Alex Massie

Gordon and Hillary’s Shared Agony

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I've an op-ed in today's edition of The Scotsman on the similar fixes Gordon Brown and Hillary Clinton find themselves in (right down to rown's reported willingness to hire Mark Penn) and on how they are ill-served by the prevailing political trends in Britain and America respectively. It's behind a (tedious) subscription firewall, but the gist of it is:

When Gordon Brown meets Hillary Clinton in Washington this week the pair could be forgiven for consoling one another and asking “How did it come to this?” What a difference a year makes. A year ago, Gordon Brown was preparing to grasp the prize he’d waited so many years to hold. At long last he would be Prime Minister; at long last he’d show the doubters that they were wrong. For her part, Hillary Clinton was the overwhelming favourite to win the Democratic party’s presidential nomination and, it seemed, quite likely to be the next President of the United States.

How times change. How the mighty have been humbled. The Prime Minister finds himself ten points down in the polls and under siege as fever sweeps the Labour party and MPs mutter that time is running out for Gordon. For her part, Mrs Clinton needs a miracle if she’s to defeat Barack Obama, let alone John McCain in November...

Like Clinton, Brown is facing a younger, fresher, more charismatic opponent whose skills he has under-estimated. Just as Clinton misjudged the depth of Obama’s appeal, so Brown is discovering that David Cameron is a little tougher than he looks. Brown and Clinton were the future once; now they look old and tired and very much of the past...

Politicians can survive criticism, but ridicule generally leaves them helpless. Both Brown and Clinton have entered these dangerous waters and are finding that it’s a long way back to shore...

They are tacticians, not strategists. Neither seems able to focus on the longer-term or the bigger picture. Neither is blessed with an appealing personality, neither seems to appreciate that these days candour wins more points than trying to play both sides of an issue in an effort to appeal to as many interests as possible. In a cynical age, admitting error is more likely to impress than pretending, robot-style, that everything is always under control.

Confronted by adversity, all Clinton and Brown can offer is a promise to redouble their efforts. They will work their way out of a jam. In another era such Stakhanovite promises might impress the electorate. Not any more. “Is that all you have to offer?” ask voters who sense, not altogether unreasonably, that diligence is the least they have the right to expect.

Perhaps the current economic anxiety will persuade voters that diligence and perspiration are enough. But I doubt it. If anything, the signs are that voters want change. These are not comfortable times for incumbents (and in the Democratic context Clinton should be considered the incumbent). Nicolas Sarkozy achieved the striking feat of appearing to offer change and glamour despite representing the incumbent party; Silvio Berlusconi’s triumph in Italy is another indication that voters are attracted to candidates that, however flawed, offer something like flair and excitement. A victory for Boris Johnson in the London Mayoral race will strengthen the sense that glamour and idiosyncracy are back in fashion.

Indeed, turbulent economic times may demand politicians who offer cheer as well as diligence; inspiration as well as perspiration...

What is Hillary Clinton for beyond the advancement and greater glory of Hillary Clinton? What is her campaign about? She has never given a satisfactory answer. Similarly, what is Gordon Brown’s ministry for? What does he want to achieve that his party could not achieve in its first ten years in power? Again, the answer is hard to discern. As with Mrs Clinton there is an unfortunate whiff of entitlement about Brown. He doesn’t deserve to be Prime Minister because he has a compelling, sweeping vision for the future but because, well, because he’s waited a jolly long time and it’s his turn to be Prime Minister. But that’s not enough. Is there anything actually there? It’s hard to say.

There’s a famous episode of “The West Wing” in which President Jed Bartlett’s Chief of Staff recommends that Martin Sheen’s floundering character can regain momentum only if he is prepared to “Let Bartlett be Bartlett”. Ordinarily that would be good advice for real-life politicians too. The problem that Brown and Clinton face, however, is that letting “Gordon be Gordon” and “Hillary be Hillary” is exactly what has brought them to their current, awful, shared predicament.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articlePolitics