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Senator McCain’s hidden qualities

12 March 2008

The US wants change — but not too much, and not just yet, says Bill Countryman

RECENT state primaries have put John McCain in place for the Republican nomination. He is an odd choice for the Republicans, since few notable figures of the Reagan coalition really like him, and some even find him offensive. In particular, he is by no means a member of the “Religious Right”. The challenge for him will be to attract independent voters without further alienating the party regulars.

Ultimately, his strongest points may be the ones he cannot name: gender and race. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton represent significant shifts in American politics. After all, neither a woman nor a Black has been a realistic contender for President in the past.

The fact that they are in a close race for the Democratic nomination represents a change in the politics of the United States. But it is not necessarily a fully effective change at this point. Al Smith became the first Roman Catholic nominee for President in 1928; but it was a full generation before John F. Kennedy finally overcame that barrier.

The feminist movement of the past 40 years has helped to build up an enthusiastic following for Senator Clinton. Some of her supporters are more than a little angry that Senator Obama seems to be making their moment of triumph difficult. Commentators seem to agree, on the other hand, that much of Senator Obama’s support comes from younger voters who are tired of replaying the conflicts of the Vietnam era, and who see Senator Clinton as belonging to an earlier time. It is not clear that the one who wins will automatically gain the wholehearted support of the other’s followers.

Not until November will we know whether the constituencies of Senators Clinton and Obama are strong enough to bring about their hoped-for revolution. Senator McCain, like all the candidates who vied for the Republican nomination, is a senior white male. That may make him the only viable nominee for many Americans, despite his enthusiasm for the Iraq War, which the country has long since turned against.

If the US is to have a creative future, it will have to move in the direction that Senators Clinton and Obama represent. The more Democratic way of putting the matter might be to say that the US will have to embrace its entire populace and become more truly the nation that, demographically, it already is.

The more Republican way of putting it, perhaps, would be to say that it cannot afford to continue wasting the resources of more than half its people.

Either way, Senator McCain seems like the wrong person at this time — and not just because of his advocacy of the war. But one feminist friend, a supporter of Senator Clinton, is convinced that he will be the next President of the US because too many voters will freeze at the prospect of any face other than the familiar one of a white male at the helm. Old habits can be hard to surrender.

The Revd Dr Bill Countryman is Professor of New Testament at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California.

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