After more than a year of heated warm-up with a lengthy and dramatic primary season, the US presidential election campaign is ready to enter the last lap. Finally. The Indian media’s coverage of the US presidential election has been most perfunctory and that is to be expected . I myself would not have been particularly interested in it had I not been in Uncle Sam’s own country where it is impossible to be not assailed by the elections as soon as you switch the TV on, unless of course you watch only “Lost” and “Gossip Girls”.
But tuned into it I am. And here below is my round-up.
Warning: this is a long long post.
One of the best things about the American democratic process is the system of primaries where each of the major parties (Democratic and Republican) have internal elections to determine their respective presidential candidates. Spread out over many months, it allows registered party members in each state to vote for their preferred nominee and allows their voice to be heard inside the party to which they are affiliated.
As an Indian used to seeing monolithic parties with the same faces in leadership positions for years on end, sometimes as a matter of birthright, the primary system seems to be a great way of enforcing intra-party democracy and in letting alternative viewpoints within a party have the chance to present their case to the party base. This is sharp contrast to the Indian system where political parties sell the hoary myth that internal elections of leaders are “unanimous” and where as a result of this “consensus by fiat” the only way for a party-member to express disapproval at his/her parties policies or stances is to split and start one’s own political forum.
Democratic primaries: Ever since she became senator of New York, Hillary Clinton had built up her resume for the 2008 Presidential elections, with the same single-minded determination that people start preparing for their IIT exams from Class 9 itself. Over the years, she had built relationships with different power centers inside the Democratic party and most importantly with fundraisers and party donors. Her biggest weapon was considered to be her husband Bill, a smooth slick mass mobilizer and orator who could bring the votes in like no other and who had been one of US’s most popular presidents, as loved among the Democratic party base (especially by African Americans and Hispanics [Clinton took in nearly 80% of the Hispanic vote when he beat Bob Dole in 1996]) as he was reviled by the Republicans. In fact the only concern that people initially had was that Bill Clinton would overshadow Hillary and the presidential campaign would be all about Bill and his attempt at a “third” term through proxy.
Even on her own, what made Hillary [image courtesy here] so electable as the President of the United States was that she had a powerful emotional connect with a significant section of the US electorate who were considered to be her bedrock demographic—-urban, white above-fifty women for whom Hillary’s ascension to the top post as the country’s first woman president would serve as a symbolic destruction of the proverbial glass ceiling, a barrier that most women in the above-50 demographic had to struggle with throughout their lives.
So confident was the Hillary camp about her success, that in an interview with Katie Couric she almost refused to accept the possibility that she could lose the nomination.
Lesson for the future: Its usually not a good idea to come on national TV and give the message to the voters: “Yeah yeah there is a nomination process to take place. But hey what the hell, it’s gonna be me. So we can just go through the motions, however we all know how it’s gonna end”.
It was not as if the Hillary camp was not aware of the challenge that might be posed by Barack Obama, an African-American son of an immigrant father, a Senator for 4 years who had shot to national limelight in 2004 on account of a spectacular speech at the Democratic National Convention. But the common consensus was that he would at best be a feisty challenger who based on the support of a significant number of African-Americans could, at the best, win a State or two. That’s about it. He would ultimately be no match, in terms of his ability to raise money and sustain his campaign, in front of the well-oiled Hillary machinery. So sure were the analysts of Hillary’s victory that the consensus was that Obama’s best outcome would be to be selected as Hillary’s running mate as the Vice Presidential candidate, a possibility deliciously depicted in this hilarious Mad TV spoof.
And yet a few months later, there was total and absolute reversal of fortune as Barack Obama emerged as the Democratic presidential nominee after a hard-fought though emphatic victory over Hillary Clinton, doing what was hitherto considered to be impossible—raising more money than the Clintons .
So what happened to the best laid plans of mice and men, of men like James Carville, considered to be one of the country’s best political strategists and the brain behind the Clinton campaign? What happened over the course of a few months that changed the political future of the United States?
First and foremost for Obama’s campaign, the man became the message. Saddled by an unpopular war bleeding billions per month, a housing crisis-triggered recession, record job losses and soaring oil prices if there was one thing that struck a chord in all Americans, regardless of race and gender, was Obama’s word of the day for everyday—“change” : the variation of which Obama would use every 3rd sentence in every speech he gave. While changing the system is something every politician claims he/she will do, in the case of Obama, that tired rhetoric took a life of its own.
That was because his very persona symbolized change. An African-American son of immigrants, he was very different from anyone who had ever seriously contested the post of the US president. His inexperience in Washington DC, vis a vis Hillary, considered to be his biggest Achilles Heel pre-campaign became his biggest advantage. As a relative “outsider” to DC politics, he could claim that he was not associated with the “old Washington” with its lobbyists and special interests in the way that Clinton was. He publicly declared that he would not take money from lobbying firms or political action groups (which are perceived as legal ways for corporations and special interest groups to buy influence among decision-makers), instead choosing to raise money from individual contributions, which by law are capped at a low amount (Many have pointed out that his policy is not without its loopholes, perhaps intentional). While Hillary had supported Bush’s decision to go to war in Iraq, Obama had the record to make the compelling case that he had opposed the Iraq war at a time when the national mood was in favor of Bush. He could draw political blood by reminding people that NAFTA, a trade agreement that is widely responsible for the flight of manufacturing jobs from the US to Mexico, was authored by Bill Clinton.
Secondly, Obama with his rockstar good looks, commanding gravel voice and amazing powers of oratory and rhetoric became an instant hit with the public. No make it an instant celebrity.The press and public just couldn’t have enough of him. When he came to speak, the auditorium would fill up hours in advance with many people coming just to “see” him as they would come to see an Elvis or a Michael Jackson in his prime. In contrast, Hillary was dowdy and frumpy with her speeches which, even though they were as insubstantial as Obama’s, were vastly less inspiring and positively boring. This difference between the two candidates, in a country like the US where image and camera-friendliness counts much more than they do in say India, translated to greater influence of Obama on the Democratic electorate and much wider diffusion of his message.
Thirdly his African-Americanness. While that identity gave Obama a ready vote-bank that had traditionally supported the Clintons, it also attracted many white voters, especially the wealthy liberal “Starbucks” crowd, in that it gave them an opportunity to purge themselves of the historic guilt that the USA, in all its years of democracy, had yet to elect an African-American to the highest post. Of course Obama was not the first African-American candidate for the Democratic party nomination—Jesse Jackson and Reverend Al Sharpton had already tried their luck in previous election cycles. But while Jackson and Sharpton had defined themselves solely by their race and had focused exclusively on issues of interest to African-Americans, Obama deliberately de-emphasized racial identity in his speeches and consequently was able to step beyond the constricting “Black politician” tag and so appeal to a wider audience.
Fourthly the entire spectrum of the press, from the liberal to the conservative, showed themselves to be remarkably anti-Clinton. The consistently negative portrayal of Hillary in the media severely dented her chances since many people, especially the ideologically undecided, are consciously and subconsciously influenced in their electoral choice by how the Press portrays a political figure . In the conservative republican press, the negative vibes were not unexpected as Bill Clinton had always been the conservative’s historic enemy, never forgiven for being insanely popular.
What however was surprising was the vitriol reserved for the Clintons by well-known liberal i.e. Democratic party-supporting media outlets like MSNBC and leftist blogs like the Huffington Post and Daily Kos. While initially the reason for it might have been empathy for the underdog Obama, as the season went on and even after Obama became the top dog, the liberal press’s distaste for Hillary showed no signs of abating. One of the reasons for that antipathy is conjectured to be the following: Bill Clinton was so popular in his days and so successful in getting his message directly to the people, he felt he did not need the media. Which is why he often acted flip and arrogant with them in his salad days. Elephants do not forget and neither do pressmen.
Throughout the campaign, liberal commentators made no secret of their admiration for Obama, sometimes throwing journalistic objectivity to the dogs. In televised debates, Hillary got asked the tough questions while Obama was given softballs. When Hillary’s campaign ran what I felt was a legitimate attack advertisement on Obama questioning his foreign policy credentials, namely his ability to handle political crises at “3 oclock at night”, Hillary was hounded for fear-mongering and playing low and dirty.
Things became so blatant that Saturday Night Live, a comedy hour on NBC that has over the years become an American institution, ran a skit showing different TV anchors fawning over Obama like teenagers in front of a movie star and reserving their grim journalistic “tough questions” demeanor for Hillary.
Much of the Obama mystique has in fact been created by the US electronic media and I am sure many political science PhD dissertations will be written on the role of the press in making Obama the Democratic nominee or if he goes forward, the US president.
Aside from the effect of Obama’s larger-than-life status that grew ominously huge with every passing day, Hillary had other problems. Namely that Hillary’s perceived biggest strength Bill Clinton became her biggest weakness. While the original plan was to let Bill be Hillary’s attack dog i.e. for him to go negative on Obama, this hopelessly backfired when Bill Clinton dismissed Obama’s victory in the South Carolina primary with a statement that even Jesse Jackson won that state twice. The message was obvious—Clinton was trying to say that with its large African-American population South Carolina would always support a fellow African American and have done so in the past even for lightweights like Jesse Jackson.
This was exactly what the Bill Clinton-loathing media was waiting for—-within one news cycle, he was being accused of having brought race to the forefront. So persistent became the chorus against Bill and so negative the blowback for Hillary that Bill had to be gradually phased out of the campaign till a stage was reached where he was rarely seen in public rallies.
Hillary did try to play the female card for her benefit more than once with her campaign often hinting how the men (which included the Press) were all ganging up on her because she was a woman. Just the way any attempt to pin any kind of charges on Laloo Yadav or Mayawati is spun as an attack on Dalits. Some of the spin worked. A minor breakdown on television, where the “strong” Hillary was shown getting teary-eyed (which the press lampooned as being stage-managed) gave her a break at a tough time in her campaign, exposing what pundits called the human being behind the “robot”, but there is only a level to which one can take this subtle victimization angle , especially when the press is by and large unsympathetic.
For me however the biggest difference between the candidates was the way in which they handled crises. Hillary had one crisis brought on by her saying on camera that she had, in the course of her diplomatic efforts, landed in Bosnia on a tarmac under heavy fire and with snipers everywhere. Then footage was discovered of her on the said tarmac being greeted by smiling, relaxed officials and even by a girl with a flower—heavy fire and the pervasive presence of death indeed ! Caught in a lie, Hillary hemmed and hawed and said that she had been tired when she had made the speech—though why someone would start spinning heroic yarns about themselves when fatigued was never explained in much detail.
In contrast, Obama faced a much more serious and potentially candidature-ending crisis when footage of the pastor of the church he attended and his personal friend and spiritual advisor, Reverend Wright surfaced in which the Reverend was shown making inflammatory anti-American statements and of accusing the US government of having manufactured the AIDs virus to decimate African-Americans. Obama moved swiftly and decisively condemning Reverend Wright, distancing himself from the Reverend’s stance and cutting off, at least publicly, all links with him. Not only that, Obama turned this whole sorry mess into a positive by using it to give a powerful speech on race relations in the US which I would say was one of the best (if not the best) speech I have ever heard from anyone.
As Obama goes for history, his biggest weakness (and paradoxically his biggest strength) remains that he has not yet defined himself and that he has no past baggage to carry. This makes him at the same time untested as well as fresh, depending on your point of view. In order to handle the gaps in his resume (namely his inexperience in foreign affairs) he has made a solid though unspectacular vice presidential choice in Senator Joe Biden, an old hand in foreign affairs, a DC insider and more importantly a great negative campaigner who would be asked to go after the Republicans. Now whether the “generational candidate” can make his tryst with destiny remains to be seen as he goes up against the immensely well-financed Republican political machinery.
Republican Primaries: The Republican or conservative party base is ideologically more rigid and their philosophy so much more well-defined than the more amorphous “liberalism” of the Democrats. The Republican world view is defined by political conservatism (a strong military and an aggressive foreign policy of engagement), economic conservatism (small government, lower rates of taxation, decreased expenditure on welfare schemes, reliance on the power of the market, and anti-immigrantism–legal as well as illegal) and social conservatism (anti-abortion, anti-Darwin’s theory of evolution, closer ties between the Church and the state and against accepting same-sex relationships as legal marriages).
Pundits had written off John McCain as a competitive candidate the moment he announced his second bid for the Republican presidential nomination (he had been thrashed soundly by George W in 2000). The reason for the pessimism was because McCain had, throughout his life, been on the “wrong” side of many of the core conservative’s pet issues. Dubbed a “maverick’ because of his often contrarian positions, McCain has been ambivalent about abortion, believes in evolution, had recently been the primary sponsor (along with uber-liberal Ted Kennedy) of an immigration bill that would have given large number of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship (a bill which was killed by massive Republican opposition) and had been scathingly critical of George W Bush’s tax cuts. Though McCain was the poster boy for political conservatism, favoring increased troop deployment and ultimately a permanent US presence in Iraq as also a military solution against Iran, he was still looked upon with suspicion and barely controlled antipathy by the influential Conservative base so much so that many of the extremer sections of the party publicly were even ready to accept Hillary Clinton rather than John McCain. Add to it McCain’s advanced age (unlike in India, age is a disadvantage for US politicians), his propensity for flying into fits of anger and his lack of funds in the initial stage of the campaign (he was almost bankrupt) and one can understand why his challenge was predicted to implode.
The favorite to snag the nomination, before the race began, was “America’s mayor” Rudy Giuliani (yes that’s him to the left) who had close to $17 million in campaign cash, compared to the next candidate, ex Governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney, himself a billionaire. As in politics everywhere, the one with the most cash typically wins.
But there were more than a few things that were messed up with Giluliani’s “make-up”.
For one, he like McCain was not closely aligned with the Republican party base—-having liberal ideas on gay marriage and abortion. Also the thrice-married Giuliani, with two estranged sons, just didn’t cut it as the “family values” candidate, which is a concept that Conservative voters attach much importance to.
Mitt Romney, a thoroughbred conservative whose political, social and economic views found resonance with the base, was considered another strong contender. There was a minor problem—he was Mormon, an isolationist sect of Christianity that had deliberately avoided integration with the mainstream.
Another contender was the affable Mike Huckabee, the governor of Arkansas and an ex-preacher. His strength was his solid political base among evangelical Christians (another word for rigid Christian conservatives) and thus was expected to be a formidable force in certain states. However his appeal was considered to be too limited to attract moderate Conservatives and independents (i.e. who identified themselves as neither Republican nor Democra) and hence no-one seriously expected him to be anointed the party’s nominee in a general elections.
The first stick to fall was Rudy. The reason? People just didn’t like him. One of the primary qualifications that a presidential nominee in the US has to possess is likability—he has to be someone the common man would want to have a beer with. That affability was one thing Giuliani had never possessed—-both as an ambitious public prosecutor and also as mayor of New York City where he was looked upon as arrogant, authoritative and self-serving. Had not 9/11 happened, he would have left the post of mayor as one of the most loathed politicians in the land. As he went around meeting people, it was evident that he was a one-trick pony unable to go beyond glorifying his own role during 9/11. And did I say he was quite unlikeable? I think I did.
Rudy’s early drop-out gave the McCain campaign a big boost as the independents and moderate Republicans, who were expected to support Giuliani, hitched themselves quickly to McCain.
However more than Giuliani, if there was one man McCain had to thank for his ultimate victory it would be ironically his rival Mike Huckabee.
First of all, Mike Huckabee ate into Mitt Romney’s ultra-conservative vote-bank, in the process severely denting his performance and giving the initiative to McCain. Secondly, Huckabee, as part of a conscious political strategy, almost never went after McCain, instead concentrating his firepower exclusively on Romney. So hands-off was Huckabee with respect to McCain that many felt he was trying to curry favour to be McCain’s vice presidential choice.
And then Mitt Romney made a tactical blunder. Fed up of having had his votebank eaten into, he went after McCain using a series of negative advertisements. Going negative on an opponent is a two-edged sword—-if done right, it can wound your enemy but if done wrong, it can lead to a tidal wave of public resentment directed at the attacker.
In case of Romney, he did it wrong.
For one, McCain wisely decided not to rise to Romney’s bait by counterattacking Romney in an equally ugly fashion. In a way he could afford not to—because Huckabee was going hammer and tongs at Romney in the debates, taking any of the ill-effects of negativity on himself while freeing McCain to take the high road. And most importantly, everytime McCain was attacked he would bring up as his shield, his status as a war-hero, someone who had endured torture and imprisonment from the Vietcong for years on end. And why was this relevant? Well to drive home the point that unlike Romney, who had spent his life serving his company and making money, he McCain had worked for the country.
The point was indisputable and Romney was forced to take the McCain punches on his face. A torn lip and bruised nose soon led him also to pull out from the race. Huckabee continued as McCain’s sole rival for some time but the nomination had already been sealed.
McCain had made a remarkable comeback. Of course, in order to get this far, McCain had to pander to the religious right—a section of the party he had never been comfortable with. He publicly accepted he was wrong to support the Immigration Bill. He stressed how even though he opposed the Bush tax cuts initially, he now supported their perpetuation. His stance on other issues of interest to social conservatives became more aligned with the party base so much so that many of McCain’s old supporters were disappointed at how much he had sold himself out to gain acceptance. And just to show that it wasn’t just hardcore Republicans he wanted to mend bridges with, he went out and apologized to African-Americans for opposing a national holiday for Martin Luther King in Arizona, whose senator he is.
Finally in a move that stunned one and all, McCain announced as his running mate one Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska, an unknown quantity who had never been heard of before on the national political scene. Possessing virtually no political experience and no apparent strength other than her radically right wing views, her “all-American” Hum Aapke Hain Kaunian family (of course Sooraj Barjatiya would not approve of the unmarried pregnant teenaged daughter of “abstinence education” champion Sarah Palin but you get the point), and her good looks (a sharp contrast to McCain’s “old gramophone” appeal ), Palin’s candidature was seen as McCain’s ultimate concession to the party base, the final sell-out of principle and policy in favor of cold-blooded populism, the last nail in the coffin of the old idealist McCain. Whether the new hardened-conservative image of McCain will fly with the party base however remains to be seen.
The Near Future
The polls call it even between the candidates at the time of writing. The introduction of Palin into the equation has been a master move as it has galvanized the Republican party base. Being a woman and a “hockey mom”, she is expected to peel off a section of the female moderate Democrat votebank, who are perceived to be angry that Hillary did not getting the nomination. Palin is also easy on the eyes, can bring in the crowds to the election rallies and has shown a gift for rabid demagoguery at the Republican Convention, a skill that the colorless McCain solely lacks.
She also serves as a pleasant diversion—her right-wing rhetoric and virulent attacks on her opponent keeps the conservative base engaged leaving John McCain to play to his old strengths —that is take a more conciliatory tone and pursue the more centrist and moderate Republicans, the undecided Independents and even moderate Democrats.
As to the Democrats, their principal strength is that after eight years in the wilderness and after the Bush years,they are hungry to get back to power. They have never, in the recent past, have had someone as charismatic and as media-friendly as Obama to lead them (think Gore and Kerry and you realize the difference). All this means that come election day, no Democrat is going to sit at home. They are going to be out there, making sure their candidate wins. Except of course those still smarting from Hillary’s defeat, for whom the most important thing is to see a woman in power,regardless of her political positions. Whether these people will be significant enough to be a game-changer remains to be seen. My opinion, like many others, would think not.
The eternal Desi question: Who will be better for India?
Very difficult to tell. Foreign policy with India is not a significant campaign issue for either candidate—in contrast to say foreign policy with China or with Israel. This is because China is the country the Americans are, rightfully, the most concerned about and Israel ,because of the strong Jewish diaspora in the US and their substantial campaign contributions, is always a top foreign policy priority for the American president. In contrast, the Indian NRIs are insignificant players in DC politics. This is why US’s interactions with India will be dictated mostly by the State department since there is unlikely to be any political-pressure-driven initiative from the president.
One thing: many Indians assume, based on history, that Democrats are, on principle, more friendly to India than Republicans. In the past, when India was economically weaker than it is now and it was perceived to be a beggarly third world country, the Democrats, the party of the “little guy”, had a natural empathy for it. Not any longer. Expect a Democratic administration to make more uncomfortable noises about the environment and green house emissions, trade practices and nuclear controls than the Republicans would.
Some would point to Senator Joe Biden’s remarks at the Democratic debate where he identified Pakistan as a more clear and present danger to the US, even more than Iran, as a sign that India may have a sympathetic ear in the White House. Those who do would do well to remember that it is the same Joe Biden who is behind giving Pakistan a $15 billion handout spread over the next 10 years, technically for “non-military” purposes . Yeah right ! We all know where that money will end up being siphoned off to.
If there has been any silver lining for India in the Obama-Biden ticket it has been Obama’s acceptance of the fact that US money for fighting the war on Taliban terror has been used to fight India. (” For example, we are providing them military aid without having enough strings attached. So they’re using the military aid that we use to Pakistan, they’re preparing for a war against India”). Of course I am absolutely convinced that this is simply political hot air to disparage the policies of the Republican administration and that the Democrats have no desire to fundamentally change US policy in Pakistan—a fact that is evidenced by Biden’s attempts to still keep on dangling carrots to get Pakistan to fight the war on terror. Of course Pakistan fighting terrorism is like a dog barking at its own tail, it’s not going to really do anything except bark. Of course everyone and their uncle knows this but yet the charade will continue—-regardless of whether the US elects a Republican or a Democrat president.