Just as high street stores send spies to the Paris fashion shows in order to copy all the latest designs, so British political parties send agents to American conventions in search of ideas and inspiration. Several Brits were skulking around the Democratic National Convention in Denver this week, carefully noting the new soundbites and attack lines that were being unveiled on the world’s greatest political catwalk. Yet if these Labour and Tory emissaries were doing their job properly they’ll come back with bleak news — because the four-day convention showed both British parties how vulnerable they truly are.
All the excitement in the thin mountain air was underpinned by mild panic. Everything has, in theory, gone right for Barack Obama. Against initial expectations, he has defeated Hillary Clinton’s formidable election machine and drawn more adulation from the American media than any candidate since Bobby Kennedy in 1968. Yet what is glaringly, painfully and (for the Democrats) bafflingly lacking is a sustained opinion poll lead. If Obama is the Chosen One, how come the deeply unfashionable John McCain — 72 on Friday — is neck-and-neck with him in national polls?
Unwittingly, the Democrat candidate is showing David Cameron how a young, charismatic challenger can overdo it and start to annoy the electorate. Obama has a weakness for grandiose gestures, like the speech to the mile-long audience in Berlin and his address to the outdoor football stadium in Denver. What he describes as ‘the audacity of hope’ has started to look like the audacity of complacency: taking the electorate for granted and treating it like a grateful audience. He has allowed himself to ease into the dangerous role of heir-apparent, giving McCain the gift of underdog status.
It is fitting that Francis Maude was chosen as the envoy to size all this up for Mr Cameron. When he was Tory chairman two years ago, he would fret endlessly about premature celebration or the slightest whiff of hubris and, for this, acquired a reputation as a joyless Eeyore-type figure (our own Tamzin Lightwater described him threatening to ‘disable the frappuccino machine’ if young Tory staffers stayed so cheerful, a line Mr Maude found very funny in private). In fact, his concerns were well-placed. There is a thin line between confidence and arrogance, between readiness for office and behaving as if it’s in the bag. Also, it gets harder as the moment of reckoning draws closer. The American election is only a few months away and the public is starting to pay serious attention: Mr Obama is not standing up well to the growing scrutiny.
These, of course, are pitfalls which Mr Cameron may yet circumnavigate. But what would have been apparent to Ed Miliband, Labour’s official observer to the convention, is that Gordon Brown can already be accused of the sins which the Democrats seek to lay at the door of the Bush White House. Indeed, the devastating new political weapons coming off the Democrats’ production line in Denver can be used by the Tories — with only minor alterations.
While Tony Blair adopted (and, in many ways, anticipated) George W. Bush’s foreign policy, Gordon Brown has aped many features of American economic policy. The Brown-Bush strategy has three main features: a collapse of financial discipline, an explosion in state spending and a legacy of huge national debt. Interest rates were set dangerously low in both countries, provoking a housing boom followed by a bust. The result was a plunge in currency, leading to rising inflation. America is about nine months ahead of us in this grim economic freefall.
Hillary Clinton laid it out in her speech on Tuesday, listing what she billed as the results of economic incompetence: sky-rocketing national debt, repossessions up, and mounting bills that are ‘crushing’ families. Speaker after speaker in the convention hall returned to this theme: the ‘highest debt in this country’s history, which our children will have to repay’, families working harder, yet becoming poorer. Mr Brown has for a decade used figures as political weapons. The Democrats will teach the Tories how to do the same.
But what should worry Mr Miliband most of all as he ponders the lessons of Denver for his boss is the effects of schism on the party. The scars of the Obama v. Clinton primaries have not yet healed, in spite of Hillary’s polished plea for solidarity. The Democrats remain a deeply divided party — as was made painfully obvious when they were given flags to wave saying ‘unity’. Some of Mrs Clinton’s orphaned supporters handed the placard back, still un-able to forgive Mr Obama for not choosing her or even taking her seriously as his vice presidential running mate. ‘Typically when parties are split, the other one wins,’ purred Mike Duncan, chairman of the Republican National Committee.
In fact, the Republicans who had set up a ‘war room’ in Denver probably had more fun than anyone. They caused mayhem all week with their ‘Not Ready 08’ campaign, stoking the Hillary-Obama split story and finding some of her old supporters who are now saying they’ll vote for John McCain. It is a new strategy. Instead of moaning about Mr Obama receiving all the media coverage, they are instead inserting themselves cheekily into whatever Obama story is running that day.
Or, more accurately, running that hour. The notion of the 24-hour news cycle is hopelessly out of date: in 2008, there can be as many as a dozen news cycles a day. The Republicans ‘launch’ a new attack advert by releasing it on the internet. It costs almost nothing, but is instantly replayed on the news. In the convention hall, people are asked to send by text message pictures of the convention. The aim is to build a bank of mobile numbers, as the Democrats have a study showing under-35s are 40 per cent more likely to vote after a text message.
It is in with this Republican war machine, rather than its Democrat counterpart, that Mr Miliband should have been embedded. He should watch how it uses political judo to turn the weight of a young, formidable and charismatic challenger against himself. How the older candidate, who has been around for decades, can be given fresh appeal. Just a few months ago Mr Obama looked unstoppable, as Mr Cameron does now. By his own overreach and by some clever attacks by the Republicans, the race is now wide open.
There is, of course, a limit to what political professionals can achieve with their alchemy. If George W. Bush were standing for election again, there is not a strategist alive who could steer him to victory. Mr Brown is even less popular in Britain than the President is in America, so he stands almost no chance of closing the gap as Mr McCain has done. Labour’s mission is damage limitation, and the Tories’ goal is straightforward annihilation. As things stand, neither party has political tools anything like as sophisticated as those used by and against the Democrats in Denver. But copies will, by now, be winging their way across the Atlantic.