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Kwasi Kwarteng: The machines are set to win again in American politics

Kwartengkwasi Kwasi Kwarteng, 32, was a Conservative candidate in Brent East in 2005 and Chairman of the Bow Group, a centre-right think tank, in 2005-2006. He is currently writing a book, Ghosts of Empire, a look at the legacy of the last days of the British Empire.

The US election has been exciting.  I have just come from Florida to New York, having seen the Florida primary firsthand. I even went to a McCain rally and managed to get his autograph in Tampa, Florida.

Despite the real excitement, the election is now taking a predictable course. The two front runners in their respective parties, John McCain and Hillary Clinton, are Washington insiders. McCain has been on Capitol Hill since 1982. Mrs Clinton has been in Washington as “first lady” and a senator for the last 16 years. This isn’t surprising. The costs of running a campaign, where it costs US$1m to run a week of television advertising in a large state, just for a primary, mean that only extremely well-established, or multi-millionaire, candidates can play the game.

In Florida, the Republican establishment started to rally around McCain. The endorsement of Florida’s slick, silver-haired Governor, Charlie Crist,  on Saturday was a big boost for McCain. Going forward, the collapse of Rudy Giuliani’s campaign has been damaging for Romney. It leaves Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher and Governor of Arkansas in the race. He is splitting the Conservative vote of which Romney is now posing as the Champion. McCain and Huckabee like each other. It sometimes seems they have a silent compact against the rich kid on the block, Romney.

Romney’s vast personal wealth is being stretched during this campaign. The word is that he has already spent US$40m to secure the nomination. His 5 sons, the satirists claim, are looking increasingly worried, as Daddy spends more of their inheritance on what increasingly looks like a doomed bid.

So McCain the War hero and senator is in pole position. The Republican faithful don’t especially warm to him. He is seen as a maverick and, horror of horrors, a “liberal”, despite his consistent pro-life position and his hawkishness on defence issues. He is, however, the best known of the Republican candidates. He ran for the nomination in 2000, when he was beaten by George W. Bush. Republicans like their candidates to be put through their paces a few times before giving them the nomination. Reagan ran in ’68, ’76 and ’80.

On the Democratic side, despite the excitement generated by his campaign, Obama’s chances of securing the nomination are slim. He hasn’t managed to win over enough White blue-collar workers and Latinos. His appeal is high among what are called “the wine drinkers”, yet it is the “beer drinkers” who count much more when the polls close. “Money and numbers” is the constant refrain in US politics.  Obama can raise money, but it is unclear how wide his appeal is. This fact is not necessarily related to race. He has only been in the Senate two years and, compared to the Clintons’ vast network, his contact book is very thin.

The Democratic primaries will show how machine politics often triumphs over idealism. There are politicians who can dream dreams and express those dreams in magical language: a Lincoln, a Franklin Roosevelt, or even Kennedy.  “With malice towards none,  with charity for all”, “the only thing to fear is fear itself”, “ask not what your country can do for you”; these are great phrases.  But the hordes of uninspiring presidents,  Harding, Carter, Hoover,  both Bushes, show how rare such talent is. Hillary Clinton is clever and able, but not even her best friend can point to inspiration or vision.The truth is that the machine, the political contacts built up over years, the various favours and debts of obligation, will nearly always defeat idealism. Both FDR and Kennedy, however, were political professionals from very rich families. Obama was merely a member of the Illinois senate until a little more than two years ago.

Obama has youth on his side. The campaign has made him a national figure and the enthusiasm his ascent has stirred in the young, mean that he has garnered considerable political capital. His star may yet raise higher, though ’08 won’t be his year. In the meantime, it’s business as usual, with the two Washington insiders continuing what commentators here call a “slugfest”.


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