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Are Obama and Biden plagiarising Labour’s 1992 defeat?

October 19, 2008

Could John McCain pull off a surprising victory?

In the 1992 British General Election the Major government was trying to get re-elected in the context of a bitter recession brought on by a housing bubble, an unpopular predecessor and a monetary crisis revolving around the Exchange Rate Mechanism. Bush and Major’s decision to leave Saddam in power, and to betray the Kurds, had largely removed the successful War in Iraq as an issue. Labour, led by Neil Kinnock, had not fully recovered from its excesses in the 1980s but was largely back in the mainstream. After a largely inept campaign run by the Conservatives it seemed that Labour’s victory was inevitable.

However, the final two weeks of the campaign were to prove Labour’s undoing. A viciously negative fusillade of criticism and innuendo from many in traditionally conservative print media, a concerted attack on their tax policies and a celebratory rally in Sheffield that badly backfired all damaged the Labour campaign and planted doubt in the minds of voters. This meant that Labour’s small lead in the final poll of polls, and small deficit in the exit polls turned into a seven point loss in the popular vote, although the electoral system meant that the parliamentary majority that the Conservatives won was so small that the Major government was a lame duck from day one.

It is not difficult to see parallels between Britain in 1992 and America in 2008. McCain removed National Security and Iraq as an issue by choosing Sarah Palin over Joe Lieberman. The American economy is about to experience a recession and there is clearly a financial crisis, though both have been wildly overhyped by the media. More importantly, both Obama and Neil Kinnock had a domestic agenda that, while worthy, was just a bit too left-wing for the population at large. At the same time they failed to respond to the inaccurate and hypocritical distortions of their opponents (after claiming that Labour would hike sales tax, the Conservatives ended up raising it substantially after the election).

Of course there are also differences, I was devastated when the Conservatives won and I am pretty much neutral between Obama and McCain (and I clearly agree with Obama on tax). However, there are enough parallels between the two campaigns to make me wonder if McCain has a decent chance of winning at least the popular vote if Obama doesn’t hit back hard enough. It would be ironic for McCain to win for the wrong reasons, but it is clear that “Joe the Plumber’s” intervention rattled Obama during the debate and raised some questions about why his tax plans paradoxically raise the marginal rates of those on low to middle incomes, even if they lower their effective tax rates.

In any case one can expect the conservative media to follow in the footsteps of their British counterparts and to go after Obama with increasing vehemence in the final seventeen days. We can also expect the Republicans to continue to push the “Joe the Plumber” story as far as it will take them. None of this should matter had the Obama campaign either built up a big enough lead to insulate themselves from these attacks or if it possessed the tactical edge to deflect Schmidt’s attacks. However, with the exception of Obama’s Philadelphia speech and Bill Clinton’s gaffe in South Carolina, the Obama campaign has been essentially passive, never initiating the attacks and failing to respond effectively to them.

Plouffe and Axelrod might be organisational geniuses, and Obama should still be considered the favourite to win, but I wouldn’t rule out the idea that the fabled double-digit Democratic landslide that some people seem to be expecting might come under Mark Warner, Hillary Clinton or Ken Salazar in 2012, rather than in just over a fortnight’s time.

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