Friday, February 15, 2008

First among “differentials”

Article written for The Post
First among “differentials”

The presidential primaries in the United States' two major parties, the Republican and the Democratic parties have reached a decisive phase. While senator John McCain has become the presumptive nominee from the Republican side, senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are fighting a close battle to clinch the Democratic nomination; Obama seemingly having his nose in front in the photo-finish race so far.

A few weeks ago, we did a profile of all the candidates on foreign policy, from the eye of a third world watcher and found that none of the candidates from both parties had a vision that could be accepted with glee by the majority of the developing world. Yet this lack of substantive choice based on foreign policy does not mean that the candidates are figures cut from an one-dimensional block. There exists serial differences in approach and vision between not just the parties but also among the candidates in the Democratic party that should interest a political observer enough to make prognostications about what kind of administration would be in offer if these candidates are nominated.

Hillary Clinton, if elected would be the first woman president of the United States. While that is a great and long due prospect, it is another first that worries the observer: the pioneering “first gentleman” in office: Bill Clinton. The Bill Clinton administration during the 1990s was definitely a more appetising government compared to the disastrous George W Bush administration. It presided over a economic boom and left a fiscal surplus but did not offer a substantive difference from the earlier Republican administrations in foreign policy or even on the question of removing poverty through welfare measures in the capitalist American system. This is seen as a legacy of the “third-way” movement led in the Democratic party by a section belonging to the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). The DLC promotes a mixture of right-wing corporate friendly policies and welfare concepts while retaining hawkish positions on foreign policy.

The Bill Clinton administration, akin to the Labour Party under Tony Blair was the hallmark of the “third way” movement, which pushed the Democratic Party to the centre-right in the political spectrum. Bill Clinton is expected to play a guiding role in a future Clinton administration under Hillary. Hillary Clinton has not disavowed the positions of the DLC or the Clinton administration and does not correspond to the more populist slogans in the party's progressive sections of rejecting corporate lobbying and special interests. At the same time, Hillary Clinton has taken bold measures on domestic economic policies such as a mandated health insurance programme to help get nearly 50 million uninsured Americans insured. On foreign policy, however, the unilaterist streak in the DLC's thinking is reflected in Hillary Clinton's positions on Iraq and Iran (whatever she might say about her withdrawal plans from Iraq). Despite centrism and non-radicalism being the governing principle of the Clinton politics and campaign, there exists a vast area of confrontation between the right wing Republicans and the Clintons owing to the partisan politics in the '90s involving the Clintons' personal life which was attacked with vigour by the Republican opposition.

This reliance on centrist and entrenched interests is exactly that has drawn attack from Barack Obama. Obama, a relatively new political entrant (he has merely two years on his resume as a senator) plays to the large American gallery which is distrustful of the special interest based Washington politics. He promises change, hinting at overturning the cynical and lobbying based politics that has characterised the American federal centre. However, in contrast to John Edwards (the withdrawn Democratic candidate), who stood on a platform of confrontation against special interests and the right wing forces (read Republicans), Obama has a different perspective on how to enact change. He rejects the reductionist approach of straitjacketing politics within the “left-right” divide and wants to engage in drawing in on commonalities while holding on to liberal, progressive values. This, he believes can be achieved through raising the pitch of value based politics through inspiration and non-partisanship. He refrains in confronting even his worst political enemies trying to draw positives out of his rivals and trying to build bridges while enacting progressive policies. Critics and observers would point out that such a formal approach will hardly bring about substantive change as this understanding goes against the ordained system of class differences that characterises society. But Obama's answer is that his reliance on his diverse personal background and on refreshing consistency in policy positions would inspire more participants in the democratic process and bring about “change”. A grain of truth exists in this argument, as the record breaking high turnouts in the primaries have pointed out, as also the support to Obama from Republicans who call themselves, “Obamacans”.

From a virtual underdog, Obama has risen to be a stronger candidate, overcoming Hillary Clinton's established machine in many of the states that have completed their primaries. The contest is still on, even as Clinton has attacked the deliberate “poetic” nature of Obama's appeal of “change” as opposed to her substantive policy positioning based on “experience”. Obama's vision of a non-mandated health insurance programme is criticised as a compromise by the Clinton campaign. More or less though, the battle among the Democrats is one of image and aura and not ideological.

John McCain, on the other hand is an intriguing candidate, who has brought in scorn from the far-right sections of the conservative Republican Party. It is a reflection of the great right-ward shift in American politics that John McCain, who holds a conservative record on foreign policy (bullish is the right term), pro-business record in economics and who is a decorated war veteran is termed not to be conservative enough by his own partymen. Part of this suspicion is the fact that McCain holds on to old conservative values of American patriotism (imperialism for the developing world) that is still based on agreed international norms. In contrast, the neo-conservative Bush administration has used folly and deception to go to war and has recidivist views on torture and internationalism. McCain rejected the nonsensical tax-cuts to the super-rich (one reason for the super-fiscal deficit of the non-performing American government). This has drawn the ire of the influential far-right Republicans who see McCain's moves on a bipartisan approach to illegal immigration and his disavowal of torture as signs of him being “liberal”, a bad word in the conservative lexicon.

Conversely, the dismal failure of far-right conservatism which has resulted in misery for great numbers of Americans who are disillusioned with the state of health care, housing and fiscal misery, not to mention the disastrous invasion of Iraq, has meant the demise of any viable far-right candidate in the primaries. John McCain, despite his “maverick” credentials, therefore becomes the Republican nominee by attracting independent and moderate voters. It remains to be seen how McCain could defeat Obama or Clinton without the entrenched far-right support. It also explains the courting of the far-right by McCain in the recent past (he has now promised to make the tax-cuts for the rich permanent) and has avowed the continuation of a bullish foreign policy in west Asia to defeat “jihadism”, even if means bombing Iran and continuing to stay put in Iraq. For the far-right in the US, any regime in west Asia opposed to American imperialism is jihadist (note the repeated pronouncement of the largely secular Ba'ath regime in Iraq as being close to Al Qaeda). McCain re-affirms this nonsensical understanding of west Asian nations.

For an observer, the American primary process is a reflection of the dominant political discourses in the nation. The American media, though, channelises this discourse through the formal route of image and aura, which destroys the larger substantive idea of representation of all political streams. It is a great weakness of the American system that vox populi lacks adequate representation in ideas, but only in images.

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