Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Has Protracted Democrat Contest Harmed or Benefited their Chances?

As the competition between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton continues with the latter pulling back after Pennsylvania and with no sign of either conceding, you have to wonder whether this contest which has dragged on for months is wrecking any chance for the Democrats when it comes to the Presidential election in November. People said that John McCain becoming the clear Republican nominee early on, back in March, that he would be able to get his campaign for the Presidential election rolling. It maybe because I am seeing all of this refracted through the UK media and an aged Republican is not that interesting to write about, certainly not in contrast to the people who might be the first black or first woman President of the USA. I imagine McCain is campaigning, but that element is not getting over here. I pick up US news sites (it is difficult to interact with Windows and/or MSN and not do so) and McCain certainly is not jumping out of the headlines on those sites either. So, there may be a counter-factor, for all the seeming divisiveness of the Democrat contest and it becoming increasingly unpleasant between the two candidates, it is keeping the party in the news. In addition, issues are being discussed again and again and Democrats are turning out to become involved. People often think elections are about winning floating voters, but often they are also about making sure your ordinary supporters are not complacent or disillusioned and actually turn out to vote. Of course with the electoral college system you can have an excellent turn out in Oklahoma or West Virginia or Oregon and it count very little. You can win the overall popular vote and yet still lose as it is filtered through the state system and you can have irregularities as seen in 2000 which can also snatch away victory.

Whether the American population just gets weary of the election because of the Democrat contest is another issue. All their enthusiasm may fade due to an apparent over-dose of politics. The British population has very little interest in politics bar the end product. Most see no connection between who they vote for and the taxes they pay or the services they receive and simply blame it 'on the government'. From the British perspective the US public appear to be much the same. Wars are always difficult to deal with. Generally people like wars, but they do not like the cost or the casualties. By now all the shine has gone off the war in Iraq, but interestingly yesterday Clinton was obliged to say that if Iran developed nuclear weapons and attacked Israel she would 'obliterate' Iran. People are always far more interested in the next potential war than the current one. The tension in US politics is that Democrats are not keen on a big military but want to intervene globally. The Republicans want a big military but they do not want to be taxed to pay for it or to have it used anywhere overseas. In an age of 'police actions' and 'regime change', you have to have, as Bush has found out, both - a big military and to use it overseas and for a long period of time. I imagine Bush never expected to still have troops in Afghanistan or Iraq at the end of his period of office. Clinton has said openly that she wants to bring all US troops home and bemoans that some have been on two or more tours of duty, as if a war should only last one tour of duty and no more. Yet, she is very bullish about opposing Iran; Obama can do nothing but say the same things because room for manoeuvre in US politics is very narrow and by being who they are Obama and Clinton are already pushing at the boundaries.

In 1991 Francis Fujiyama famously said that we were at the end of history because the Cold War was over. In fact we were at the end of a phase of history, the 'short' 20th century, as Eric Hobsbawm titled it the 'Age of Extremes'. In itself it had characteristics of the previous phase the 'Age of Empires' in the growth of the continental empires - Russia and America and to an extent China and both over China and interacting with parts of the world in a similar way to the 19th century, competing with the Europeans, pushing influence into Africa, Asia and Central & South America. That phase seemed to be driven by ideologies, but as in the 19th century it was really about power and resources. In this new phase the superficial pattern has shifted away from Cold War rhetoric but the world picture is little different from the 19th and 20th centuries. Current conflicts are over control of oil. The increase of the use of biofuels is about what they called in the 1960s oil security as areas where oil is available seem often to be unstable and shake off the control of the Powers. Biofuel can be grown in most places so freeing states of that difficult dependency. Yet growth of them in larger quantities and the rise in oil prices is sending food prices spiralling, not benefiting poor countries because though they may produce focus on a few cash crops means they have to import increasingly expensive food. No doubt supplier and consumer countries will try to tie up connections to secure prices and supplies, so have we really moved on from imperialism? China is currently the most active colonial power, seemingly going out of its way to link up with the pariah dictatorship states, notably Sudan and Zimbabwe, but the USA with its involvement in different states is not far behind.

The US public tends to be most concerned about domestic issues except when their sons and daughters are serving overseas, but as all countries are finding you cannot divorce the two. Just as who you vote for impinges on your taxes, foreign affairs influence what you pay at the supermarket or petrol pump at home. It is into this world that McCain, Obama or Clinton will be elected. Yet, despite all their abilities, I think that in fact because of the limits on what the American public will accept as policy, they have little choice but to stick to the line Bush has been pursuing. The only difference may be that when a terrorist attack hits the USA in the future you will not see the President sitting in a classroom for 30 minutes, blinking and not speaking like some robot whose batteries are running flat or the proverbial rabbit caught by the car's headlights.

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