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.

September 12, 2008

Obama win preferred in world poll

Obama win preferred in world poll

Sen Barack Obama in Flint, Michigan, on 8 September 2008

Most thought US relations would get better under a president Obama

People outside the US would prefer Barack Obama to become US president ahead of John McCain, a BBC World Service poll suggests.

Democrat Mr Obama was favored by a four-to-one margin across the 22,500 people polled in 22 countries.

In 17 countries, the most common view was that US relations with the rest of the world would improve under Mr Obama.

If Republican Mr McCain were elected, the most common view was that relations would remain about the same.

The poll was conducted before the Democratic and Republican parties held their conventions and before the headline-grabbing nomination of Sarah Palin as Mr McCain’s running mate.

The results could therefore be a reflection of the greater media focus on Mr Obama as he competed for the presidential candidacy against Hillary Clinton.

Pie chart

The margin of those in favor of Mr Obama winning November’s US election ranged from 9% in India to 82% in Kenya, which is the birthplace of the Illinois senator’s father.

On average 49% preferred Mr Obama to 12% in favor of Mr McCain. Nearly four in 10 of those polled did not take a view.

On average 46% thought US relations with the world would improve with Mr Obama in the White House, 22% that ties would stay the same, while seven per cent expected relations to worsen.

Only 20% thought ties would get better if Mr McCain were in the Oval Office.

The expectation that a McCain presidency would improve US relations with the world was the most common view, by a modest margin, only in China, India and Nigeria.

But across the board, the largest number – 37% – thought relations under a president McCain would stay the same, while 16% expected them to deteriorate.

In no country did most people think that a McCain presidency would worsen relations.

Sen John McCain in Sterling Heights, Michigan, on 5 September 2008

Some 30% of Americans expected relations to improve under Mr McCain

Oddly, in Turkey more people thought US relations would worsen with an Obama presidency than under Mr McCain, even though most Turks polled preferred Mr Obama to win.

In Egypt, Lebanon, Russia and Singapore, the predominant expectation was that relations would remain the same if Mr Obama won the election.

The countries most optimistic that an Obama presidency would improve ties were US Nato allies – Canada (69%), Italy (64%), France (62%), Germany (61%), and the UK (54%) – as well as Australia (62%), along with Kenya (87%) and Nigeria (71%).

When asked whether the election as president of the African-American Mr Obama would “fundamentally change” their perception of the US, 46% said it would while 27% said it would not.

The US public was polled separately and Americans also believed an Obama presidency would improve US ties with the world more than a McCain presidency.

Forty-six per cent of Americans expected relations to get better if Mr Obama were elected and 30% if Mr McCain won the White House.

A similar poll conducted for BBC World Service ahead of the 2004 US presidential election found most countries would have preferred to see Democratic nominee John Kerry beat the incumbent George W Bush.

At the time, the Philippines, Nigeria and Poland were among the few countries to favor Mr Bush’s re-election. All three now favor Mr Obama over Mr McCain.

In total 22,531 citizens were polled in Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Egypt, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, Nigeria, Panama, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Singapore, Turkey, the UAE and the UK. A parallel survey was conducted with 1,000 US adults.

Polling firm GlobeScan and the Program on International Policy Attitudes carried out the survey between July and August.

August 25, 2008

Obama sets out to sell his vision

Obama sets out to sell his vision

Barack Obama has a hard act to follow at this convention: himself.

Barack Obama speaks in Wisconsin

Barack Obama faces a career-defining moment

Four years ago, when Democrats gathered for their national convention in Boston to nominate John Kerry, the then-US Senate candidate made a much-lauded, career-defining speech. His message of a unified America, coming from the mouth of a young, mixed-race politician, marked the effective launch of the history-making Obama phenomenon.

It also brings a level of expectation ahead of his speech on Thursday, which the last Democratic candidate, who went on to become president, did not have to face.

When nominee Bill Clinton spoke at the 1992 Convention in New York, it was four years after he had made a convention speech that was widely seen (including by Clinton, himself) as rather long-winded and boring.

He did not repeat his mistake. With his “I still believe in a place called Hope” speech, the Arkansas governor defined himself in a way that resonated with the country at large.

Weight of history

Barack Obama needs to do something similar. With opinion polls placing him in a tight race with Republican John McCain and suggesting that sections of the public still do not have a clear impression of who he is, his goal is to come out of the week having defined himself as someone whom Americans can feel comfortable about as a leader.

He needs to sell his vision, his experience and his unconventional background.

Pepsi Center, Denver

Mr Obama must unite the Democrats behind his campaign

He will be selling that vision of himself on an auspicious date: the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream” speech.

But, while that may add to the weight of history on his shoulders, the location of his speech represents a break with history.

Obama will not accept the nomination in the Convention Hall, but at the 70,000-seater Invesco Field, home of the Denver Broncos Football team. This will provide a unique spectacle, but it also presents a certain danger of perception for a candidate who – since securing the Democratic nomination in June – has faced accusations of being too presumptuous about his chances of winning the November election.

Clinton tensions

And while the 1992 Clinton experience offers him a something of a blueprint for success, the 2008 Clinton presence, on the other hand, presents him with potential pitfalls.

Both Hillary and Bill Clinton will be speaking at the Convention. Their performances – on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively – will be watched closely for signs of party disunity, that could harm not only Barack Obama’s chances, but those of Democrats running for Congress in November.

Despite a joint appearance with Senator Obama in Unity, New Hampshire earlier this summer, Hillary Clinton is still dogged by questions about her level of support for the man who narrowly beat her to the nomination. Many of her supporters are still unhappy about the manner of her defeat. There is also concern that she was not seriously considered for the position of running mate, which Senator Joe Biden has secured.

Bill Clinton, file picture

Observers will be closely watching Bill Clinton’s mood

By allowing Senator Clinton’s delegates to participate in a formal nominating roll call vote – recognising the historical nature of her campaign – the Obama team hopes to defuse some of the remaining tensions and shore up the support of the millions who voted for the former First Lady. Neither outcome is a foregone conclusion.

John McCain’s campaign is doing its mischievous best to stir things up: releasing an advert, showing Hillary Clinton asking some of the same questions about Barack Obama’s experience and judgment during the primary campaign which they are asking now.

But, perhaps, it is Bill Clinton’s speech that will be the most closely dissected; both for its words and for the body language of the man delivering it. By his silence, the former president has given the impression that he is still sulking about Obama’s victory over his wife.

Many Convention-goers will be looking for him to swallow his pride and give the sort of full-throated endorsement of the party’s nominee, that will sway Democrats flirting with John McCain, and help to repair some of the damage done to President Clinton’s own reputation during the primaries.

As he effectively hands over the role of party leader to a younger man, he can still play the role of party healer.

How to measure the success of this? The time-honoured tradition has been to look at the “convention bounce” – the boost in the opinion polls which a candidate gains from his moment engulfed in balloons and ticker tape. Bill Clinton, for example, got one in 1992 and never relinquished his lead over George H W Bush.

Time is not Barack Obama’s side, though. No sooner has the Democratic Convention finished, than the Republicans meet in St Paul, Minnesota.

So the onus is on Senator Obama to make the most of his time in the spotlight, before the spotlight quickly turns to his Republican rival, John McCain.

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