Prof. B. Ramesh Babu is our regular columnist on “Foreign Relations in the 21st Century”. While in the US on a personal visit in May-June this year, he was closely following the “race”.
“Politics is the gentle art of getting votes from the poor and campaign funds from the rich by promising to protect each from the other.” – Oscar Amringer
“How do you distinguish elections in India and America?” was the most frequent question my students across the US asked over the decades. I responded by saying: “In India the candidates stand for election. In the US they run for office.” In an American election, if you merely stand, you stand no chance! However, if you run very hard, you may be the lucky one.” Things have speeded up in India over time and Modi’s spectacular win is a living illustration of the transformation of the electoral scene in the country.
Invariably, the pace is the essence of the race in the US since long. Often a candidate’s body language and style seem to matter more than substance. The policy alternatives spelled out by the contestants (some of them do) do not receive the scrutiny they deserve. On this score the presidential election of 2016 may turn out to be different because “income inequality” has become the key electoral issue for the first time in American history. Naturally, the ways and means of dealing with the economic and social challenge advocated by the rival candidates will gain importance as the race gathers momentum. Let us hope so.
While it is too early in the race to predict, Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush may finally emerge as the leading contestants of the two major parties. The two are most familiar names and they symbolize two different and contending national philosophies and legacies on the role of government in the life of the nation.
The four latest rulings of the Supreme Court (legalizing gay marriages; upholding the Affordable Care Act a second time; banning the Confederate flag; and declaring ‘indirect’ racial discrimination in housing as illegal), in effect, moved the “mainstream” of national politics further to the left of centre. These key decisions once again demonstrated that the Supreme Court moves in step with the popular will, sooner or later. However, the new political/ideological dispensation may pose an extra challenge to the Republican side, which is already overcrowded with unprecedented number of declared and undeclared candidates of different degrees of credibility. Much will depend on who makes the least errors, who takes the lead in the early State primaries and caucuses, the major challenges facing the nation at home and abroad between now and July/August next year, and how the leading contenders offer to deal with them.
The race to the presidency in the US essentially goes through three stages: primaries and conventions of the two parties in the various States, their national conventions; and the national elections. Then, there is a peculiar American twist, which stipulates that the winning candidate must get at least 270 seats in the Electoral College, an archaic but a constitutionally mandated intermediary institution. Usually the candidates that poll a clear majority of the popular vote also win in the Electoral College. But, there have been a few cases to the contrary and the outcome of a recent election ended in the lap of the Supreme Court. However, this unlikely eventuality need not distract our analysis of the 2016 presidential elections.
The sluggish economy and foreign policy reversals in the Middle East and elsewhere are the obvious perennials. The future of the Affordable Care Act; and same sex marriages are now settled by the Supreme Court. Racism, gun control, undocumented immigrants are the top electoral issues now. Immigration is intertwined with jobs and economic growth, many instances of police killing unarmed young blacks and the “hate” murder of innocent blacks in the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, by a white ‘racist’ youth triggered a new wave of black civil rights activism across the nation. It is high time that the second wave of transformations sweeps the vast land.
Climate change and poverty are among the other major electoral issues. Pope Francis’s encyclical envisioning science and faith as partners in a communal quest to protect the vulnerable from the rampant profit motive and exploitation of the Earth is an epic challenge to some American values. The NSA’s spying scam and the cyber hacking of the Department of Personnel and Management’s data on the federal government employees transformed the issues of citizens’ rights and nation’s security into urgent challenges confronting the nation today.
It will be interesting to see how the candidates supported by powerful rightwing religious groups will meet the new challenge. How far the liberals will go against the entrenched capitalist credo will also be worthy to watch. As the election gathers momentum how the complex mix of issues and personalities mesh and sour is anybody’s guess. And that is what is most fascinating about American elections, which seem like fast paced chaos to casual observers from outside.
Contestants and Aspirants
The 2016 campaign for the presidency is called an open race because the sitting President is not in the contest. On the Democratic side Hillary Clinton is leading by a mile. Senator Bernie Sanders (an independent form Vermont), the brave and well known socialist, is gaining traction with the passage of time. The other credible contender is the former Governor of Maryland O’Malley, who is canvassing on a more populist plank than his established reputation. Both of them are positioning themselves to the left of Hillary Clinton, which in effect could make her the more acceptable to the majority of the Democratic Party. A fourth candidate has entered the fray on the Democratic side. But, it is not likely to alter the likely outcome of the contestation.
On the Republican side, the scene is overcrowded and confused. The latest count shows that 16 candidates are in the race. But, soon many of them will fade away. Ideologically, they range all the way from the extreme rightwing to the more moderate position in the party. Governor Jeb Bush of Florida, son and brother of two former Presidents, carries the most familiar family name. Consequently, he leads the pack, though his position as of now is not as strong as that of Hillary Clinton on the other side. Among the more credible candidates, the following may be mentioned: Senators Marco Rubio (Florida), and Ted Cruz (Texas), Governors Chris Christie (New Jersey), Scott Walker (Wisconsin), John R. Kasich (Ohio), and the famous billionaire Donald Trump from New York City. At present, Trump is making waves and also the most outrageous statements, which will undo his bid. Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana deserves to be added to the long list of several others in the arena.
For the first time in American history, income inequality or the widening gap between the top and the bottom of the society has emerged as the universally accepted electoral issue. As a long time observer of the American scene, I recall the eloquent words of the former Senator John Edwards in 2004. He spoke passionately about the “two different Americas” in the country – the first consisting of those who lived the American Dream and the second inhabited by those who struggle to make ends meet every single day. Now almost all candidates are constrained to refer to the widening gap between the two Americas and the need to bridge it. To be dubbed a liberal is no more a political or an electoral handicap in America.
Hillary Clinton is running on an economic agenda that is most likely to be more liberal and populist than that of Edwards as the campaign moves into high gear. Self declared socialist Senator Sanders is most vocal and consistent on championing the liberal agenda. Even Jeb Bush agrees that “the opportunity gap is the defining issue of our time.” He avers that “the American dream has become a mirage for far too many” and that many Americans see only a small portion of the population riding the up escalator of the national economy.
Liberals as well as the conservatives agree on the primacy of the contemporary challenge confronting the nation. However, the differences on how to deal with it and what is the proper role of the Government in the country are as wide as ever and run along predictable legacies of the two parties. Hillary Clinton declared that the nation’s economy should work for all and not just for the most privileged. Her declared goals are in tune with the liberal policies of President Obama. She envisages a leading role for the government in achieving them. She had no hesitation in characterizing the hate killings in the Charleston church as an “act of racist terrorism.” By way of contrast, most of the Republican leaders stumbled and mumbled when asked to respond to the shooting. Ted Cruz declared that in Texas “gun control” stands for hitting the target! An unbelievably tasteless joke when the nation was mourning a shameful tragedy.
Jeb Bush saw no reason why “we can’t achieve 4 per cent growth.” But when asked how it could be achieved, he mentioned paring away regulations, reforming the tax code, developing more traditional energy sources, tackling fiscal structural problems, and training to produce a more skilled work force, and so on.
All the GOP candidates are long on the rhetoric and declared that the nation’s economy was in shambles. They are equally vigorous in rubbishing President Obama on the foreign policy front, especially in the Middle East. However, none of them has come up with any coherent and meaningful alternative set of policies on the economic front or in the foreign policy arena. Narrow partisan conflict between the Congress and the President reached the highest levels during the last six years. On the whole, I will blame the right wing Republican leadership more than the President on this score. Issues of racism, gun control, and immigration that have come to the fore during the recent years are testament to the narrow minded partisanship of the GOP leadership, which did not and could not reconcile to Obama’s victory in 2008 and more so to his re-election in 2012.
Reflections on the Race Underway
From the 1890s the US has been going through a thirty year cycle of leftward lurch followed by conservative consolidation. The Progressive Era of the 1890s, the New Deal, the Great Society and the Civil Rights movement of 1960s, etc. should be seen in that light. Unless the GOP’s leadership accepts the current leftward lurch led by the ‘millennials’ (i.e. the generation born after 1980) gracefully and focuses attention on the economy and national security, the party has not much of a chance in the presidential race of 2016. Otherwise Hillary’s victory will mark yet another great breakthrough in the history of the nation – crossing the gender barrier to the White House.
If I were an American citizen, I would vote for her because she is in swing with the liberal thrust in the thirty year cycle of the nation’s history.
PROF. B. RAMESH BABU is a specialist in International Relations, American Politics and Foreign Policy. He is the Scholar in Residence, Foundation for Democratic Reforms, Hyderabad. Formerly, he was Sir Pherozeshah Mehta Professor and Head of the Department of Civics and Politics, University of Mumbai. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org