News & Current Affairs

September 29, 2008

Viewpoint: McCain the new Sarkozy?

Viewpoint: McCain the new Sarkozy?

mccain sarkozy shake hands

Rebels with a cause: McCain and Sarkozy

In France, Nicolas Sarkozy won by successfully breaking from – and even, in a sense, running against – a president of his own party, the disgraced and out-of-touch Jacques Chirac.

In a similar way, John McCain is attempting to mount a Sarkozy-style “second-stage” succession to a Republican Party that has also come to be seen as disgraced and out-of-touch.

He has a lot to run against.

When things start to go wrong for a political party – as they did for John Major and the Tories in the 1990s – everything seems to go wrong at once.

How this has happened to the Party of Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan is worth revisiting.

The Congressional Republicans could have opted to try to win a permanent majority by devising market-based solutions to healthcare or portable pensions that might have won the lasting allegiance of the American people.

‘Populist backlash’

Instead, the GOP leaders in the House and the Senate were content to tinker at the edges of policy.

They aped their Democratic predecessors by using earmarks and other means to reward special interests, reaping huge advantages in campaign donations as a means of holding onto power.

As a result of this change in mindset, the party of probity became the party of disgrace – with more than one leading member in prison or under investigation for various forms of graft.

That there are ample specimens of venality on the Democratic side provides no cover. Voters expect better from Republicans – especially after a series of Democratic scandals that Republicans promised to clean up.

McCain, with decades of spirited and often lonely opposition to pork, influence and back-scratching of all sorts, is the ideal candidate to pull a Sarkozy

So Republicans started with a good start under Newt Gingrich promising to bring reform and business-like efficiency. As a result, when Republicans came to resemble what they opposed, voters came down on them twice as hard when they disappointed.

The result is that Congressional Republicans have neither honour nor a majority.

Republican primary voters, disgusted by the direction their party had taken, selected John McCain in a populist backlash. McCain, with decades of spirited and often lonely opposition to pork, influence and back-scratching of all sorts, is the ideal candidate to pull a Sarkozy.

By returning to their ideals, Republicans selected the one candidate who could actually pull off such a hat-trick.

Political baggage

Two weeks ago, the race against Barack Obama was, then, following a familiar course. McCain had successfully identified himself as a reformer – shedding Republican political baggage.

Obama was set for certain loss. The reasons for this are simple to see.

For decades now, it has been virtually impossible for a liberal candidate to win an Electoral College majority.

The most liberal candidate of all, George McGovern, received 17 electoral votes against Richard Nixon’s 520 in 1972. Defeat has befallen other liberals – Adlai Stevenson, Hubert Humphrey, Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry.

The exceptions to this rule further prove the point:

  • John F Kennedy with his strident anti-communism and tax cuts, won as a conservative Democrat.
  • Bill Clinton won as the candidate of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council, and won re-election after ending traditional welfare and presiding over a surplus.
  • Jimmy Carter won as a budget-conscious conservative, only to lose when he governed as a liberal. Lyndon Johnson won as a successor to JFK.

Had Obama moved to the middle – and chosen a conservative, defence-minded Southern conservative like former Senator Sam Nunn, or even an independent Republican like Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska – he would be in a much stronger position.

Instead, Obama chose a dependable, North-Eastern liberal in Joe Biden.

Obama has eschewed “third-way” politics, and stuck to defining his brand of change in terms of simple replacement of all things Bush with liberal orthodoxy on almost every issue.

‘October surprise’

If presidents were selected by popular vote, Obama might be able to drum up enough enthusiasm in California, New York and a handful of other populous blue states to win.

Two surprises gave McCain a boost in the polls – Russia’s re-emergence as a revanchist power, and the selection of Sarah Palin

The picture is much bleaker for Obama in winning an electoral college majority in which so many states are dominated by rural issues and cultural concerns (like prayer and guns) alien to the sensibilities of an urban liberal.

This was the expected state of play. However, American elections are notorious for turning on an October surprise. This time, we have prematurely had three such surprises in August and September. And they have shaken up this race and made the result suddenly unpredictable.

Two surprises gave McCain a boost in the polls.

The first was the violent re-emergence of Russia as a revanchist power, reminding the American people that we live in dangerous times. It seemed better to trust a crusty war-veteran than the untested, sleek, metrosexual Obama.

The second surprise was an artificial one – McCain’s calculated selection of Sarah Palin. McCain’s campaign enjoyed great success in baiting Obama into several days of exchanges with his running mate – a project that diminished Obama and knocked him off message.

VIEWPOINTS
Mark Davis, senior director of the White House Writers Group (image courtesy of White House Writers Group)
Mark W Davis is a long-time Republican adviser, a former speechwriter for George Bush senior, and currently senior director of the Washington-based White House Writers Group. This is one of a series of comment and opinion pieces that the BBC News website will publish before the election.

Now the third surprise has come – the near-collapse of US credit markets and an economic crisis widely termed the most serious since 1929. This crisis upsets all that had happened before and returns Obama to his preferred field of battle – the economy.

McCain took the high-risk approach of suspending his campaign and running to Washington.

Today, McCain looks less like Sarkozy and more like Sisyphus, shouldering the burden of an economic collapse seemingly without end.

Does this game-changer open the way for an explicit liberal to make history and take the White House?

Or will McCain be able to fight and win with the economy front-and-centre? McCain might do so if he – and other Republicans – are more aggressive in pointing out how Democrats coddled and protected the private-gain, public-risk model of the mortgage giants Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac that enabled this crisis.

If he can do this, McCain might still pull a Sarkozy.

Or will some new event re-orient the race with yet another sudden, stupendous domestic or foreign challenge?

After all, it is not yet October. There is still plenty of time for more surprises.

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September 3, 2008

Bush backs McCain for president

Bush backs McCain for president

President George W Bush has praised John McCain’s service and leadership in a speech to the Republican convention.

Speaking via video-link from the White House, he told delegates in St Paul, Minnesota, that Mr McCain was “a great American and the next president”.

Mr McCain is due to be nominated on Thursday as the party’s presidential candidate for November’s election.

The main talking point so far has been the news that the teenage daughter of Mr McCain’s running mate is pregnant.

Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, chosen as the vice-presidential nominee last week, announced on Monday that her 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, would have the baby and marry her boyfriend.

In his eight-minute address, Mr Bush described Mr McCain as a president ready to make the tough decisions needed “in a dangerous world”.

John McCain’s life is a story of service above self
President George W Bush

“John McCain’s life has prepared him to make those choices. He is ready to lead this nation,” Mr Bush said.

He also spoke of Mr McCain’s life as “a story of service above self” and emphasized the “independence and character” he showed in backing the administration’s “surge” strategy of pouring more forces into Iraq.

Former Senator Fred Thompson, who ran against Mr McCain in the party’s primaries, opened a lively speech with criticism of the Democrats and the media for their scrutiny of Mrs Palin and her family.

He also spoke of Mr McCain’s military service, his courage while a prisoner of war in Vietnam and his commitment to reform in Washington.

Mr Thompson went on to attack the Democrats and their record since taking control of Congress in the 2006 mid-term elections.

Independent Senator Joe Lieberman, a former Democrat who was Al Gore’s running mate in 2000, spoke of Mr McCain as “the best choice to bring our country together and lead our country forward”.

Gustav appeal

Most of the first day’s political events were suspended out of respect for communities affected by Hurricane Gustav.

Instead, Mr McCain’s wife, Cindy, and First Lady Laura Bush made calls to support those under threat.

Mrs Bush told delegates that such events transcended party politics and reminded people that they were Americans first.

Gustav was downgraded to a tropical storm after making landfall on Monday west of New Orleans, where hundreds of thousands of people had been evacuated.

The storm came three years after Hurricane Katrina struck, killing more than 1,800 people and resulting in huge damage to the city and its surrounding area. President Bush was strongly criticised over his handling of the crisis.

Palin talking point

The Republican Party convention is now getting down to work after the uncertainty brought on by Hurricane Gustav.

Tuesday’s events are focusing on Mr McCain, a concentrated piece of political image building with a keynote speech from Joe Lieberman, the Democrat-turned-independent senator, who has decided to support the party’s candidate, our correspondent says.

John McCain and Sarah Palin (31 August 2008)
Sarah Palin’s announcement has so far overshadowed the convention

President Bush cancelled his planned opening night speech amid concerns that overt political campaigning would play badly with voters at a time of potential crisis.

But many Republicans will be glad he is not here in St Paul in person, our correspondent says, and much of this week will be about defining Mr McCain as very different to his unpopular predecessor.

Meanwhile, media attention has continued to focus on Mrs Palin, who is facing an ethics investigation in her home state and whose daughter’s pregnancy made headlines on Monday.

The Associated Press reported on Tuesday that Bristol’s boyfriend, named as 18-year-old Levi Johnston, would be joining the Palin family at the convention in Minnesota.

The AP quotes Mr Johnston’s mother, Sherry, as saying he had been put under no pressure to marry and that the pair had been planning to wed before they knew she was pregnant.

Our correspondent says Mrs Palin’s selection as vice-presidential candidate has caused great excitement among social conservatives and evangelical Christians here.

But across the broader Republican Party there seems to be some unease – she is an unknown quantity, and when she is finally brought out on to the convention stage on Wednesday, many McCain supporters will be crossing their fingers and hoping she performs, he adds.

The 72-year-old Arizona senator is expected to formally accept his candidacy in a prime-time speech on Thursday evening.


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August 29, 2008

Obama launches historic campaign

Obama launches historic campaign

Barack Obama has accepted the Democratic Party’s historic nomination to run for president of the US in front of a crowd of some 75,000 people.

In an address at the party’s national convention in Denver, he promised he would do his best to keep alive the American dream of opportunity for all.

“America, we are better than these last eight years,” he told cheering crowds. “We are a better country than this.”

Mr Obama is the first African-American to be nominated by a major US party.

In his speech at Denver’s Invesco stadium, Mr Obama promised to reverse the economic downturn afflicting the US and restore the nation’s standing in the world.

I will restore our moral standing, so that America is once again that last best hope for all who are called to the cause of freedom
Barack Obama

“We are here because we love this country too much to let the next four years look just like the last eight years,” he said.

He also attacked the record of the Bush administration and his Republican rival for the presidency, John McCain.

“This moment – this election – is our chance to keep, in the 21st Century, the American promise alive.”

Mr Obama criticized Mr McCain as out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Americans and said he had failed to help them on issues such as the economy, health care and education.

He also stressed that he would call for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, whereas Mr McCain stood “alone in his stubborn refusal to end a misguided war”, he said.

“I will restore our moral standing, so that America is once again that last best hope for all who are called to the cause of freedom, who long for lives of peace, who yearn for a better future,” he said.

Tens of thousands of people gathered to hear Mr Obama’s speech

He rejected criticism by the McCain campaign that he is a “celebrity”, pointing to his family’s past financial hardships, and said his rival should stop questioning his patriotism.

In a final rallying call, Mr Obama recalled the message of Martin Luther King, who – 45 years ago to the day – gave his “I have a dream” speech in his historic march on Washington.

“America, we cannot turn back,” he said. “We cannot walk alone. At this moment, in this election, we must pledge once more to walk into the future.”

Joined on stage by his family and running-mate, Joe Biden, Mr Obama was given a standing ovation by the crowds.

‘Not ready’

Earlier in the day, Mr McCain ran a TV advert in which he congratulated Mr Obama on the historic nature – and date – of his nomination, saying it was “truly a good day for America”.

The political truce was short-lived, however, with a spokesman for the McCain campaign issuing a statement following Mr Obama’s address that dismissed his words as “misleading”.

Al Gore speaks at Invesco Field, Denver, 28 Aug
If you like the Bush-Cheney approach, John McCain’s your man. If you want change, then vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden
Former Vice-President Al Gore

“Tonight, Americans witnessed a misleading speech that was so fundamentally at odds with the meagre record of Barack Obama,” spokesman Tucker Bounds said.

“The fact remains, Barack Obama is still not ready to be president.”

The BBC’s Justin Webb in Denver says that this needed to be a serious speech by Mr Obama and it was.

One feature was that Mr Obama made frequent reference to the future, our correspondent says. The Obama camp knows that Americans are worried about Mr McCain’s age and ever so subtly they are making an allusion to it.

Martin Luther King’s eldest son, Martin Luther King III, had earlier told the convention that his father’s dream lived on in Mr Obama’s candidacy.

“He is in the hopes and dreams, the competence and courage, the rightness and readiness of Barack Obama.”

Former Vice-President Al Gore also called on the Democrats to “seize this opportunity for change” and elect Mr Obama.

Linking Mr McCain firmly to the policies of President George W Bush, Mr Gore said it was vital that Americans changed course if they wanted to tackle a “self-inflicted economic crisis”, protect the rights of every American and halt global warming.

Mr Gore added that the US was “facing a planetary emergency” and that the ties of Mr McCain and the Republicans to big oil firms meant they would not act to end the country’s reliance on fossil fuels.

‘Open convention’

Mr Gore’s address, warmly received by the crowd, followed performances from singers Stevie Wonder, Sheryl Crow and John Legend.

The Obama campaign took the unusual move of holding the closing night speeches in the sports stadium to allow ordinary voters, as well as party delegates, to attend.

Justin Webb
His supporters and those sympathetic to him are breathing a sigh of relief
BBC North America editor Justin Webb, on the Obama nomination

Mr Obama’s much-anticipated appearance was the highlight of the party’s carefully choreographed four-day event.

Questions remain as to whether Mr Obama can cement his standing within his own party, and reach out to those parts of the electorate that are yet to be convinced by him, the BBC’s Matthew Price in Denver notes.

He was resoundingly endorsed by ex-President Bill Clinton on Wednesday, which may help consolidate his standing.

Earlier that same day, in a moment of high drama, his defeated rival Hillary Clinton cut short a roll-call vote to endorse Mr Obama’s candidacy by acclamation, in a powerful gesture of unity.

The presidential election on 4 November will pit Mr Obama against Mr McCain, who will be nominated next week at his party’s convention in St Paul, Minnesota.

Republican officials say Mr McCain has chosen his running-mate, but the person’s identity has not yet been announced.

Mr McCain is due to hold a 10,000-strong rally in the swing state of Ohio on Friday, at which it was expected he would present his vice-presidential candidate.

August 28, 2008

Democrats await key Obama speech

Democrats await key Obama speech

Barack Obama looks around the Denver stadium where he is due to accept the Democratic nomination for president, 27 August, 2008

Mr Obama has been preparing for the historic nomination acceptance speech

Barack Obama is set to address US Democrats at the party’s national convention, a day after being chosen as their candidate for the White House.

Mr Obama, the first African-American to be nominated for president by a major US party, will formally accept his historic candidacy in Denver, Colorado.

On Wednesday, he was resoundingly endorsed by ex-President Bill Clinton.

Mr Obama’s speech comes on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s historic “I have a dream” address.

The Illinois senator has won over many critics, analysts say, and is aiming to consolidate his standing within his party.

Hours before her husband publicly gave Mr Obama his unequivocal backing at the convention, in a moment of high drama his defeated rival Hillary Clinton cut short a roll-call vote to endorse Mr Obama’s candidacy by acclamation.

Coronation grandeur

Former Vice-President Al Gore is also due to speak on Thursday, along with Democratic National Committee Chairman Governor Howard Dean, but the focus will be on Mr Obama.

His much-anticipated speech, scheduled for 2015 (0215 GMT), will be the highlight of the party’s carefully choreographed four-day convention.

It is likely to have all the pomp and grandeur of a coronation.

It is only four years since the would-be president gave a headline-making speech at the previous Democratic Convention.

Questions remain as to whether Mr Obama can cement his standing within his own party, and reach out to those parts of the electorate that are yet to be convinced by him, our correspondent notes.

‘New approach’

Mr Obama made a surprise appearance on stage on Wednesday after his running mate, Senator Joe Biden, accepted his own nomination for vice-president in a speech that was sharply critical of the Republican candidate, John McCain.

Barack Obama is ready to be president of the United States
Former President Bill Clinton

“We want to open up this convention to make sure that everybody who wants to come can join in the party, and join in the effort to take America back,” he said.

Mr Biden stressed the need for a new approach to help Americans struggling to make ends meet and to change US foreign policy in the rest of the world.

The 65-year-old foreign policy expert was chosen as vice-presidential candidate by 47-year-old Mr Obama partly on account of his experience.

Clinton factor

In an address that was bound to be closely scrutinized for signs of discord, Bill Clinton, the last Democratic president, struck a firmly conciliatory note and stressed that he believed Mr Obama was ready to be president.

He said he was proud of his wife, Hillary – who had battled Mr Obama for the Democratic nomination – but that her supporters should now back Mr Obama.

Justin Webb
It was stunning – a moment of brilliantly produced political theatre and a moment to cherish forever
BBC North America editor Justin Webb, on the Obama nomination

“Barack Obama is ready to honour the oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution,” said Mr Clinton. “Barack Obama is ready to be president of the United States.”

In American political parlance Mr Clinton “delivered”, and may now find himself playing a higher-profile role in the campaign to come.

Earlier, Mrs Clinton had halted a roll call vote – in which each state, in alphabetical order, declares how many votes were cast for each candidate in the primaries – to call for Mr Obama’s nomination by acclamation.

In a powerful show of unity, she said: “Let’s declare together in one voice, right here, right now, that Barack Obama is our candidate.”

The presidential election on 4 November will pit Mr Obama against Mr McCain, who will be nominated next week at his party’s convention in Minneapolis-St Paul.

The Republican senator has said he has chosen his vice-presidential candidate, and US media reports the running partners will appear together at a 10,000-strong rally in the swing state of Ohio on Friday.

August 22, 2008

Obama set to reveal running-mate

Obama set to reveal running-mate

Barack Obama on the campaign trail on 21 August in Chester, Virginia

Speculation has been rife about who will share Mr Obama’s platform

US Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama is expected to reveal his choice of vice-presidential running mate within hours.

He has told journalists he has made his decision, which will be revealed by text message to the party’s senators and supporters, and journalists.

Democrats gather for their party convention in Denver on Monday.

Mr Obama and his running mate are set to make their first campaign appearance together in Illinois, on Saturday.

“I’ve made the selection, that’s all you’re gonna get,” Mr Obama told reporters while campaigning in Virginia on Thursday.

Text alert

In an interview with USA Today newspaper, the Illinois senator said he had selected a running mate who was independent and would challenge him in the White House.

JUSTIN WEBB’S AMERICA
Hang on, I think that’s a text coming in

He added that he had opted for someone who would help him strengthen the economy, and was also ready to act as president.

But Mr Obama gave no clue as to whether he had notified his preferred running mate yet.

It is possible the Obama camp might keep the name of the vice-presidential selection a secret until just before the appearance in Springfield on Saturday but, realistically, that seems unlikely, says the BBC’s North America editor, Justin Webb.

The expectation is that during the course of Friday a text message will be received by those who have signed up for it, revealing the name.

Surprise in store?

The conventional wisdom is that vice-presidential candidates do not swing elections, our editor reports.

John McCain, file pic

But Mr Obama’s choice is interesting because it will reveal a little more about the style of the man and how willing he is to be adventurous.

Most commentators believe he will play it safe, opting for a governor, perhaps Tim Kaine of Virginia, or a political veteran like Senator Joe Biden.

Some Democrats are hoping he has a surprise up his sleeve – a Hillary Clinton or an Al Gore.

Mr Obama’s rival, Republican presidential hopeful John McCain, has reportedly not settled on a running mate.

Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney are reported to be under serious consideration for the role.

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