Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Vietnam Factor

It looks like John McCain is gaining enough momentum to win the Republican nomination for President. McCain's main claim to fame is his experience as a Vietnam veteran.

The Vietnam war is a very important event in recent American history. The Vietnamese may have got over it a long time ago, but Americans still haven't. Some Americans still contend they could have won if only they'd stayed and fought and they blame the "liberal establishment" for the pull-out, despite the fact that it took place under Gerald Ford. Other Americans blame the loss on the soldiers who ran amuk, burning villages and killing indiscriminately, turning the South Vietnamese to the Vietcong in the process. Still other Americans are more charitable, but believe that Vietnam veterans are "unstable" due to their over-long tours of duty and the horrors they experienced (I recall meeting a particularly intense Vietnam veteran, and an American colleague shaking his head and remarking "They're all like that, Vietnam really screwed with their heads").

The first Vietnam-era person to challenge for the Presidency was Bill Clinton. Clinton managed to avoid going to Vietnam by studying at Oxford University, and his Republican opponents were quick to label him "the draft dodger". However this had no effect on the voters. Most of them thought Clinton was smart to have avoided the ill-fated war, and younger Americans thought "I would have done that too" (i.e. "I'm also smart"). Bob Dole, who was a WW2 veteran, tried again in 1996 to attack Clinton on Vietnam and failed again.

The next Vietnam-era person to challenge for the Presidency was George W Bush. His father famously got his son a safe position in the reserves, where it is rumoured Dubya didn't even show up most of the time. Again American voters didn't mind. They thought he too was smart to have avoided the war. But voters were harsher on his challenger for the Republican nomination, Senator John McCain. The Bush team successfully spread rumours that McCain was traumatised by his experience in Vietnam, which they said resulted in a short-fuse and unstable behaviour. The tactics were cruel and reprehensible, but they resonated with that part of America that believes that Vietnam vets are unbalanced. Bush defeated McCain handily.

The next challenger for the presidency was John Kerry. Dems thought that while the war in Iraq was raging it would look good to have a Vietnam vet run against a man who talked war but didn't fight. Kerry had been decorated in Vietnam and fondly imagined this gave him a Kennedy-like aura. However Kennedy had fought in WW2, which was a glorious win for America, and further, his exploits took place in the Pacific, against the hated Japanese who attacked Pearl Harbour (Americans have always demonised the Japanese more than the Germans for this reason). There was nothing glorious about Vietnam at all. In addition many Americans believed that purple hearts were handed out like sweeties in Vietnam for exploits that wouldn't have rated a mention in WW2, to boost troop morale - which made it easy to mock and "swift-boat" Kerry.

The only Vietnam veteran not stigmatised is Colin Powell, and that's because his loss as a young soldier is more than offset by the Gulf War, where as General and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he was the architect of a decisive victory.

This time the Dems have been smart enough to stay well away from any connection with Vietnam. Hillary is well clear because women weren't drafted, and Obama is well clear because he is too young.

Which leaves McCain on the Republican side to be the Vietnam standard-bearer. McCain is more vulnerable than Kerry because he was captured and tortured for five years, during which he released a statement condemning America and the war they were waging. This is normal, torture victims will say anything to stop the pain, it's a defence mechanism, which is why torture is useless as an interrogation tool, as well as being morally reprehensible. However, swathes of right-wing America - whom McCain depends on for votes - think torture is acceptable, Guantanamo Bay is acceptable and don't see anything wrong with Abu Ghraib at all. They've been quieter in the last year, but there is no evidence that they've really changed their minds. Can they really stomach a man who cracked under torture as their candidate? Or will they stay home on polling day? Left-wing America is inclined to be more compassionate - but they won't be voting Republican.

Americans think of themselves as Winners. They believe they are a superpower because they have a special propensity for winning that other nations haven't. It's notable they only began to question Iraq when it started to look like they were losing, whereas most of Europe was against Iraq in principle before the war commenced. Americans find losing almost unbearable because it challenges their self-image as winners. I don't believe a Vietnam veteran will ever become president, because secretly Americans believe almost everyone associated with that war is a loser. When Iraq-era people come to challenge for the presidency in thirty years time, I believe that Iraq-war veterans will find the same problem, Americans will conclude that the Iraq debacle was not just down to the politicians and generals but also poor soldiering on the ground and they will refuse to put these perceived "losers" into the White House. This attitude might change if they stop thinking of themselves as a superpower, but I wouldn't count on it.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Hillary and Bill Show

The race for the Democratic nomination is so facinating, it's hard to focus on British politics. Because the Clintons are back!

The Clintons are particularly fascinating to New Labour because they are New Labour's grandparents. It was from the Clintons that Alastair Campbell learnt rapid rebuttal. It was from the Clintons that Blair learnt to be centrist. It was inspiration from the Clintons that led to New Labour's successful New Deal welfare-to-work program in 1997 and tax-credits.

Obama is a good-looking chap (though a bit too religious for my tastes). If he was running against Kerry or any of the other Dems, he'd be a shoo-in. But against the Clintons? Against the Clintons he seems too much like the Principle Boy in a panto, at once petulant, untried and too perfect.

What is it about the Clintons that is so fascinating? I think it is because they are clearly so flawed and human, but manage through sheer determination and brains to keep going despite everything and succeed. A metaphor for the human condition.

It's interesting too how many of the criticisms leveled at Bill Clinton are now being levelled at Hillary. In 1992, Hillary declared that “If you vote for my husband you get me. It’s a two-for-one blue-plate special.” People howled about it then, but voted them in anyway, and the Clinton presidency was a "two-fer" for the entire eight years - and very successful as a result, with the US federal budget going from deficit to surplus, the US economy booming, unemployment tumbling, innovation bursting out (this was the period when Google and Cisco systems were born and revolutionary technologies were being developed) and the USA an admired, respected and feared superpower at it's zenith.

Now you have the same thing in reverse, with Camille Paglia saying about Bill, “He is not going to sit on the sidelines. He is going to be out of control in office.” But will he? Or will Hillary's famous control and discipline rein him in?

They work so well together because they have complimentary skills - her strategic sense combined with his populist instincts. Her discipline combined with his creative insights. Bill Clinton wouldn't have been as good a president as he was without her. His creative, impulsive side would have run amok. Hillary gains something from his presense too - contact with how messy most of humanity is.

This campaign is also mirroring the 1992 one in that the spouse as defender-in-chief is visible again. Hillary famously defended Bill in 1992 from attack from Gennifer Flowers by going on TV and saying that if she could get over it, everyone else should too, and if they couldn't "just don't vote for him". In her role as defender-in-chief, she drew fire towards herself and away from Bill. Bill is now taking that role on. With his angry interventions, and sometimes self-indulgent spiel, he simultaneously says things that her campaign needs saying while making Hillary look good by comparison. She's calm and not self-indulgent.

Some Americans are saying that the experience of the Bushes means that you shouldn't have family in the presidency. However, while sons often don't inherit their father's skills (the genetic inheritance is a lottery, you don't know which ancestors genes will come to the fore), spouses usually tend to have equal and complimentary talents, and the Clintons' marriage in particular was one between equal intellects. Bush jr also had a rivalry with his father - eg appointing Donald Rumsfeld because he knew his father hated him - that the public were unaware about when they elected him. This rivalry doesn't exist between the Clintons, they are a team. People didn't know much about Dubya when the elected him (and they don't know much about Obama either). But they know everything there is to know about the Clintons in gruesome detail.

The question is who will America go for - the known quantity or a blank slate on which they can project wishes which might not be true? It's interesting that Ted Kennedy has endorsed Obama. That man gets everything wrong and he has the same reputation in America that Arthur Scargill has here. His endorsement just emphasises how centrist the Clintons are. Which is a good omen for Hillary.