McCain's embrace of Palin rekindles cultural clash 
Philip Stephens


I DID not make it to the presidential conventions this time. Beyond the glad-handing, razzmatazz and bibulous late nights, I am not sure I missed much.

Two weeks trapped in the political bubble can cloud your judgment. I learnt this to my cost after the Boston and New York conventions in 2004. That, anyway, is my excuse for a rash prediction that John Kerry would bundle George Bush out of the White House.

From a distance, this year's gathering of Democrats in Denver looked less compelling than it obviously felt to those who queued for hours to cheer Barack Obama at Invesco Field. Too much of the proceedings seemed to be about helping the Clintons come to terms with their loss.

Of course, the first couple still think that the nomination was rightfully Hillary Clinton's.

As for Obama's acceptance speech, the Democratic nominee's mastery of language and cadence produces political oratory at its most vaulting. He makes it look so effortless. His message of change chimes with everything that the pollsters are telling us about the mood of America.

And yet. Watched on cable television, there was something missing. Obama did what the political strategists and pundits had asked — leavening lofty vision with hard-edged commitments to those all-important blue-collar workers. To my mind, he only half-made the connection between the two.

Someone once told me — I think it was Tony Blair — that the most effective political speeches embrace a simple argument: here is where we are today, there is where we need to be tomorrow and this is the way to get there. It is on that last score that Obama is lacking. He has not yet properly mapped the route.

For all that this year's conventions have an entirely new cast at the podium, there are unnerving echoes of 2004. What I had failed to understand about the contest then was how a president who had dodged the Vietnam draft could turn the battlefield heroism of his opponent into a negative. John McCain is campaigning from the same script: Obama's qualities are his flaws.

In 2004 the Democrats spent days in Boston insisting that Kerry was fit to be commander-in-chief. The war hero felt obliged to appear at the podium affirming that he was "reporting for duty". But by the time the Republicans gathered in New York only a few weeks later, the Democratic campaign had been overwhelmed by false charges about Kerry's swift boat service in Vietnam.

The election was to be fought on Bush's terrain.

I thought that I caught something of the same fearful crouch in Denver: a party rebutting the other side's charges as much as making its own case, and one seemingly desperate to prove that its truly extraordinary candidate is really just ordinary.

At the start of this week, the choreography of the Republican convention seemed destined to go awry. First there was hurricane Gustav. This act of God was followed by what, again from a distance, seemed an act of folly in McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his putative vice-president.

A smart short-term fix — shoring up McCain's support among his own party's creationist conservatives while simultaneously pitching for disappointed feminists who had backed Clinton — was surely a strategic error? For all her barnstorming speech in Minnesota ( it was not as good as the gush suggested), I still think his choice puts a big question mark over McCain's judgment.

This, though, is to miss the immediate political point. McCain has never been comfortable with his party's cultural conservatives. But needs must when you are running for the White House at the age of 72.

In embracing Palin, McCain has joined his own very personal claim to patriotism to the culture wars of the Christian right. He knows that if the election turns out to be about Bush's record or about competing visions for the next few years, he is sure to lose. So he is turning the spotlight on Obama.

In some respects the Republicans are pushing at an open door. In Obama the personal and the prospectus are indivisible. His story — his youth, background, the colour of his skin as well as his political gifts — are the change offered to voters on November 4. Obama is not the product of a dynasty, of machine politics or wealthy patrons. His personal experience is his candidacy.

To his supporters — and I include here the millions of disenfranchised Europeans who want to vote for Obama — this is a quintessentially American story: the rise even from the humblest beginnings of those with talent and determination.

Obama's African-American heritage merely serves to underline the power of opportunity.

In the hands of Republicans, the strength becomes a weakness. Kerry was a war hero, but could not be trusted to be tough on terrorism. Obama's "otherness" is somehow un-American, just as Kerry's knowledge of French was proof positive of his lack of patriotism.

In this, of course, McCain could argue he is taking his cue from Hillary Clinton. It was Mark Penn, her campaign supremo, who wrote in a memorandum subsequently leaked to the Atlantic that: "I cannot imagine America electing a president during a time of war who is not at his centre fundamentally American in his thinking and values." The millions who have flocked to and funded Obama's campaign think otherwise.

But the Republicans long ago learnt to turn reality on its head. Prosaic facts such as Obama's underprivileged background as the child of a struggling single mother and McCain's great family wealth are lost to the distorting prism of the culture wars.

The Republican candidate may be so rich that he cannot recall exactly how many properties he owns. But McCain can lose himself in the crowd at a country-and-western show. The self-made African-American Obama is the suited elitist.

So there you have the contest: between a candidate offering a decisive break with the policies and politics of the Bush years, and one making the tried-and-tested Republican appeal to the visceral fears and insecurities of US voters.

Obama will surely win an election that turns on the economy, on America's standing in the world and a broad view of the nation's security. But he has first to answer the assault on his character. I find it hard to imagine that an extraordinary candidate can triumph by pretending to be ordinary. But, no, I am not making any predictions this time. Financial Times

Jean-Louis Kayitenkore
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