Great might-have-been hints at what might be

April 6, 2007

Born-again academic and former US presidential candidate Gary Hart gives Huw Richards an insight into Clinton's and Obama's chances in 2008.

Gary Hart could be described as a born-again academic. When the former US Senator and presidential candidate accepted an endowed chair in public affairs at the University of Colorado, Denver, last year, he resumed a trajectory that had been cut off nearly half a century earlier when he was a doctoral student at Yale University.

Hart, 70, recalls: "I went from a college in Oklahoma to Yale to do a PhD in philosophy and religion. I'd grown up with a sense of the importance of service and thought teaching was the way to do it. But midway through my doctoral programme, I began to feel that I did not want to teach and was caught up in the excitement of John F. Kennedy's campaign for the presidency, with his emphasis on the importance of civic duty. I switched to the law school and went into government, and eventually politics."

That career culminated in 12 years as Senator from Colorado and two shots at the Democratic nomination for president - in 1984 pressing front-runner Walter Mondale in one of the closest nomination battles in recent history, then being the clear front-runner in 1988 until his campaign was derailed by a sex scandal. His second bid is one of the great might-have-beens of recent US history. His demise left the Democratic nomination to the uncharismatic Michael Dukakis, whose defeat by the eminently beatable George Bush senior had consequences still being felt 20 years later.

A recipe, one might think, for a later life consumed by bitterness and regret. If Hart, who was recently in Britain to give a lecture at the British Library, feels any of this, he conceals it exceptionally well: "Of course I regret the way it ended, but nothing else. You can't look back and wish it had been different. I've always been a glass half-full man, and I still feel a sense of amazement that I got as far as the Senate, never mind any further."

After politics, Hart went into law full time, working on international development projects. The bridge to his return to academic life was provided by St Antony's College, Oxford, where he was a visiting fellow in the late 1990s. "That gave me the idea of returning to do a doctorate. I worked on Thomas Jefferson and his concept of the republic - while you can fill rooms with books on Jefferson, there had been almost nothing on that subject." Credits for earlier graduate work meant that he was able to complete the thesis more rapidly than Oxford University statutes normally require.

He had continued to write and lecture during his time as a lawyer, but has found clear benefits in occupying an endowed chair named for Tim Wirth, his predecessor in the Senate: "It removes the commercial imperative. In US law firms, there is the constant pressure of 'what have I done for the firm'

and to generate income." This, of course, follows on from a dozen years of fundraising from senatorial and presidential campaigns.

He says: "There is more chance to think and to focus on ideas without the other pressures. In politics, there are benefits to thinking differently and coming up with new ideas, as there is a constant search for new approaches to issues, but the day-to-day demands of political life get in the way."

His past and current political involvement - he was co-chair of the bipartisan Hart-Rudman Task Force on Homeland Security set up by President Bill Clinton, and he currently chairs both the Council for a Livable World, a disarmament advocacy group, and the American Security Project, so he talks to likely candidates about security - make him an unusually well-placed analyst of the 2008 presidential election.

The much remarked-upon early start to the campaign is, he points out, nothing terribly new. "When I ran in 1984, I started in February or March 1983, but there wasn't the media attention that there is now - political correspondents nowadays get uncomfortable if there isn't a presidential story." This is nevertheless an extremely unusual election. "You have no incumbent in the race for the first time since 1952 and the entirely unprecedented fact of a former First Lady running."

Hart remains committed to the Democratic Party, whose convention - these days normally more coronation than contest - will be held in Denver next year. He says: "The real contest seems to be who will emerge as the alternative to Hillary Clinton, who is already extremely well placed in terms of visibility, fundraising and support. At the moment, Barack Obama is a clear second."

One theory is that Clinton can win the nomination but would struggle to take the presidency. "That's the conventional wisdom," Hart says. "There's no doubt that she polarises opinion. Her polling numbers are extraordinary, along the lines of 45 positive, 45 negative and only a few undecided.

"That's very unusual, and the general view is that it is hard to get negatives down. The Republicans say they want her to be nominated because it will mobilise their base, but they're taking a risk. If you demonise somebody and then people find out she's not so bad, you have a problem.

"Hillary is smart and charming and didn't get where she is by accident. It could easily backfire on the Republicans."

The Republicans, in any case, have problems of their own: "Their success over the past 30 years has been in putting together a coalition that is now coming apart.

"You had neoconservatives who supported an activist foreign policy, the Religious Right who took over the social agenda and libertarian tax cutters. Traditional conservatives traditionally supported a balanced budget, limited overseas engagement and getting the government out of personal lives - and this (Bush Administration) reversed all three."

In particular, the Religious Right is in decline, Hart argues. "It may hold on for one more election, but it has never represented more than a minority of opinion. (The Religious Right) is losing ground among evangelicals and has been damaged by the personal failings of many of its leaders."

Republican difficulties are reflected in the Religious Right's dislike of all their leading contenders. "They are casting about for a candidate, but they haven't yet found one."

Clinton's difficulty among Democrats is that she voted for the Iraq war.

Any new administration will have to deal with the consequences of George Bush's military adventure. Hart says: "There's no good resolution and certainly no military solution. We need a drawdown, not a withdrawal of the US presence, with our forces kept out of the cities. On the diplomatic front, there has to be a regional solution - not just the one-off conference held recently, but consistent engagement with other countries.

And we need to invite back all the traditional allies we disregarded, and to invite their companies to take part in reconstruction."

All of this is part of a wider vision Hart articulates, calling for a "new internationalism". This is based around a redefinition of security. "It is not simply a matter of securing national borders against jihadist terrorism, but also of secure energy supplies, environmental protection, of security of livelihood, employment and care for your family." None of this, he argues, can be attained by military means or by a single nation, however powerful.

What is needed, Hart says, is "a new round of international institutions, among other things for environmental protection and financial regulation, a permanent international peacekeeping force, perhaps a 'UN-2' and certainly a 'Nato-2', under which the intelligence, security and law enforcement forces of the traditional Western allies are merged into single bodies".

Some might see this as a device for further extending US power. But Hart says: "That assumes that Americans are imperialists. Niall Ferguson has written that America is an empire and should accept the fact. I don't think we have, or want to be, an empire. And I think I speak on this for more Americans than President Bush or the neoconservatives do."

If the academic in him is born again, the political campaigner still lives alongside.

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