Thursday January 10, 2008
Change, the popular message and the difficult choice
By BUNN NAGARA
THE only common promise offered in the campaign rhetoric of US presidential hopefuls is change. But if this is to be more than policy loose change, it must effectively mean regime change in Washington.
President George W. Bush is not eligible for re-election, but his fellow neo-conservatives hope to remain influential. However, policy failures have so disillusioned the US public that the neo-con brand is no longer saleable on the ballot.
Republican presidential candidates other than Rudy Giuliani want to distance themselves from the neo-cons. Democrats seek even more change in front-runners Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who would respectively be the first female and first African American nominated candidate for the presidency.
If there seems to be greater fascination for the race to become the Democratic Party’s candidate in the current primaries, it is because that candidate is favoured to win the presidency. Republicans are less fancied thanks to seven years of Bush’s mismanagement.
The obvious question is whether the US status quo is ready for a female or African American president. The Hillary and Obama camps say that is not a problem, but the reality of taking on such change, though largely symbolic, remains to be proven come November’s election.
US politics is likened to a pendulum swing from one “end” to the other, such as that from progressive liberal Jimmy Carter to arch-conservative Ronald Reagan. This time, the swing of the pendulum or baseball bat after Bush and his neo-conservative cohorts could send the ball right out of the ballpark by producing a female or black president.
Inevitably, both Hillary and Obama face the question of electability. While each may have strong home support among Democrats, who are liberal, the real challenge comes in facing a more “standard issue” Republican candidate in the face of the entire national electorate.
Both Hillary and Obama claim to be the most electable Democrat against a Republican rival. But Obama’s claim to be the strongest Democrat is backed by Gallup and Zogby polls last month.
Obama’s strength lies partly in his ability to draw votes from Republican and independent supporters, and partly in his new, yet-unsullied arrival in the Senate. In contrast, the Clinton name reminds some people of the Bill Clinton presidency’s financial and sex scandals.
That has meant perceived strengths or “natural constituencies” cannot be taken for granted, such as Hillary’s White House “experience” that she cited until Iowa. More women opted for Obama than for Hillary there, while many African Americans reportedly support Hillary over Obama generally.
The reasons include the close ties Bill Clinton had with the African American community, and the discomfort some voters have with Hillary personally. Obama’s own stature and strategy transcending race-based politics also contribute to the unorthodox situation.
Then after Obama led Hillary in the early hours of New Hampshire voting on Tuesday, Hillary beat him with more female supporters. Both remain leading Democratic prospects in a fluid situation that is good for pundits and democracy, but hard on candidates and campaign workers.
However, despite the ostensibly major change that a female or African American president may signify, the question of policy change remains. Once a new president is ensconced in power, policy inertia has a way of numbing the most ambitious of reformist plans.
By then, campaign promises are a thing of the past until re-election time, if at all. The way a newly elected Democratic Congress reneged on its promise to end the Iraq war is a case in point.
After Bill Clinton succeeded George Bush I in the White House, he continued his Republican predecessor’s bombing of Iraq. After George Bush II promised the nation a humbler foreign policy, he offered quite the opposite.
Hillary has managed to be eloquently ambivalent on the Iraq war, and Obama on Saturday repeated controversial comments about invading Pakistan. As they approach the seat of power, realpolitik has already approached them.