Clemency Burtonhill

Politics regained?

Politics regained?
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Joe Klein, the legendary American journalist and author of Primary Colors was in town last night to talk about the US election. TimeWarner threw a champagne-soaked gathering with the great and the good at Soho Hotel, and a very lively panel discussion – with Jim Naughtie, Bronwen Maddox and Trevor Phillips – ensued. Unsurprisingly, the consensus was that, with twelve months to go, the presidential race is still wide open. While the Republicans are practising ‘Cinderella’ politics, quipped Klein, squeezing right-wing religious policies into glass slippers, the Democrats are more like ‘Goldilocks’: ‘too much heat’ on John Edwards, the ‘coolest’ candidate he’s ever written about in Barack Obama, and Hillary, of course, somewhere in the middle.

The indomitable Mrs Clinton was perhaps inevitably the focus for much of the debate. She has run a far more impressive campaign than Klein expected, apparently, being unexpectedly ‘courageous’ about sticky issues such as universal health insurance and alternative energy sources. True, her foreign policy announcements have been ‘opaque’, but, he conceded, she is more expert on military matters than any other candidate on either side, excepting perhaps Republican hopeful John McCain. Klein jokes, in fact, that a very high-profile Republican general he interviewed recently said that for all he disagrees with Clinton’s politics, ‘she would make a hell of a Commander-in-Chief’. No doubt. She exudes, as we all know, a cool professionalism, a seriousness and confidence that will appeal to a public ‘who know things are in a mess and want to get things sorted out’. (The ‘mess’ he refers to includes such ‘aspects of middle-classdom’ as rising petrol prices, the spiralling costs of sending your kids to college, problems with health insurance – ‘everyone’, he said, ‘is vulnerable’.)

But despite her evident strengths and prowess, Clinton, in Klein’s mind, still has a long way to go. Yes, said Klein, she may be well ahead in all-important Iowa, but we all know ‘those voters can’t be trusted’. (Iowans, he told us, are ‘very strange’ and ‘don’t make their minds up until the last minute’.) Even on the military stuff, she has started to expose a weakness, Klein feels, by making ‘overtly foolish’ political moves such as voting against continued funding for the operation in Iraq (which runs counter to what she personally believes). Moreover, he reminded us, the President is someone the American people feel they have to ‘live’ with, day-in, day-out. Someone they have to let in to their living rooms, via their television screens, every day. There is a ‘visceral’ decision that voters will make on polling day, and Clinton, Klein predicts, has much to overcome in this regard. Not only is she a woman – and America still unquestionably a ‘macho’ society – but many dread the prospect of the Clinton Circus coming to town again, with all its attendant ‘partisan craziness’. Furthermore, if she wins it will mark twenty years of somebody called Bush or somebody called Clinton running the country. Perhaps, he muses, 2008 will be the moment when the American people will break the long cycle of passing the presidential prize ‘back and forth between two prohibitively weird families’. But who knows.

Will this election, the one Joe Klein hopes will herald a return to proper politics, ultimately turn on the answers to the big questions, or will it turn on personalities? What was clear from last night’s discussion was that even some of the brightest brains in the business can’t answer this one quite yet.