Obama and Clinton: two cynical losers
Despite having all the trumps, the Democrats have squandered the chance of a lifetime
How do they do it? How do the Democrats manage to squander repeatedly and with such ease the chance of a lifetime? What inverse alchemy have they created that turns the gold bullion of electoral opportunity into the base metal of political oblivion?
Eight years of George Bush, an unpopular war and a recession have handed the Democrats their best chance, not merely of winning their first presidential election in 12 years, but of achieving a rare, once-in-a- generation transformational shift in American politics.
Four fifths of the American public think the country is on the wrong track. The President wallows in the highest disapproval ratings since polling began. The Republican Party has spent most of a decade bungling almost everything it touches, abandoning its principles and sinking into a mire of corruption, hypocrisy and incompetence.
And here we are, six months from a presidential election, and it is the Democrats once again who seem to be staring defeat in the face. It's like a soccer match in which one team keeps conceding a penalty in the final minutes only to watch as the opponents repeatedly boot the penalty kick high into the stands.
* Obama limps on with tainted image
* Clinton risks all on one last throw of the dice
* Race matters in the US election
* 'This is a surreal, almost delirious face-off'
Hillary Clinton's solid victory in the Pennsylvania primary on Tuesday has condemned the party to many more weeks of strife and sinking public esteem. There's a popular view among Democrats and the media establishment that the reason for the party's current disarray is that it just happens to have two most extraordinary candidates: talented, attractive, and in their gender and race, excitingly new. But there's an alternative explanation, which I suspect the voters have grasped rather better than their necromancers in the media. Both are losers.
The longer the Democratic race goes on, the more obvious it appears that each is deeply, perhaps ineradicably flawed.
Until about a month ago Barack Obama had done a brilliant job of presenting himself as a transcendent figure, the mixed-race candidate with bipartisan appeal who promised to heal the historic and modern rifts in American life.
But the mask has slipped. Under pressure in a Democratic primary, Mr Obama has sounded just like any other tax-raising, government-loving Democratic politician. Worse, he has revealed himself to be a member of that special subset of the party's liberal elite - a well-educated man with a serious superiority complex.
His worst moment of the campaign was when he was caught telling liberal sophisticates about his anthropological observations on the campaign trail. In the misery of their daily lives, he said, the hicks out there in the sticks cling to religion and guns and the other irrational necessities of the unenlightened life. His wife had earlier told voters that they should be grateful that someone of his protean talents had deigned to come among them and be their president.
The events of the last month have also revealed another side of Mr Obama that threatens to undermine his whole message. He is a cynic. He tells the mavens of San Francisco one thing and the great unwashed of Pennsylvania another. In defending his long relationship with the Rev Jeremiah Wright, he shopped his own grandmother, comparing the reverend's views (God Damn America! The US deliberately spread Aids among the black population) to his grandmother's occasionally expressed fears about the potential of being the victim of crime at the hands of an African-American.
Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, has been busy shedding the final vestiges of shame and honesty in her desperate attempt to save her candidacy. She has abandoned any pretence of a message, and simply seized on every opening presented to her by her opponent.
Mr Obama's missteps with the working class of Pennsylvania have thus transformed Mrs Clinton from the bluestocking Wellesley graduate into the good old girl, hanging out there with the straw-chewing rednecks, embracing their values, their worldview and even their lifestyle.
Obliterate Iran! Here comes Osama bin Laden! I love duck hunting! I can do shots and beer at the same time! It's hard to know what's worse - expressing condescending views about the working class or pretending to be one of them. The Democratic campaign is simply disappearing in the enveloping vapidity of the candidates' making.
The economy's a mess; the US is bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead of seizing the opportunity to present a convincing vision of an alternative way forward the Democrats are fumbling. When they are not scrapping about each other's street cred they are falling back on the old verities of left-wing dogma: class warfare on taxes; irresponsible (and unredeemable) promises to pull out of Iraq in an instant; a protectionism that makes a mockery of their claims to want to restore America's standing in the world.
Amid this sorry spectacle of cynical opportunism and atavistic dogmatism, the Republicans have contrived somehow to select in John McCain the one candidate in their party who might actually have a shot at winning the election.
American presidential elections turn as much on the characters of the candidates as they do on the saliency of policies. Democrats, of course, think this is all rather crass. They think voters should confine themselves to the “issues”. But Americans understand their government a little better. They know the limits of presidential office and they understand the president's role as head of state is as much about leadership of the nation as it is about implementation of policy.
What they want is a man - or a woman - of character and record to inspire and lead them. That may be why the Democrats are in trouble.