American Politics: Obama-Clinton Contest Affects the World

American Politics
Contest Between Obama And Clinton Affects The World

by Subroto Roy

First published in The Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article, http://www.thestatesman.net, March 11 2008

In 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War and protests about it, the Democratic Party Convention in Chicago was marked by bloodshed and rioting. The sitting (Democrat) President, Lyndon Johnson, had taken moral responsibility for the war and declined to run for re-election. His widely-respected Vice-President, Hubert Humphrey, was chosen in traditional “smoke-filled rooms” by party elders during the Convention. But the public had witnessed the Convention’s violence, and Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon. In the next election in 1972, Democrats banned party elders from any role and allowed the nominee to emerge solely from state-by-state primary elections. The result was the anti-war candidate George McGovern, who lost 49 out of 50 States to the incumbent Nixon.

Denver Convention

This year’s Democratic Party Convention in Denver in August may be the first to return to “smoke-filled rooms” (figuratively of course, given the absence of public smoking in modern America especially among “politically correct” Democrats). Almost 800 party elders, consisting of senators, congressional representatives, party functionaries etc, known as “superdelegates” may have to break the near dead heat tie among “primary delegates” who have committed to Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama after state-by-state elections.

It was not supposed to have been like this. A year ago Mrs Clinton had seemed an unstoppable favourite not only in the Democratic race but the overall Presidential race too, so much so that the incumbent Bush-Cheney Administration was dropping hints it would not mind seeing a new Clinton Administration taking over its foreign wars. (Mrs Clinton’s husband had become a friend of former President GHW Bush, President Bush’s father, in some relatively rare American nepotism at the top.)

Mrs Clinton had been so confident of being confirmed by now she spent her energy trying to show herself one of the boys, who could be Commander-in-Chief of the world’s largest military and who had voted in favour of Bush’s Iraq war. The idea seemed to be she would show herself just as tough as the Republicans and yet because she was female she would win in November 2008 by reminding women of her gender. Her support among middle-aged white women has remained solid and seems unshakeable but her strategy of being the presumptive anointed “pseudo-incumbent” has failed.

Mr Obama, attracting younger better-educated Democrats as well as the crucial set of cross-party independents and floating Republicans, besides African-Americans like himself, has taken ground Mrs Clinton left undefended; she has been painted by him as Republican-Lite, the archetypal Washington-insider, and a war-monger. Mrs Clinton has indeed recorded the largest contributions of any candidate from America’s “military industrial complex” of weapons’ manufacturers.

Mr Obama went into the recent Ohio and Texas primaries having narrowed large leads against him, and though he lost both has retained a lead in the delegate count. Last weekend he won Wyoming and is likely to win Mississippi — states normally remote in the political landscape but which have acquired significance to “momentum” now. It is expected that even after the major state Pennsylvania votes next month (likely in favour of Mrs Clinton) the contest will not end. A joint ticket could become unstoppable and has been hinted at by the Clintons. But Mr Obama has no reason to be an understudy because if he is not himself the Presidential candidate, it may be better to wait for the 2012 contest than be brushed by the Clinton negatives.

Republicans have surprisingly quickly agreed upon Arizona’s elderly senator John McCain as their candidate out of a raucous field. The single anti-war Republican candidate, Ron Paul, fizzled out. Mr McCain, like his main rivals Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, has been overtly jingoistic, strongly backed the Bush wars and has identified “radical Islamic extremism” as an American enemy. Mr McCain was a POW of the North Vietnamese decades ago and underwent torture, something he has not let anyone forget. His remark that America under him may fight “100 years” in Middle East wars, as well as President Bush’s endorsement of him, may put off a country that has been turning against war and is increasingly anxious about macroeconomics and international trade again.

Mr McCain may have to wait to see who emerges from among the Democrats before he announces his Vice-Presidential running-mate. Usual “ticket-balancing” considerations point to a young conservative or a senior woman or black political figure for obvious reasons.

Thus the Democratic Party leadership now unexpectedly finds itself in a crucial role in the next weeks and months. A raucous divisive Convention in August on the 1968 pattern will leave the Republicans gloating. Current controversy has to do with Michigan and Florida; both held unauthorized primaries ahead of time and were punished by the leadership in not being recognized. Mrs Clinton and Mr Obama both agreed not to campaign there. Will Michigan and Florida “delegates” be recognized and “seated” in Denver? Should they be split equally between the two candidates? Should there be a “do-over” primary via the mail in each now that the race has become heated, and if so, who will pay for it?

The crucial question for the Democratic Party is to decide who may defeat Mr McCain. Mr Obama’s youth, race and Muslim middle name Hussein, will undoubtedly be used by the Republicans to attack him. Mrs Clinton carries a lot of baggage from her husband’s time: there was an unpleasant air of sleaze and mendacity during the entire eight years of Bill’s rule in Washington DC and voters will be wary to allow a re-run of the same. (The 22nd Constitutional Amendment forbids more than eight years for any President, and the idea is novel and untested that a First Lady can run on her own to get around that.)

Israel policy
Mrs Clinton’s foreign and military policy will be quite close to Mr McCain’s in its aggressiveness. Mr Obama opposed the Iraq war and is certain to keep playing that trump-card against both. Mr Obama’s foreign policy “weakness” has to do with being perceived by the pro-Israeli lobby as not hardline enough. He has said clearly he is pro-Israel and strongly so and that he found Israel’s own debate “much more open” than the American one. Mrs Clinton and Mr McCain both pass the “Likud test” with flying colours; Mr Obama’s statement that being pro-Israel is not identical with being “pro-Likud” may mean he does not.

The Democratic Party will have to figure out in its decision between Mrs Clinton and Mr Obama where America’s voters in November 2008 are swinging on the issue of fighting aggressive wars. The other vital issue will be protectionism in international trade ~ some “superdelegates” have already started to demand pledges about trade-policies to “save American jobs”. The world will be affected by who wins between Mrs Clinton and Mr Obama along two important dimensions, viz., whether America will be more likely as a result to (a) launch new wars; (b) become more protectionist in trade.


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