Friday, January 4, 2008
After Iowa: Hillary's challenge
It was difficult to see how the Republican race could prove decisive. The impact has been to make it more confused, though with one clear casualty. The Mitt Romney campaign looks fatally wounded. (John Ellis has a brilliant robust dissection of what went wrong with the most 'politics as usual' campaign offered to Iowans; while Michael Tomasky points out that his $6.5 million Iowa campaign comes out at $300 a vote).
I very much doubt Mike Huckabee will make the nomination in the end - nor how there could be a winning electoral coalition for Huckabee in November, as his economic approach is unacceptable to a large part of the Republican party, while his social agenda will scare off key groups of swing voters. This is good news for the absent Rudy Giuliani and for John McCain, though McCain did not do particularly well. But there is no Republican unity candidate - and that is going to affect their ability to mobilise in November.
Obama won big - by a striking seven point margin, exceeding expectations. The concentrated burst of primaries make timing matter more in 2008 than ever before. They may not pull it off, but right now, the Obama campaign have got everything right.
John Edwards edged Clinton for second place: a strong showing in such a competitive race. But it may prove the high point of his campaign, and may not be enough to keep his candidacy going into the Southern primaries after New Hampshire. Clinton-Obama will become a compelling media frame and Edwards will struggle to stay visible. What happens to Edwards fairly strong base of support in the South is an important unknown factor.
It is far, far too early to write Hillary Clinton off. This morning, she is probably still the favourite and frontrunner for the nomination. But for how long? I can see three strategic problems for the Clinton pitch, going into the next round of contests.
(1) Both results strengthen the sense that this is a 'change' election. The famous right track/wrong track indicator is at record levels, showing 7 out of 10 Americans believe the country is going in the wrong direction.
Hillary presented two main 'closing' arguments on the eve of the poll and returned to these in her post-caucus concession speech.
- First, that she can win in November; she has been tested and presents less electoral risk;
- Second, that she is the President who will be 'ready of day one'.
So Hillary wants to stand for 'the experience to deliver change'. But the contrast with Obama risks making her 'the Establishment' against the risk of 'Change', in a race with no other status quo candidate.
(2) The high turnout and Obama's crossover appeal to independents may strengthen his core 'uniter, not a divider' argument. The risk of Obama is reduced if he demonstrates the ability to deliver. Over the next week, a sense of what these results and New Hampshire mean on 'electability' will emerge, from detailed number crunching and how that then turns into a new common sense among the commentators, bloggers and activists. That is a primary consideration for many Democrats this year, and will be the substance at stake in the post-match spin and counter-spin.
(3) If the momentum of Iowa and the media focus propel Obama to victory in New Hampshire, Obama would become the favourite. The Hillary Clinton campaign has been a 'safety first' campaign of the frontrunner. Could she emulate her husband's 'comeback kid' reputation? They are very different politicians.
Time magazine is already this morning reporting talk of a change of strategy but I doubt she could change her argument significantly without it looking like panic, and costing her in authenticity. If, as Time's report suggests, this means 'going negative' it would backfire and play to Obama's strengths.
The Obama campaign is still an unlikely insurgency - yet that is precisely its appeal if it can be shown to be a viable one. Hillary Clinton will have to hold her nerve, but she may find that she is in the campaign race on the terms that her opponent wanted to define.
As the Washington clocks strike twelve on 20th January 2009, listen carefully and you might just hear a swooshing sigh of relief travel around the world. The Bush Presidency will not leave the legacy its architects intended. But a critique of what should have been done differently since 2001 is not enough. This blog is about the new ideas which can create a 'new multilateralism' to tackle the global challenges we face.