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Could the future be John McCain?

It seems incredible, but as the Democrats gather in Denver to anoint Barack Obama, America could be on course to re-elect a Republican as their president. Not just any Republican either, but a belligerent 71 year old who can’t remember how many houses he owns, would happily nuke Iran and whose answer to global warming is to drill for oil in environmentally sensitive areas off the coast of America which don’t even have much oil. But according to the polls, John McCain is drawing level with Barack Obama, and even drawing ahead.

Really, America it is a strange, strange country. After a disastrous and illegal war, in which four thousand American soldiers have died, in the middle of an economic crisis largely caused by the investment houses that finance the Republican party, you would have thought it almost inconceivable that the Republicans could be re-elected. Could any political brand be more toxic? Has any party in history deserved to be thrown out at an election more than the Republicans in 2008?.

George W. Bush has been recognised even by many neo-conservatives as the worst US President in modern history. The country is going to hell in a handcart as banks fold and inflation robs Americans of their savings. Ten million people risk losing their homes over the next two years as a result of the credit crunch. Real wages have been declining in America for the last five years. The country is awash with credit card debt.

America’s image in the world, so vibrant after 9/11, has been seriously tarnished by a series of epic foreign policy mistakes under the Republicans, the worst of which is of course Iraq. Yet enough American voters believe that John McCain might have the answers for him to become a serious contender. Which is scary. McCain is not an unknown quantity – he is a highly excitable politician with a notoriously short temper, who would bring his impetuous and confrontational style into American foreign policy. With the world entering a global economic slump, and old enmities raging in Europe, John McCain as President would be like a flame-thrower in a fireworks convention.

I got an insight into the McCain view of the world last week at the Edinburgh Book Festival in a session I did with Robert Kagan, McCain’s leading foreign affairs adviser, and author of “The Return of History and the End of Dreams”. The good news is that the war against terror is past tense, it seems, because he didn’t mention al Qaeda once. The bad news is that America might be about to revisit, not the cold war, but the era of 19th Century great power rivalry, which is how Kagan characterised the current state of international affairs.

He believes the great fault line is between America and an axis of authoritarianism represented by China and Russia. There is new era of geopolitical confrontation, according to Kagan, as Russia rearms and China builds the biggest army in the world. America has to step up. “The future international order will be shaped”, he says “by those who have the power and the collective will to shape it”. No prizes for guessing whether John McCain is up to the military challenge. Europe, which Kagan dismissed as an irrelevant entity in the new world of hard power, would get trampled in the rush.

This is all profoundly disturbing, so what are the Democrats doing about it? Barack Obama has to share the blame for making McCain credible. It’s almost as if the Democrats expended too much of their intellectual effort, their moral energy, on the contest between Hillary Clinton and Obama for the candidacy. After Obama’s successful tour of Iraq, where to Republican dismay he won the backing of the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki for troop withdrawal, and then Europe, where Obama attracted 200,000 to his speech in Berlin, the campaign appears to have stalled.Certainly, the steam seems to have gone out of the Obama train.

Of course, the senator has been on vacation. He will likely be back in the lead by the end of this week, because candidates always get a poll boost after a party convention, and Obama will assuredly rise to the occasion on Thursday when he gives his acceptance speech on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” address to the civil rights movement. But Obama shouldn’t be struggling: he should be storming ahead, leaving an aged and confused McCain in his slipstream.

The Iraq war is part of it. Obama’s was almost a single issue campaign at the start; an anti-war candidate, until the fortunes of war turned in Baghdad. The apparent success of the US troop “surge” in 2007 in lessening communal violence in Iraq has taken much of the potency out of the war as an issue in domestic US politics. Body bags are still coming back, and the war is still regarded as a mistake, but Iraq is not headline news. McCain’s call for ‘peace with honour’ sounds to many Americans more attractive than plain defeat and withdrawal.

Then there is the economy, stupid. The credit crunch has morphed into a full blown recession, without anyone really facing up to the implications. It has happened so fast, with sharpest drop in property prices since the Great Depression, the virtual collapse of mortgage banks like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the entire US political establishment is in disarray and confusion. We keep being told that “the worst is over”, only for it to get worse.

Obama has not developed any economic answers yet, apart from a bit of job protectionism here, a bit of help to mortgage holders there. He supports tax cuts to middle class families and tax increases on those earning over $250K. This has been attacked as “socialism” by the right, but it is far to anaemic and incoherent to be called anything recognisable.

Meanwhile, McCain has gone for the six-pack vote by calling for offshore oil drilling to cut petrol prices – a simplistic policy which would not do anything to reduce oil prices, but which sounds good to the Nascar voters of working class America. He is also promising tax cuts, but to the rich as well as the poor. Though McCain is on record as saying that no one worth less than $5m can be called rich.

This should be an open goal for a politician of Obama’s gifts. Yes, race is an issue, but not as much of an issue as the lack of clarity and edge to Obama’s political programme. He needs to target the root causes of the economic crisis and show that only Democrats have the route out of it. Reawaken the idealism of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal for a country ravaged by greed, irresponsibility and inequality. There is an historic opportunity to change the course of American history and bring the neoliberal era to a close. That’s the kind of change people really could believe in.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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