If felons had set out with malice aforethought to outrage the sensitivities and violate the fastidiousness of Old Europe, they would only have needed to devise the US Electoral system. It does seem to express the grossest aspects of the American character. The noisiest, the biggest, the longest: Barnum and Bailey compete with Cecil B De Mille for the votes of George F Babbitt, at vast expense. Over the next few months, the Presidential candidates will expend the GDP of several poor countries, often in absurd circumstances.
In early January, on a mild day, the temperature in New Hampshire could rise to single figures, Fahrenheit. This is a time of year for a well-stocked woodshed, ditto a larder and wine cellar, so that the wildness of nature can be observed from the drawing-room window, and journeying restricted to a minimum. Every news broadcast reinforces that message: "Only drive if you absolutely must". Well, several presidential candidates absolutely must, for they have a primary to win. They will arrive late, in snowy vehicles, trying unavailingly to keep pace with the schedules devised by aides in a centrally-heated Washington office, to address a few handfuls of locals in one of the most winter-bound, smallest and untypical states of the Union. "Retail politics" was how George Bush described it in 2000, while he was failing to win the primary. Any retailer who ran his business on those lines would have long since gone out of business.
Yet there is a crucial point about this presidential campaign. It is going to be fun. How could it be otherwise when the New Hampshire weather is the sole area of certainty? Not since 1968 has a presidential election been so beset by unpredictability. There is only one obvious conclusion: this contest is the Democrats' to lose. With a shaky economy, a controversial war, an uncertain nation and a widespread time-for-a-change mood, the Democrats could not be stopped if they had a decent candidate. That, however, they lack. Instead, they have Hillary Clinton.
Mrs Clinton is a polarising politician. A lot of Americans do not merely distrust and dislike her. They hate her. No serious presidential candidate has ever had so many negatives. This explains the Barack Obama phenomenon. Mr Obama is a promising youngster. He is likely to be a prominent figure for many years to come. But he is only a novice. Comparisons have been made with President Kennedy who like young Obama had only been a Senator for six years before running for the Presidency. This will not work. As a Senator, JFK had won golden opinions for his efforts as a legislator. He took the Senate seriously. It returned the compliment. By 1960. his record of achievement was vastly more substantial than Barack Obama's is now.
Even so, a number of senior Democrats became Obama supporters, for one reason. They cannot bear the thought of losing: another eight-year Republican presidency. If we do not win in 2008, they ask themselves, when will we ever win? It is easy to understand their anxiety. Bill Clinton can produce charm in industrial quantities: almost enough to conceal his faults of character. Hillary is charmless. She was always cold, egotistical and ruthless, but her good qualities have receded with age, and with marriage. When a feminist is harnessed to a philanderer, we should not expect a well-tempered feminist. The end product is a stainless-steel Dresden dominatrix, a blend of ice and ambition, a woman whose hunger for office and power makes Gordon Brown seem like Cincinnatus.
She is also a woman who has learned to walk warily. When she used to express political views, they were well to the left of the American mainstream. Over the past few years, she has exercised an iron self-control in order to create an electable political identity. Tony Blair did something similar, but there is a difference. He never lost his humanity. It is not clear whether she had much to lose.
As it still seems likely that she will win the nomination, this gives the Republicans hope. At present, that is all they have. They, too, lack a formidable front-running candidate. Although Rudy Giuliani has been leading in most polls, he has problems. On social and sexual questions, he cannot be accused of hypocrisy: his liberal views reflect a complicated private life. But he offers better grounds for mistrust. Despite the qualities that he appeared to display after 11 September, this is not a big man. At the core of his personality, there is a rat-like meanness. This is someone whom Hillary Clinton could beat.
There are alternatives. Over the past few months John McCain has been regularly written off, and as regularly bounced back. He is an impressive figure, but also a troubled one. Only a hero could have survived five-and-a-half years of imprisonment, abuse and torture in North Vietnam. A ghastly experience. Magnificently surmounted, it has also left a malign legacy. Those who work closely with him testify to faults of judgement and bursts of uncontrollable anger. It is not clear that he has a temperament to be president.
That could never be said of Fred Thompson, who was for a time the US Conservative movement's favourite. Mr Thompson is tall, craggy and calm: far too calm. Before Fred ran, his friends would say that he was too indolent to be a strong candidate. In order to go through that impossibly demanding process your soul has to be suffused with hunger for the presidency. Fred Thompson is too well-balanced for that. At present, he is faltering. Unless his campaign lifts off within weeks rather than months, he will be out of the race, which would be a pity.
Some of his support has gone to Mike Huckabee, a man with an unlikely pedigree. Like Bill Clinton, he is a former Governor of Arkansas. Post-Clinton, this should have been a disqualification for higher office. From the gubernatorial mansion at Little Rock, there would be only one career move: to become a purveyor of trailer trash for the Sheikh of Araby. Mr Huckabee could never be accused of trailer-trash vice. He is a plausible and likeable populist. But he is woefully devoid of the experience necessary to be President of the United States.
That leaves Mitt Romney. Mr Romney has two weaknesses. He sometimes changes his views and he is a Mormon (one is tempted to spell that word without the second "m"). But Mr Romney is able, likeable and a good speaker, with a sound administrative record. The Christian right distrust his Mormonism, but not as much as it distrusts every molecule in Hillary Clinton's being. At present, Mr Romney seems the obvious answer.
So I will make a foolish prediction. In November, Mitt Romney will defeat Hillary Clinton for the Presidency, though there will, alas, be consolation for the Democrats. They will gain seats in both Houses of Congress. It will be interesting to see how much if any of that proves right. Happy New Year.Reuse content