanwhile, the Republicans seem to be see-sawing even more dramatically—with the Bible-wielding Mike Huckabee winning Iowa (cue, a lot of guff about a fresh face and the power of the religious right) then John McCain winning New Hampshire (all hail now to experience and the virtue of independence) and Rudy Giuliani still ahead in the large states that vote on Super Tuesday on February 5th.
From Obamamania to Obam...err
In fact, the only safe lesson to draw is that the battle for the White House is an extraordinarily fluid affair. Everything is up in the air. That is not just because this is the most open election in America since 1928 (the last time that no incumbent president or vice-president was in the race); it is because Americans don't really know what they want. Sure, they are desperate for “change”: with the economy reeling, politics gridlocked, young people dying in Iraq and the Bush administration a global byword for callous incompetence, huge numbers of Americans have long believed their country is on the wrong track. But what sort of change? And who can deliver it?
It is a measure of how far Mr Obama has come that he is the person who has seemed closest (albeit only for a few days) to satisfying this need. More than Mrs Clinton's, his appeal rests on an attractive optimism. He calls himself a “hope-monger”; he argues—not without reason—that change cannot come if the country is mired in the old “Bush-Clinton” partisan politics. And in many ways, a divided, grouchy America's hopes do indeed seem to rest with Mr Obama—personable, consensus-seeking and capable of delivering oratory of some brilliance, in defeat as well as victory.
Yet the Democrats of New Hampshire were probably right to ask for a bit more (had Mr Obama won, he would surely have been unstoppable). Yes, an Obama presidency would close up two of America's deepest wounds: as a black man, especially one who does not run as a black politician, he would draw the sting of race from its politics; as a young man, he would step beyond the poisonous legacy of the 1960s division Vietnam wrought between liberals and conservatives.
Other areas, though, have always looked knottier. Could Mr Obama, simply by dint of being black and having lived in Muslim Indonesia for six years as a boy, really change America's international image so easily? He would get a hero's welcome, of course—but the next president will get that whoever he or she is, simply for not being George Bush and not having made such a hash of Iraq. Thereafter, America will be judged on its actions, not its words. For instance, Mr Obama shows no particular sign of being able to reconcile the need to end the occupation of Iraq with the need to avoid the disaster that a power vacuum in the heart of the Middle East would cause. Tell us more, said many voters in New Hampshire: to that extent, they were right to deny him certain nomination.
Mrs Clinton, however, also has work to do—much more work than simply mentioning “change” a lot. New Hampshire, after all, is a bedrock of Clintonism: had she lost there, she would have been in dire straits in Nevada, which votes on January 19th, and especially in South Carolina, which votes on January 26th, and where around half the Democratic primary electorate is black. Super Tuesday, when 22 states are to vote, might have been her last stand. Now, after this political near-death, she is back where she started—in the lead. One has to hope, however, that she has learnt a few lessons.
These begin with the idea that it is not enough to exude competence and reel off endless policy proposals. She must learn poetry from Mr Obama, just as he needs to learn prose from her. She needs to listen to voters, not talk at them. Above all, she has to shed that sense of wounded entitlement that has bedevilled her campaign; she has to show that the Clintons are not yesterday's people. Her problem is not just that Mr Obama could still catch her; she has reminded many Americans how divisive a politician she is. If she wins the primaries, it may be only because core Democratic groups (trade unions, the uneducated, the poor, the old) rallied to her side. And a nomination does not a president make.
Say what you think
The Republicans should be in much worse shape. They have a wider field (four possibles, if you include Mitt Romney, who finished second in both Iowa and New Hampshire). Whereas the Democrats are agonising about what sort of change they represent, the Republicans are the party of incumbency. On the face of it, they would be mad to ditch Mr McCain. A man who outdoes Mrs Clinton for experience and sometimes matches Mr Obama for charm, he has shown more political courage than either Democrat has yet displayed and he beats both of them in hypothetical “head to head” polls. Against this, the 71-year-old senator is a mercurial cove; and many of his boldest traits, such as his keenness for immigration reform, irritate his deeply dysfunctional party.
Yet there is a lesson for the other candidates in Mr McCain's bravery. When voters don't quite know their own minds, they turn to those who do: 2008 is a year for courage.