Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Watching New Hampshire

New Hampshire, the granite state, is the first on the calendar of the United States to hold party primaries. NY Senator Hillary Clinton edged over Illinois Senator Barack Obama by 3 percentage points 39 - 36. Former North Carolina Senator Edwards came a distant 3rd with 17% of his party's vote. On the Republican side it was McCain 37%, Romney 32, and Huckabee 11. Both Republican and Democrat votes differed from Iowa results (i.e., Obama, Edwards, Clinton (D), and Huckabee, Romney, Thompson (R).

Last night I took note of how the candidates handled the outcome and how they addressed their supporters once the results became clear.

Such on-the-ground politics is a thrilling part of the American political process. Candidates are close among volunteers and the voters, very personal, yet carry out this work under massive national and media attention. This blend of intimate, person to person politics, in high intensity, high-stakes, impassioned activity is a formula for the arising of fervid emotion and can provide a very helpful lens through which to take in candidates.

As numbers became clear each candidate came out to address his or her supporters, responding to victory, something less than victory, or simply defeat. These speeches are at once thanks and good-bye to genuine, loving supporters, but also speeches to the nation. With emotions so high and the personal so close, these make for good speeches to watch closely.

John McAin should have had the most thrilling night of all, since he was the runaway victor in his party after having been left for dead just weeks ago. For some, sad reason McCain acceded to deliver a travesty of a speech prepared by some hack. He stumbled through a poorly written screed so riddled with grammatical negatives that McCain himself ended up confused. Even its compulsory "end-with-a-show-stopper" clattered about, entangled in its 3-parts, the crowd erupting part way through, while McCain had to quiet them down only to get through a deflated, closing zinger, a most unfortunate energy to announce one's resurrection.

Ron Paul, the Ross Perot of 2008 with wildly devoted followers, ended up in his concession speech excitedly reiterating his plan to dissolve the Federal Reserve, excitedly reporting that his supporters are burning up dollar bills. Not exactly the stuff of political gravitas.

New Mexico Governor Richardson (whom I tend to like as a personality) was unprepared, and said as close to nothing as possible.

Of these, the most important two speeches to watch were those of Senators Clinton and Obama.

New Hampshire results pulled Senator Clinton from the jaws of death. Iowa had shown her vulnerability, and Hillary haters and the vapid commentariat raced to write her obituary though not a single American vote had been cast in a single primary (Iowa being a caucus).

Senator Clinton showed an important strength and important weaknesses in her speech to thank and congratulate her supporters. On the positive side, without a prepared speech, she stayed on message. In essence in what should be an extremely emotional moment, Senator Clinton simply continued to campaign. Her degree of focus and purposefulness in an emotional moment of political rescue emits the political maturity of a candidate that must be taken seriously. (Regardless of whether one ascribes this focus to a "healthy" or problematic place).

Obama did the same. He too stayed highely focused while fully engaging and embracing his New Hampshire supporters.

Senator Clinton paused to acknowledge her Democrat competitors, as did Senator Obama, but this act, just as the speeches themselves proved to reveal the colossal difference between these two candidates.

Barack Obama took the stage before a deafening crowd, and after strenuous effort to gain sufficient calm to be able to speak, the very first words from his mouth were unqualified congratulations for Senator Clinton. He demanded of his purely partisan supporters, "give her a hand," and paused with a silent insistence that this crowd summon up that unexpected and unwanted ability. The applause for Senator Clinton at Obama's request gradually swelled almost as though Obama willed it from his people. Only then did Obama turn to yet another example of his superior oratory. What a burden it must be to run against that. But true oratory is not a glued on skill. That only goes so far. The true question is not how hard it is to run against his oratory, but how hard it is to run against him.

Senator Clinton on the other hand, in the fading exhale end of her remarks acknowledged her Democrat opponents beginning her list with even those who'd already withdrawn from the race! At the end of this long list, the END (!), she included mention of Senator Obama, a silly disjunct from reality, as though the Illinois Senator what just another in an insignificant list of primary hopefuls.

It is this difference (namely the manner in which each of these candidates publicly acknowledged the other) that showed in such high relief also in the speeches themselves. Hillary's speech extended her campaign strategies, whereas Obama's speech reprised his vision.

Senator Clinton very clearly continued to shade and shave the campaign strategy and message chiseled by her architects, whereas Obama seemed to need only to draw upon that which sits within. It leads one to feel, or at least to suggest that in Senator Clinton's remarkable discipline to stay on point we experience a menacing political discipline and calculation, whereas with Senator Obama one feels ease, and the relative absence of calculation. Being on point is being himself. The political discipline seems to spray forth in the wake of a harmonizing vision.

If it is true that Obama represents an impassioned presence, and Clinton represents the ultimate political machine and mastery, then we truly have a momentous race to behold, one about which no one should be neutral.