West Wing The Return of Realpolitik

The Obama revolution has foundered in New Hampshire, where Democratic voters mistrusted the shooting star's emotional rhetoric of change. Hillary Clinton's sober realpolitik has won the day, and that's a good thing.

By Gabor Steingart in Washington, D.C.


She's back: Hillary Clinton's Realpolitik, helped by a well-timed tear, has won the day.
REUTERS

She's back: Hillary Clinton's Realpolitik, helped by a well-timed tear, has won the day.

For millions of young Americans Tuesday night was a tough, merciless lesson in realpolitik. The guiding star of their dreams, 46-year-old Senator Barack Obama from Illinois, has not been able to continue his meteoric rise.

There's no cause for schadenfreude, though. After seven years of lousy government, it's natural to yearn for change. America didn't deserve George W. Bush as president. On foreign policy, he will leave a toxic legacy. His economic and fiscal policies have left the country's middle classes worse off than in the days of Bill Clinton.

What could be more natural than to wish for the opposite of the present: Soft instead of aggressive, compassionate instead of cynical, young instead of old. Hope rather than the fear that someone like Bush seems to spread with glee.

So everyone wants change.

Day follows night. Ne'er-do-well Richard Nixon was followed by transitional president Gerald Ford and do-gooder Jimmy Carter. So why isn't the road clear for Barack Obama, the fresh face of American politics?

There are three reasons for the young Senator's ascent, reasons that have not been made obsolete by the outcome of the New Hampshire primary. Obama has shrunken back to human size but should remain a factor in American politics.

Reason One: Barack Obama touches the souls of his listeners. Hillary Clinton only gets as far as their heads. Obama versus Clinton -- for many observers, that's like choosing between a love affair and a shotgun wedding.

Reason Two: Voting for Barack Obama is democratic, not dynastic. Many younger voters are opposed to Bush but would also like to get rid of the baby-boomers from within their own ranks. Bill and Hill Clinton, as the democratic couple is mockingly called, are regarded as party poopers. They're seen as the kind of progressive parents who turned the light on at their adolescent kids' cellar parties "just to say hello."

Reason Three: Obama is offering a mood rather than a manifesto. He's neither left nor right, he just makes everyone feel good. On the eve of the New Hampshire election, he told his supporters: "There's something in the air. You can feel it. In one day's time, in less than 24 hours it will be your turn to stand up and say the time for change has come."

That sounds pretty meagre and transparent. But it gives his supporters a warm feeling inside, and that's more important to them. After all the military vocabulary of recent years, after "pre-emptive strike," "war on terror" and "Guantanamo prison camp," there's a yearning for political calm. Obama is the chill-out-zone candidate.

But in real life and especially in the life of a world superpower there are good reasons to mistrust one's own yearnings. Which brings us to the three main reasons that stopped Obama's march to the White hose.

Firstly: The young Senator speaks of change but cannot prove that he will be able to implement it. Just because someone's a great professional speaker doesn't mean he's a great politician. One has to suspect that he has borrowed his "change" rhetoric from the archive of great Democrats.

John F. Kennedy called out to delegates of the Democratic nominating convention in Los Angeles in July 1960: "It's time for a change." Bill Clinton said in New York 32 years later: "It's time for a change in America." Obama pledges "change you can believe in."

The majority of Democratic voters in New Hampshire mistrusted this rhetoric. The older and more urban the voters, the greater the mistrust. That's got nothing to do with hostility to change; it has everything to do with the experience of age.

Secondly: Obama's rival for the Democratic nomination is half as inspiring but twice as sensible. His freshness may impress many voters, but she bears the scars of political battles. Her greatest achievement so far has been to resist the soft populist Obama.

He promises the immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, which is a vote-winner but not free of risk. Who would fill the power vacuum? Would a pullout plunge the country into civil war, would Baghdad be surrounded by killing fields? A President Hillary Clinton also wants to withdraw from Iraq, but carefully. To be able to do that she needs political room for manoeuvre and that means she can't afford to make firm pledges during the election campaign.

On healthcare, she's similarly unforthcoming, even stubborn. Some 47 million Americans have no health insurance whatsoever but a collective, mandatory insurance system is unpopular. Obama is opposed to a mandatory insurance. He presents himself as the great reconciler between the two political camps. Hillary Clinton by contrast staunchly defends her far more radical reform plan.

She did almost everything she could to win Tuesday's election in the north-eastern state. She sweet-talked voters, she tirelessly spoke of "change", she marched husband Bill to the front of the stage and then back again: But she didn't betray her realpolitik. Perhaps the answer to Bush isn't change, but common sense.

The third reason why Obama failed is because he faced a rival who doesn't just have political experience but is also sly. She turned on the emotion with breath-taking speed. That little tear on the eve of the primary was a good investment.

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