Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Candidates as Salespersons

Editorial published in the Economic and Political Weekly

Candidates as Salespersons

Image and aura predominate over policy options in voter choice of candidates.

Candidates in the two major American political parties, the Democratic and the Republican parties, continue to fight for the respective parties' presidential candidate nomination for the elections in November this year. Expectations that the primaries in a number of states on February 4 would yield a defining result have not been proven correct.

About 30 states have concluded their primaries and caucuses. Among the Republicans, senator John McCain has emerged as the front-runner, while on the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama continue to engage in a close tussle. Trends have indicated that there has been a huge surge in the number of voters who have identified themselves as Democrats, clearly affirming to the unpopularity of the current Republican regime headed by president George Bush. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama promise a break from the right wing policies of the current government, in the economic arena as well as on the foreign policy front. If the Democratic candidate wins, the US would have either a woman or an African American president for the first time.

As voters have identified the continuing occupation of Iraq and a sagging economy as primary concerns, these have dominated the speeches and political positions of the candidates. On the Democratic side, both the candidates have promised to withdraw troops from Iraq, but only gradually and in a phased manner. They also insist that they will be “pro-active” in areas such as Afghanistan and take appropriate diplomatic measures against Iran to counteract its supposed nuclearisation. Both candidates do not rule out military action against Al Qaeda in Pakistan if there is sufficient information on the presence of Osama Bin Laden or against Iran either, but Barack Obama, who spoke against the invasion of Iraq in 2002 as an Illinois state senator, promises to engage in talks with the heads of Iran, Syria and other regimes supposedly “hostile” to the US.

Hillary Clinton, who voted as a senator for both the invasion of Iraq as well as the consideration of a military action against Iran, while harping on international diplomacy, retains hawkish positions on policies in west Asia, and supports the continuation of the economic embargo against Cuba. The Republican candidates want a continuation of the Bush policy of unilateralism and pre-emption and show no remorse for the erroneous war. John McCain is even more hawkish on Iraq as he had supported a “troops surge” and has ruled out any timetables for their withdrawal from Iraqi soil.

The Democratic party candidates more or less affirm to centrist policies on economy. The crucial difference between Clinton's and Obama's positions lies in the issue of health care. Nearly 50 million American residents lack health insurance and this is a pressing issue in the elections. While Clinton argues for a mandated insurance coverage that could eventually lead to a form of universal care, Obama rules out a mandated programme (except for children).

For the Republican party candidates, social issues (abortion, gay rights) and illegal immigration are the primary issues of contention. John McCain, a former Vietnam war prisoner-of-war and veteran, is seen to be a moderate as compared to the arch-conservative Bush and leads the race over fiscal conservative Mitt Romney, social conservative and former Baptist preacher, Michael Huckabee, and libertarian, anti-war long-shot candidate Ron Paul. Except for Paul, all of them share a hawkish foreign policy, oriented toward a militarist position against “jihadist” forces in west Asia. McCain's wins in the primaries have come through support from moderate sections of the Republican party and independent voters, a fact that has made arch-conservatives in the party jittery about his possible nomination.

The format of the primaries, ensures that more than the issues, it is the image and aura of the candidates that determine their vote getting ability. Omnipresent media networks emphasise body language, image and personality as talking points in the campaign. Barack Obama, for example, has campaigned on the slogan of “change” from the years of right-wing rule under the Republicans and the “third way” policies of Bill Clinton, in contrast to Hillary Clinton's harping on her “experience” as a two-term senator and as the wife of a former president. Candidates such as John Edwards or Dennis Kucinich, who offered substantially different policy positions closer to the progressive and populist ethos of the party, have had to withdraw from the race. They did not enjoy the same media coverage and public presence owing to fewer campaign funds in comparison to the frontrunners, who have raised and spent millions of dollars on advertisements and campaigning.

There is virtually no media coverage of primaries of other smaller parties such as the Green Party or of independents who have comprehensive differences with the policies of the centre-right space straddled by the two big parties in the US. One could argue that the nature of primary elections in the US, owing to the undue emphasis on campaign resources and candidate image, is devoid of substantive differentiation in the political spectrum as compared to other democracies in Europe or even India.

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