April Issue 2007
The Race for the White House
Lookin’ for a leader
To bring our country home
Reunite the red, white and blue
Before it turns to stone…
Walkin’ among our people
There’s someone who’s straight and strong
To lead us from desolation
And a broken world gone wrong
Someone walks among us
And I hope he hears the call
And maybe it’s a woman
Or a black man after all...
Neil Young echoed the evolving national zeitgeist when he sang these verses on his pithily polemical Living With War album a year ago, and one would like to think that the extraordinarily early start in the race for the US presidency is a reflection of the growing popular desire to consign George W. Bush to history. Unfortunately, that’s largely wishful thinking: the desire undoubtedly exists, but it’s only a small part of the story. Besides, the White House probably welcomes the distraction provided by in-depth campaign coverage in the media, because this means its continuing failures in Iraq and uneven relations with Capitol Hill are somewhat less likely to invite scrutiny.
Nor is this a sudden phenomenon: rather, it’s the logical next step in a trend that has been developing for decades. It is nonetheless intriguing to consider that John F. Kennedy announced his candidacy in January 1960 and was elected president eleven months later. The likes of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, by contrast, declared their intention of seeking the Democratic nomination nearly a year before the first of the caucuses and primaries that play a role in picking the party’s candidate, and close to two years before Bush would finally bow out. Contenders on the Republican side haven’t exactly been twiddling their thumbs either. Should this tendency continue to evolve along the same lines, within a couple of decades the political process will reach a stage where the conclusion of a presidential contest more or less coincides with the commencement of the next campaign.
It could be argued that this is symptomatic of a robust democracy. But dismal levels of voter participation would belie such a contention. Once the two main parties have anointed their respective candidates, both sides start devoting a great deal of attention to voter turnout. This does not only involve mobilising the party faithful; it can also include surreptitious efforts to deter or disqualify sections of society deemed likely to vote for your opponents. The Republican administration of Florida employed this tactic at a fairly blatant level in the 2000 presidential election; it not only incurred no penalties but was rewarded with success, with a little help from the US Supreme Court.
It is not just the time span of campaigns that has steadily been expanding, so has the cost. The size of a candidate’s war chest has long been directly proportionate to his chances of success. And each successive election ups the ante as far as cash is concerned. Not surprisingly, the big donors are restricted to a small part of the population. Many of them are willing to contribute to the coffers of both parties (so that favours can be called in regardless of who wins; as The Guardian’s Gary Younge put it last month, “Money buys access; access begets influence. It is as close to a textbook definition of corruption as you can get — but it’s still legal”), but they have finite resources at their disposal for such purposes. Therefore, candidates who take the plunge earlier generally stand a better chance of attracting corporate largesse.
That is a powerful incentive, given that a sufficient stock of dollars and cents is indispensable for candidates. It may not always be the richest candidate who wins, but the relatively deprived ones never stand a chance. The 2008 extravaganza is expected to be the first billion-dollar election in US history. In view of that prospect, its epic proportions are perhaps not surprising. And, as in any given Hollywood blockbuster, a great deal of attention is being paid to star power.
Clinton is, of course, the undisputed leading lady. Her presidential aspirations have been commented upon ever since she succeeded in winning election as a senator from New York, although she was loath to publicly acknowledge them for many years. She is backed by a formidable political machine on account of her eight years in the White House as first lady. Her vaulting ambition has never been in doubt, but she lacks the warmth that makes her husband personable, and she has consistently been dogged by a reputation for ruthlessness. Recently, after hosting a fundraiser for Obama, Hollywood tycoon and former Clinton supporter David Geffen described her as “incredibly polarising.” Everyone in politics deals in lies, he told the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, but the Clintons “do it with such ease, it’s troubling.”
Over the past few years it has been easy to forget the succession of untruths that flowed from the White House when Bill Clinton lived there because the lies of the Clinton administration were fairly harmless in comparison with the deadly falsehoods that became the norm once Bush and his coterie moved to Pennsylvania Avenue. Americans should nonetheless be grateful to Geffen for his timely reminder.
Should Hillary Clinton clinch the Democratic nomination next year, she will become the first woman in US history to be chosen as a leading party’s presidential candidate. In a generic sense, that would be a healthy sign: female politicians remain a rarity in American politics. It does not, however, necessarily follow that her elevation to the presidency would be a positive development.
As things stand at the moment, Clinton’s failure to win her party’s endorsement may well mean that fortune continues to smile upon Obama, the freshman senator from Illinois, who happens to be black. It is less than three years ago that Obama first made an impression at the national level when he addressed the Democratic national convention in August 2004, distinguishing himself from the average party apparatchik with his eloquence and his passion. “If there is a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child,” he said at the time. “If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for their prescription drugs and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandparent. If there’s an Arab-American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties.”
If John Kerry had expressed himself in comparable terms at that gathering as well as subsequently, he could have made life a lot harder for Bush. Anyhow, Obama’s star appeal was immediately evident, and his suitability as a future presidential candidate was mentioned by many an analyst. Hardly anyone considered him a serious prospect for 2008, however. Obama is banking on his relative freshness (he is only 46) and his outsider status to make an impact, so far with considerable success. And in his case, one of the advantages of plunging in early has been that at least some of the controversies that could have damaged him have already been brushed aside; they may well resurface, especially if the Democrats are bold enough to crown him at next year’s convention, but may not attract too much mainstream interest the second time around.
Right-wing commentators predictably made much of Obama’s name — not only its proximity to “Osama,” but also that his middle name (which he doesn’t use) happens to be Hussein. Obama’s father was a Kenyan Muslim, and for a time he had an Indonesian stepfather. Both of them were apparently secular, but a small section of the American commentariat made much of the fact that the young Barack briefly went to school in Jakarta, which some of them described as a madrassah. Obama’s mother was white and an atheist. He is, on the face of it, a church-going Christian. The Washington Post, castigating his critics as an embarrassment, noted: “Mr Obama’s multicultural background … ought to be viewed as a plus. A president with an understanding of Islam and the developing world would be welcomed by those who too often feel misunderstood and slighted by the United States.”
Another equally facile controversy erupted over whether Obama is “black enough” to be considered a bona fide African-American. It didn’t last very long, as the senator’s defenders pointed out that it was hardly possible, in a literal sense, to be more African-American than Obama. Of course, a crucial part of his appeal as a candidate lies in the fact that he does not spook most whites, which makes him more electable than Jesse Jackson was in 1984. And, subconsciously or otherwise, one of the reasons he is viewed as acceptable by the mainstream is precisely because his forebears weren’t slaves on southern plantations. Furthermore, his formidable skills as an orator owe hardly anything to the powerful rhetorical style of preachers such as Jackson and his mentor, Martin Luther King Jr. In view of the foregoing, it is not altogether surprising that Obama has had to work hard at weaning African-American support away from the Clinton camp, with some success.
Obama is by far the most interesting personality to have emerged thus far in the context of the prematurely launched presidential race, and for him to make it to the White House would be a historical feat — although it would be folly to assume that he would try to pursue a radical agenda from that vantage point. He is a slick operator who has learnt how to garner acceptability among various sections of society. I would be mightily surprised if he succeeds this time around (a vice-presidential perch seems like a more viable option, although Clinton would prefer a less outstanding deputy), but it would be folly to write him off. And, unless he exits in the context of some stupendous scandal, he will almost certainly be back.
Other known quantities on the Democratic side of the fence include former senator John Edwards, who was Kerry’s running mate in 2004, and Senator Joe Biden, who shot himself in the foot earlier this year by condescendingly describing Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”
On the Republican side, Rudy Giuliani, who garnered nationwide admiration for rising to the occasion in his capacity as the mayor of New York City in the wake of 9/11, tends to be viewed as more electable than veteran candidate Senator John McCain — who, if elected, would be older than Ronald Reagan was when he beat Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Another problem for McCain is that he is among the most passionate supporters of Bush’s military “surge” in Iraq, which does not stand him in particularly good stead with an electorate increasingly disposed towards regarding events in that country an unmitigated fiasco. (In contrast, McCain’s good friend and fellow Vietnam veteran Senator Chuck Hagel is among the most vocal Republican opponents of the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq.)
All indications suggest that the ongoing war will figure as the single most important issue in next year’s election. The situation would appear to favour the Democrats, as it did in last year’s congressional elections. The problem is that most of them voted to authorise the aggression. Some, like Edwards, have apologised for their folly. Others, including Hillary Clinton, haven’t done so. Her ambiguity, and her statement late last month that she would leave a substantial number of troops in Iraq to defend American interests and to “fight terrorism,” provide cause for concern.
Obama has an advantage in this context, in that he wasn’t in the US Senate when it voted to allow Bush to have his way; at the same time, he opposed the war from the outset, despite suggesting in the odd interview that he might have acted differently if he had access to the sort of intelligence circulated on Capitol Hill. Earlier this year, he received a mighty fillip from an unexpected source: reacting to Obama’s call for a US withdrawal from Iraq by March 2008, Australia’s dangerously delusional prime minister, John Howard — who takes pride in being more loyal than the king as far as the Bush administration is concerned — declared: “If I were running Al-Qaeda in Iraq, I would put a circle around March 2008 and be praying … for a victory not only for Obama but also for the Democrats.” Some observers suspected a racist undercurrent in this extraordinary intervention in US politics, but the American backlash was quite interesting: even commentators who never agree with anything Obama says turned around and effectively told Howard to shut up and mind his own business.
Howard faces an election later this year, and there is a chance he will at long last be bundled out of power long before the Americans even pick their candidates. Under Howard, politicians have been picking up pointers from the US, and Australians occasionally get the impression that they live in the 51st state. But they enjoy one formidable advantage over Americans: election campaigns in Australia seldom last more than a few weeks. And, furthermore, all citizens aged 18 and above are obliged to vote. The result is considerably less fuss and a little more democracy.
Mahir Ali is an Australia-based journalist. He writes regularly for several Pakistani publications, including Newsline.