Primary colours

Published : Feb 15, 2008 00:00 IST

THE OTHER DEMOCRATIC ticket hopeful Barack Obama at a primary election rally in Nashua, New Hampshire, on January 8. Obama lost the New Hampshire vote to Hillary Clinton. - MICHAL CZERWONKA/AFP

THE OTHER DEMOCRATIC ticket hopeful Barack Obama at a primary election rally in Nashua, New Hampshire, on January 8. Obama lost the New Hampshire vote to Hillary Clinton. - MICHAL CZERWONKA/AFP

The American people seem dispirited by the macho politics of the Bush team and appear to want a softer, more genial tone.

THE last time a major political party in the U.S. disappeared was in 1856. The Whig Party closed shop when it broke its back on the North-South convulsion over slavery. Northern Whigs, such as Abraham Lincoln, left to take charge of the largely anti-slavery Republican Party. From the 1860 elections onwards, the contest was between two parties, the Republicans and the Democrats. Third-party challenges have come and gone, but they have made almost no impact on the elections. Even former President Teddy Roosevelt could not make a comeback in 1912 on the progressive line. George Wallace in 1968 and Ross Perot in 1992 dug into the totals of both parties, but neither played a decisive role in creating a third-party formation that outlived the enthusiasm of a particular election.

Not for nothing then did consumer activist Ralph Nader begin his presidential run in 2000 by comparing the U.S. political scene to economic theory. In world economics, a duopoly is a kind of restricted situation where only two producers dominate a market. Nader argued that the Republicans and the Democrats were just like two giant leeches that devoured all the blood in the U.S. political system. At his largest rally in New York Citys Madison Square Garden, Green Party candidate Nader said, Tweedledee and Tweedledum [the two parties] look and act the same, so it doesnt matter which you get. On trade issues, this is certainly the case, and in the aftermath of the anti-World Trade Organisation protests in Seattle and with eight years of Bill Clintons free market agenda, Naders views resonated with a large swathe of the younger, more progressive voters. But even then Nader only won 2.74 per cent of the popular vote, far below the 18 per cent won by billionaire Ross Perot in 1992.

As the primary season unfolds in the U.S., one is reminded both of the accuracy of Naders assessment and the sense of futility in all third-party challenges. The Democrats won the midterm Congressional elections in 2006 largely on the strength of the wide-spread anger and disappointment with the administration of President George W. Bush, whose approval rate has been below 30 per cent for almost two years. Bush was re-elected in 2004, a year after the U.S-led invasion of Iraq.

But two years later, when the enormity of the disaster was apparent to the population, it was hard for the Republicans to ask the voters for their trust. The Democrats capitalised on this malaise and won an unexpected mandate (the politics of fear, it was believed, would send the voters to line up behind the macho policies of the Republicans). In the almost two years since the Democrats took charge of the U.S. Congress, they have not been able to cut off funding for the occupation of Iraq, largely because they are unwilling to risk a showdown with the White House, even as the majority of Americans continue to support an immediate withdrawal. Outflanked by the Bush surge policy, the Democrats have taken refuge in the view that they have to be responsible about Iraq rather than support an impetuous departure.

On economic issues, the Democrats continue to fight for some support for the working people, some kind of a stimulus packet on the demand side for the U.S. worker, while the Republicans are keener to cut taxes and produce a supply-side solution. Apart from this difference, both parties are deeply committed to deregulation of industries and financial markets and to the primacy of U.S. corporations on the world stage. Despite their tough talk of standing for the hardscrabble Americans, the Democrats are as likely as the Republicans to take their orders from Wall Street.

Senator Hillary Clinton,

The fact that the people want disengagement from Iraq should turn them away from the two parties that are unable to deliver on this basic demand. But where should they turn to? The Green Party this year is set to nominate former Democratic Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney as its candidate. Nader seems unlikely to run for office. McKinney is a charismatic African-American woman who is committed to what she calls an illegal, immoral war on Iraq and to the scale-back of the U.S. war machine in general. She is a member of the Brussels Tribunal on Iraq. But it is a surprise even to most progressives when they are told that she is running for President.

All eyes are on the primaries for the Republican and Democratic candidates. Everyone knows that the third party might make a show of things, but it will neither affect the outcome of the election nor drive the creation of a mass movement. The Green Party, already split into two, stands as a moral challenge and not a political one. All eyes, therefore, were on Iowa, then New Hampshire, then Michigan, Nevada, South Carolina and onwards. Things are in a state of flux. Neither party has been able to produce an obvious candidate for the November presidential election. The Republicans are more in trouble. For the past 30 years, the Republican Party has been a coalition of three elements: the anti-tax faction (the Club of Growth and Americans for Tax Reform), the theoconservatives (the anti-abortion people and the evangelicals, that is, the religious Right) and the neoconservatives (the foreign policy hawks).

None of the credible candidates from the Republican side will be able to draw this coalition together. A lapsed Roman Catholic who has been married three times (Rudy Guiliani) and a Mormon (Mitt Romney) are the least appealing to the theoconservatives, who tend to favour the evangelical pastor Mike Huckabee. But Huckabee is opposed by both the anti-tax faction (he raised taxes as the Governor of Arkansas) and by the neoconservatives (he criticised the Bush team for having an arrogant bunker mentality). Huckabees folksy anti-corporate chatter dismays the Club of Growth although his religious language alienates him from those who might like to hear him preach against corporate greed. John McCain, who is Bushs great defender in the U.S. Senate, is weighed down by his closeness to an unpopular president his signature straight talk seems compromised by his loyalty.

Whoever breaks free from the pack will have a hard time uniting the various Republican sections, so much so that some theoconservatives have even threatened to run third-party races if Romney takes the nomination. It is unlikely that the Republicans will prevail in the November general elections. What might unite the Republicans is the Democratic candidacy of Hillary Clinton. She is universally hated by all three sections of the Republican base.

Hillary Clinton, the presumptive nominee, with the entire Democratic Party machine behind her, faces a surprising challenge from Illinois Senator Barack Obama. On issues, there is little that distinguishes Hillary Clinton from Obama. Both are centrists, which has come to mean people who speak to the Left but govern to the Right. But, in many ways, Obamas candidacy is neither about programmes nor about policy. It is about the person, and what he represents. There is his remarkable message of unity and hope, which is a challenge to the culture of fear promoted by the Bush administration since 9/11 (here, the author was Dick Cheney who terrified the country with his hyperbole). Obamas audacity is not what he proposes to do but in how he reaches out to people and asks them to feel that they can make a difference in the world and not just lock their doors and go shopping, which was Bushs suggestion to the people in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

Green Party leader

The closing moments of Obamas concession speech in New Hampshire touched the hearts of even the most cynical: It was the call of workers who organised; women who reached for the ballot; a President who chose the moon as our new frontier; and a King who took us to the mountain top and pointed the way to the Promised Land. Yes we can to justice and equality. Yes we can to opportunity and prosperity. Yes we can heal this nation. Yes we can repair this world. Yes we can.

That Obama lost in New Hampshire is not of significance, nor would it matter if he did not win the primaries. What is important is that his run brought in a record number of people to vote; it continues to galvanise people to get involved in the process. But not any process: they flock to the Democratic primaries and turn a deaf ear to any third-party moves. Obamas campaign book is called The Audacity of Hope. In the title itself is the limitation of this campaign. Obama and Hillary Clinton pose a challenge to the culture of fear. To hope itself is audacious in this scenario.

The U.S. population seems dispirited by the macho politics of the Bush team and seems to want a softer, more genial tone. Obama and Hillary Clinton have both promised this, and packaged this shift itself as radical. To be truly audacious would be to demand something of that hope, some kind of a radical programme. But here there is nothing. None of the leading presidential candidates on the Democratic side appears willing to stand up to the might of Wall Street, to upend a political and economic system that is unfazed by this or that election. It is unrealistic to assume that the presidential candidate will move such an agenda absent a mass movement.

No third party with a mass movement will emerge from this election. Hope is vested in Obama and Hillary Clinton.

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