A stomach-churning political ride begins in the US

Keeble McFarlane

Saturday, September 01, 2012    

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"ALL politics, all the time" is one way of describing the political scene in the United States. Whereas in most countries politicking takes a break after an election and those elected get on with the business of running the country, our giant neighbour to the north is always in the political mode. That's because of the country's peculiar setup. The national parliament, or Congress, is made up of two houses, one of which is always in session while the other expires every two years. Elections are held every two years on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of November, come hell, high water (from sources like Katrina, Gustav or Isaac) or any other phenomenon, natural or man-made, that you can envisage.

The upper house of Congress, the Senate, consists of 100 members - two from every state, as big as California with 37 million inhabitants or Wyoming, with just over half a million. This chamber never shuts down for re-election, but instead, one-third of its seats become vacant every two years and the members are elected for six-year terms. On the other hand, the lower chamber, the House of Representatives, consists of 435 members, who serve two-year terms and are thus always in campaign mode. Presidents serve for four years and are allowed to run for a second term.

As we speak, the political season is on in earnest, but you could be forgiven if you asked "How could you tell?" For, as soon as the last bubbles burst in the residue left in champagne glasses after last New Year's celebrations, the primary season began.

This year, a whole slew of Republican party hopefuls took to the campaign buses to chase down support of delegates in several states for the convention that ended a couple of days ago in Tampa, Florida.

The gruelling process saw the various candidates contorting themselves in knots to appear more conservative on a variety of subjects than their opponents. But very early on it became obvious that one man would emerge, and on Tuesday night the delegates at the convention in Tampa ratified the nomination of Mitt Romney to carry his party's banner in the vote nine weeks away. In his acceptance speech on Thursday night, Romney commented that Obama's hopeful promises gave way to disappointment and division. Obama, he said, promised "to slow the rise of the oceans and to heal the planet. My promise ... is to help you and your family".

The Democrats meet in Charlotte, North Carolina, next week to ratify Barack Obama as the party's candidate for the presidential election. They avoided the exhausting primary process this year because Barack Obama is the incumbent president and leader of the party, and therefore attracted no significant internal opposition.

The Republicans met under the shadow of tropical storm Isaac, which by the time it swept through the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba and churned into the Gulf of Mexico, had built up enough vigour to become a Category One hurricane. Residents of Tampa, on Florida's Gulf coast, took the usual precautions and the storm cast a shadow over the proceedings, landing in the Gulf city of New Orleans on the same day that the city was struck seven years ago by the devastating Category Three hurricane, Katrina.

George Bush the Younger was the president then, and his bizarre, clumsy and inept handling of the disaster has stuck in the craw of many since that fateful day. Curiously, neither Bush nor his father, who left the White House eight years before him, were invited to attend the convention. It seems the organisers didn't have the intestinal fortitude to have them sit among the VIPs flanking the podium, so delegates were treated to virtual visits via video.

The elder Bush, by the way, served only one term in office, having been defeated in 1992 by one of the most dynamic campaigners in US political history, Bill Clinton. Clinton went on to re-election, unlike his Democrat predecessor, Jimmy Carter, who was sandbagged by a stubborn, continuing inflation at home and the holding of US embassy staff in Tehran by Iranian hot-heads. But good soldier as he was, Carter pressed on with the difficult negotiations for the release of the 52 hostages, which happened within minutes after Carter's term expired and his successor, Ronald Reagan, took office. As the old saying goes, bad luck is worse than obeah.

It was no little irony that Carter's predecessor, Gerald Ford, was also a one-term president. The White House was not his career aim - a long-time Congressman from Michigan, Ford was Minority Leader for eight years before Richard Nixon elevated him to the White House as vice-president when Spiro Agnew resigned after pleading no contest to charges of corruption dating back to his days as governor of Maryland.

The fate of both Ford and Carter is what the Republicans would like to see befall Barack Obama. In fact, Republican Senator Mitch McConnell let the cat out of the bag early on in Obama's term: "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president." He and his colleagues in both houses of Congress have done everything in their power towards that end. They have behaved as if their patron saint were Dr No, opposing every measure the president has presented to the Congress for consideration - even measures they once promoted.

Politics is not a game for the faint of heart, but from time to time has shown its better side with bipartisanship rising above party politics in order to get things done. But in recent years politics in Washington has become more and more hard-edged, partisan and even downright nasty and corrosive. It has become particularly nasty in the past four years with the election of the country's first black man. Many in the old white establishment, as well as the left-over Jim Crow-types in the south, believe that Obama simply has no right to be ensconced in the White House.

Coupled with the disastrous economic collapse brought about by the erosion of controls and regulations over the financial sector, this has led to the worst economic situation in the US since the Great Depression of the 1930s, when millions of Americans found themselves at the bottom of the barrel.

As things stand, Obama has a small lead over Romney, and in the minds of many experienced political watchers will cross the finish line ahead of his rival. In the third year of his presidency, Richard Nixon's approval ratings plummeted to new lows, but notorious back-alley fighter as he was, he pummelled his admittedly weak opponent, Senator George McGovern, into oblivion.

Obama ran on a campaign of hope four years ago, but this time he has to scramble in a time of straitened economics and considerable suffering among the crucial middle class, while the business barons cocoon themselves in a world of their own, insulated by their enormous wealth and politically preferred position from the pressures Joe Blow and Mary Martyr have to withstand every day in this dog-eat-dog world. One Democratic strategist says Obama stands either to "win beautiful" and campaign on a yet-to-be-realised economic recovery, as Ronald Reagan did, or "win ugly" like Nixon.

Between now and November 6, we who look in through the distorting windows surrounding the United States will be in for a stomach-churning and absolutely fascinating roller-coaster ride.





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