West Wing Obama-Clinton Bickering Plays into McCain's Hands

The duel between Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama may be fascinating for the party's supporters, but it's jeopardizing a Democratic election victory in November. When two people quarrel, the third often wins -- which is why John McCain could end up as president.

By Gabor Steingart in Washington

Republican John McCain stands to gain from the Democratic Party duel between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
Getty Images

Republican John McCain stands to gain from the Democratic Party duel between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Imagine we're in a mountain hut, say in Aspen, Colarado, surrounded by a group of hikers and the peaks of the Rocky Mountains.

Two large tables are laid out for the hikers. An experienced mountain guide sits at one of them. She talks about her scars from her lifelong battle with nature. She says down-to-earth sentences such as "I'm not a show horse, I'm a workhorse." There aren't that many people sitting at her table.

At the next table there's a young man who has his listeners spellbound. He speaks about the future, about hope and how the world can be changed. He's good-looking and velvet-voiced. He'll probably take down the guitar from the wall next and strike up a tune.

The next morning, all the hikers meet outside the hut, their bootlaces tied up and backpacks in place. They face a hard day's walking. They have a choice of guides: The woman with the scars or the young man. The question now is: who will the hikers go for?

Safety versus Inspiration

And the answer? Well, that depends on the weather -- or rather, on the kind of weather the hikers are expecting.

If everyone expects a sunny day, the party will opt for the guide whose company everyone enjoyed the night before. Why not prolong the fun?

If a storm is brewing, the party will go with the woman. Better not take a risk. The majority, especially women, older people and fathers, will choose the safe option. When the first lightning bolts start lighting up the sky and thunder comes rolling in from across the mountains, they'll stay close to their scarred guide like kittens to the mother cat.

The mountains teach you that circumstances don't change people -- but they do change their interests. Qualities such as experience, strong nerves and a calm disposition suddenly start to matter. When the going gets tough, no one is worried whether their guide is lively, funny, erotic, stimulating, daring or inspiring.

Which brings us back to Super Tuesday. The key determinant of the outcome of the Democratic primaries is what kind of future Democrats see for themselves and their country. The president who is elected in November has to be a man or woman of the times. The current situation and public sentiment are as important as the man or woman standing for election.

If people see a political earthquake coming, voters will be looking for another Franklin D. Roosevelt, the legendary four-term president who first defeated the Great Depression and then Adolf Hitler. If the public expects a spell of sunny weather on the political horizon, they'll go for the kind of feel-good candidate that Tony Blair and Bill Clinton represented at the beginning of their terms.

Both future scenarios, bright on the one hand and troubling on the other, are currently on offer. Barack Obama is the man of hope. Hillary Clinton is the woman of secret fears. He inspires. She reassures. He is inventive. She is reliable. He seems soft. She's hard as nails. He'll win if the sun's shining. She'll win if there's a storm brewing.

The environment shapes the candidate more than vice versa. That's why each candidate is pushing their respective scenario. She speaks with an undertone of menace about the rise of China and the challenge of international terrorism. Bin Laden will test the resolve of the new president, she says. Obama, on the other hand, says Americans are tired of a "politics of fear" -- well aware that fear will drive his voters away.

The November election will show if the Democrats have chosen the right candidate. Their choice will also have to convince the cautious -- and notoriously more fearful -- conservatives who make up half the country. Having the right candidate at the wrong time isn't worth much. That candidate might own the headlines, but the other will walk away with the power.

The enthusiasm of the Democratic Party's grassroots members for Obama is deceptive. The silent majority of the country is standing back and waiting -- and is skeptical.

We know the phenomenon from recent history. American youth rebelled against the Vietnam War. Jimi Hendrix and Joan Baez were the new heroes -- but the new president was Richard Nixon, the villain among presidents. British workers were outraged when their wages and union rights were curbed, but voters handed power to the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher. In the West German capital Bonn in the 1980s, hundreds of thousands demonstrated against the stationing of new medium-range missiles. The majority was silent and voted in missile-friendly Helmut Kohl as chancellor -- four times in a row.

Let's return to the silence of the Rocky Mountains. While the Democrats are still unsure about which guide to choose, the Republicans on the next mountain already appear to have made their decision. They're going for the oldest, most experienced and toughest leader they could find. His name is John McCain -- he is 72, cranky and stubborn. He fought the Viet Cong in the 1960s and voted against George W. Bush and his tax policy. He's a victim of torture and an opponent of torture, and he regards the Iraq war as winnable. His battle cry is "no surrender.“

He's proven his ability to do the right thing even in the toughest of situations. When he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, he refused an offer to be released because he didn't want to leave without his comrades. He was incarcerated in a torture prison for almost six years.

The Republicans are likely to offer him as their choice for America's next leader in November. If the world environment continues to cloud over, his chances will improve. He's a man for tough decisions. He's in his element in a storm.


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