Matthew Norman: American democracy in all its filthy glory

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The Independent Online

A myriad of analogies have been lavished on Hillary Clinton as she has waged her desperate, demented, putrid and strangely magnificent rearguard over recent months. She's been the Duracell Bunny, the Terminator, Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, the schlock horror creature that cannot be killed, and too many other paradigms of relentlessness to mention here.

A special favourite came this week from an American pundit, Seth Greenland, who concluded that she is John Cleese's Black Knight – the one who has his arms and then a leg sliced off by King Arthur, and cheerily declares: "All right, we'll call it a draw".

This is Hillary after Tuesday's double disaster. Had she lost North Carolina by a whisker and won Indiana by a mile, as anticipated, she would still be the underdog today, but an underdog with money, momentum and the waggiest of tails scampering after the Holy Grail that is the White House. She did the precise reverse, losing North Carolina by a landslide, and clinging on in her demographic dreamland of white, working-class Indiana by the skin of her exquisitely sculpted teeth. And while the watching millions recoiled at the lifeblood of financial and political support visibly oozing from her stumps, she stood on an Indiana stage and called it a draw.

A double plus for chutzpah, yet again, but as every sentient commentator now agrees: It. Is. Over. Some of the thicker smart arses jumped the gun, admittedly, in awarding the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama. One particular imbecile (I think he appears on this page each Friday) assured readers that Hill-ary's gracious concession speech would swiftly follow the Texas primary in early March. But against the odds she won there (in votes if not delegates), as she had done in New Hampshire before, and so the myth of Unkillable Hill grew until one came to believe that, however compelling the electoral mathematics, only a silver bullet could stop her.

Today only a bullet, silver or otherwise, can save her. That or video footage, from the director of Max Mosley: The Movie, of Obama being led around a Chicago dungeon on a dog collar by a PVC catsuit-clad Abu Hamza while being fed the entrails of white babies by the Rev Jeremiah Wright and shrilly insisting that 9/11 was the work of Mossad.

Assassination or epochal scandal apart, she has lost and even Bill knows it. Standing behind her on the dais, his face a shade of crimson to make Alex Ferguson on Claret Night look like Lilith Crane after a talc factory explosion, he could barely dredge up the wounded boxer's defiant grin when she lurched briefly into valedictory mode, and pledged to support the Democratic candidate to the full.

She might even have meant it. Her friends think she'd take the vice-presidential slot, and given the pressure on Obama to close the schism she opened with all the nuanced race-baiting and attack ads, he may have to hold his nose and make the offer. More likely, perhaps, she will look to him to settle her campaign debts and dangle such inducements to good behaviour in front of the HillBillies as the Senate majority leader's job for her and a Supreme Court berth for him.

All that is a sideshow now, though, as the eyes of the world begin to settle on America's first global candidate since JFK, and his chances in the general election. For what it's worth (considerably less than zero, you'd have to say, on the soothsaying form), I think he'll beat John McCain with surprising ease, and if so he will have one person to thank above all others in his victory address early on November 3. That person isn't his enchanting wife Michelle, the mother who guided him, or the casually racist Kansan grandmother who raised him.

That person is Hillary Clinton, whose remorseless assaults eventually coalesced into the final piece in the jigsaw of his electability. The only grave doubt there ever was about a man of luminescent rhetorical flair and rich intellectual gifts was his mettle. Could he come through the inevitable ordeal by fire, or would the nickname Obambi stick?

For two months, whenever his reverence fell quiet, she threw the drains beneath the kitchen sink, enriched with finest polonium-210, at his skinny frame. With very few forays into reciprocal squalor, he withstood it all and emerged scathed but strengthened on "that which doesn't kill you" lines.

And once he's thanked her, he should thank the nomination process itself for enabling such an electrifying scrap. Observing it closely from this side of the Atlantic has been both an education in the splendour of flawed but full-blooded democracy in action and a poignant holiday from the dank, drizzly torpor of our own anaemic version.

From 3 January, when the caucus-goers of Iowa packed into each other's houses to argue the toss with courteous fervour, all the way to Tuesday when the good people of Indiana glanced contemptuously at her "gas tax holiday" bribe and told her where to stick the nozzle, it's been a continual source of both wonderment and gloom.

What wouldn't you give for a tenth of that passion here in Britain, where we shuffle to the polls every four or five years with the relish of a New England turkey facing a ballot paper featuring only Christmas and Thanksgiving. There, they will choose between a bellicose, maverick Republican torture victim with a filthy temper and an insatiable appetite for arguing politics with those who disagree with him, and an elegiac black man of mixed race, brought up on food stamps and far-fetched ambition, who knows the bad streets of Chicago as intimately as the quads of Harvard.

Here, we look forward with glee to picking between a punch drunk, semi-comatose, puritan nebbish shaping nicely into Labour's Jimmy Jones, and a chameleon from the neo-Jim Bowen wing of the modern Tory Party (You Can't Beat A Bit of Bullingdon!) who embraced compassionate conservatism within months of authoring that dog-whistling, retrograde manifesto for Michael Howard.

I don't want to labour the comparison, because the last time I checked the medicine cabinet we were flat out of strychnine, so suffice it to wonder just this: for all America's colossal flaws, domestically and as an imperial power, can you begin to imagine either of our beamish boys surviving the searingly intrusive electoral system that has decided on Barack Hussein Obama? And if somehow they did come through it, wouldn't they be immeasurable improved as politicians?

The nomination race which effectively ended on Tuesday has been as ugly and brutal as anything you're ever likely to witness in democratic politics, and it showcased democracy in all its filthy glory. How wondrous it has looked to those lumbered with an untried, untested, unseasoned third-rate PM through a silent coronation. And how grievously we'll miss it once Hillary officially recognises that fighting without limbs is a step beyond even her legendary resilience.

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