Thursday, 6 November 2008 

Americans have just elected a President who eighteen months ago the Australian Prime Minster said was the preferred choice of Al Qaeda. If anyone thinks Rudd’s leaking of Bush’s telephone conversation would cause embarrassment in diplomatic circles, they might like to speculate how Howard would have dealt with a US President he associated with the group that caused the biggest peace-time loss of life on American soil. Downer on Insiders, who thought Rudd’s leak was a big deal, thought the Americans would have just laughed Howard off, probably revealing more about Australian-US relations than he intended.

Anyway such hypotheticals are pointless because the very political changes that caused Howard to so badly mis-step in 2007 means that he is no longer in the position to represent Australia in 2009. The media, in its own strange way of over-hyping a phenomenon like Obama but also under-cutting its significance, has put Obama’s victory largely down to the state of the economy. They forget that responding to the economy was supposed to be Obama’s weakness in the primaries against Clinton. Obama was supposed to be good at rallying the independents, the college students and money from the younger generation on Wall Street, but was not connecting with the concerns of the average working-class American voter. This seemed to be proved by the ground Clinton made up in the primaries as the economy worsened.

Indeed as the economy deteriorated, McCain still looked to be holding his own against Obama, not a bad achievement given the Bush legacy. But what the Republicans dreaded more than the economy was the ‘Katrina’ effect. The paralysis of government during the flooding of New Orleans in 2005 was what sent Bush’s mediocre ratings down into the levels of the select few. So terrified were the Republicans of a repeat of being seen both detached and incompetent, that the entire leadership of the party was prepared to abandon the critical first day of their Convention to run down in a panic to Florida when it was having what was only one of its regular cyclones of the season (an extraordinary move that received surprisingly little comment).

The panic revealed by the Republican leadership at the start of their Convention was well-founded. When the storm did hit again in September, this time a financial one, the Republicans fell apart. It wasn’t just that the Administration again looked out of its depth, first refusing to bail the banks out and then doing so. Nor that Bush couldn’t carry his own party with him in Congress. It wasn’t even that McCain tried to look dramatic by suspending his campaign to go to Washington for no purpose before meekly re-starting his campaign when nothing had been resolved.

The main problem was that when they did act, the Republicans went against everything they stood for. There was a feeble attempt to salvage their credibility by sticking tax cuts onto the second package they passed, but the damage had been done. It took the wind out of McCain’s economic attack on Obama as a big-spending, high-taxing liberal. The difference became not whether government should or should not prop up the economy but whether it should be the Republicans’ Wall Street or the Democrats’ Main Street, hardly a difficult choice for the electorate.

The financial crash has been hailed as the death of Reaganism but that is to presume it was alive in the first place. Clinton never had any trouble in continuing, and extending, the financial policies of his Republican predecessor. The rise of the Right in the 1980s was really them making hay out of the collapse of the left, in which they had little direct role. What we have seen this year is the end of the pretence that the Right had a viable political agenda of their own.

The US election was more about what was coming to an end than what will be beginning. This was why the outcome was more uncertain than the media, desperate for a resolution to this political crisis, portrayed it in the final days. Obama does not present the return of the liberal agenda in the US, otherwise he could not credibly offer to join with Republicans as he did yesterday. He rather represents the clearest sign of the exhaustion and meaningless of the old political order, both left and right.

The most moving part of Obama’s campaign was the way he did it, through race. Running through the campaign was the powerful, but implicit message that there is no better way to draw a line under the old order than to elect a black President. This blogger finds some of Obama’s speeches windy and banal, but there were a few highlights. One was the speech in Berlin where he managed to get 100,000 German hippies applauding more military intervention in Afghanistan. The other was this speech in the arch Republican territory of Richmond, Virginia when he reminded college students, some of whose grandparents would not have been allowed to vote, that they now had the opportunity to send a black man to the White House. Obama’s ‘change’ was not a program he was going to implement but his very election to the Presidency.

As Gillard said recently, we do things differently over here. The US had Reagan to lead a second Cold ‘War’ against a crumbling Soviet Union, Britain had Thatcher to wind up an already demoralised trade union movement. We had everyone’s mate, Hawke, to wind up the left here and our right-wing farce only started after it was all over. What Howard did have to save himself was the foreign policy consequences of the US Right’s mission to rejuvenate itself through the War on Terror. Howard’s mis-step over Obama 18 months ago was the sign that this benefit was coming to an end.

Rudd seized on Howard’s mistake to signal to his own party that its nightmare was over and to the Liberals that their little game was up. Rudd’s popularity comes from exposing the left-right pretence, but if the electorate has got what is going on, the media have not. Perhaps now that they can see the process finally work its way back to Washington, they might understand Rudd a bit better. Obama’s victory is likely to enhance Rudd’s political position as the awkward period comes to an end between his election on the back of the death of the old political order and finally having it now reaffirmed on the global stage.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 6 November 2008.

Filed under International relations

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