The Dreaded “P” Word

It’s become clear that one of the biggest challenges facing Senator Obama is the weight of expectation placed upon him. Somehow, he is supposed to be the champion of the liberal cause, yet have an appeal to the centre. He is supposed to be an idealist, yet be a realist too. Indeed, he is supposed to avoid compromise, yet actually win an election. His shoulders must have developed a psychosomatic ache from the crushing weight of these conflicting demands. It is remarkable that he remains as publicly unflappable as he does; the fact that his sole vice is indulging in the occasional cigarette speaks well about his stress management skills.

That said, it appears that the edifice of his coalition has developed some cracks. Senator Obama has disappointed liberals with his stance on the FISA bill, as well as corn ethanol. Objections are understandable: FISA is a completely repellent bill, as it contains a provision to provide immunity for telecom companies who spied on American citizens. Corn ethanol is a boondoggle which actually costs more energy and carbon emissions than what it’s worth.

As disheartening as it may be, to expect Senator Obama to do any differently may be asking too much: for a successful candidate, elections are an exercise in carefully deployed pragmatism. This may be disappointing to those who cling most dearly to ideology, but the candidate whose “base” has the strongest stomach for the dreaded “p” word is the one most likely to triumph.

The American electorate, at present, is split into three main segments: conservative, moderate and liberal. According to Rasmussen Reports, the largest segment are the moderates, who represent 37% of the electorate. 36% identify themselves as conservative. 25% identify themselves as liberal. Under these circumstances, it is not only undesirable, but it is impossible for a successful candidate to give in fully to the demands of any one group. Obama was always going to have to hunt for votes in at least two of these groupings.

There is another element which needs to be acknowledged: people tend to only embrace radical solutions, whether they come from the left or right, in a situation of crisis. Britain in 1979 was a leading example of just such a situation: there were massive winter strikes during which the dead were unburied, and rubbish had to be stacked high in the middle of Leicester Square. Even so, Margaret Thatcher had to appear moderate in the General Election and quote St. Francis of Assisi upon arriving at Downing Street; the crisis allowed her to get away with being radical afterwards.

While fuel and food prices are rising, the environment is degrading and the war in Iraq remains steeped in blood, employment is still relatively high by historical standards. Having a job and earning a living, creates an impulse whereby one has a stake in the existing order, rather than has a need to overturn it. Thus even a transformational candidate has to breathe reassurance for those who may feel that change might mean matters get worse rather than better. The model for this approach is Tony Blair’s campaign in 1997, whereby his team put out reassuring messages on taxation and other issues in order to get the public “comfortable” with voting Labour.

Apparently Obama is a pupil of Blair’s in this respect. According to the Economist, his team of economic advisers is “impeccably centrist”. His puzzling stance on FISA is intended to quash, albeit via questionable means, any doubts about his credentials on national security. Support for corn ethanol indicates he won’t radically shake up the heartland, at least not to begin with. Telling the corn farmers and the telecom companies that their time is up will only conjure up visions of Obama being a “dangerous radical” and push those who are alarmed into McCain’s column.

There is good news, however. The challenges that Obama faces in assembling a winning coalition are just as acute, if not worse for Senator McCain. His long standing “maverick” stance has infuriated conservatives; his “green agenda”, such as it is, offends ideologues who don’t believe in climate change at all. His tepid adherence to religion has earned him the emnity of many evangelicals. Some on the far right appear to want to paraphrase Satan from Milton’s Paradise Lost: “It is far better to lose with Barr (or other third party candidate) than win with McCain”. Their stomach for the compromises required by the electoral process is even more questionable than those on the liberal side, indeed, there is a compulsion at large amongst them which implies that electoral suicide is the ultimate expression of principle.

The early days of Obama’s campaign twinkle in the memory with the starlight of idealism, punctuated by flashbulbs and awash with the romanticism inherent in the word “change”. This sensation was always bound to diminish once the realities of practical policy set in. It was never going to be perfect; people need to let go of that lovely “p” word and embrace the other, more sombre one. Being pragmatic may not be a vehicle for the instant realisation of dreams, however, it can serve in making things better and dramatically so.

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