Saturday, March 08, 2008


Its interesting how ‘royal’ the American presidency is. I guess this is because of the constitutional arrangement under which the President represents the nation in a way that the political bosses of few other western democracies do. Other countries have a politician temporarily in charge, but the “Head of State” is someone else – a figurehead President or a figurehead king or queen. That figurehead is the embodiment of the nation, above politics (but unfortunately not above scandal, at least in the UK). The US has no such arrangement – the President is everything.

The other big reason is that the president is popularly elected. He is not chosen by a few members of the party elite. The President personally runs for the office, in direct elections at both the primary and general level. Finally, I guess, the fact that the position is the head of the most powerful country in the world, adds the last frission of excitement to and about the individual.

Hence the extraordinary popular influence wielded by the President. The famous “I hate broccoli” comment by the first Bush, for example, which led to a near-collapse of the broccoli industry in the US. One simply cannot imagine anyone giving a damn whether or not the prime ministers of most other democracies liked broccoli. Or know the names of their pets. Hence also the extraordinary focus on the First Lady and the First Family in general. Their likes and dislikes, their fashion sense, etc etc. One also sees it in the popular mythologizing of the office of the president in general – take a look at the most recent National Treasure movie as an example.

It is also apparent in the extraordinary focus on the “character” of the person running for President. And of course this is a tough one, because its so subjective, open to attack and innuendo, and available always to the side willing to play the dirtiest game.

And that is why I think there is something ‘royal’ about American Presidents. Its an elective royalty. They are treated more like Kings, during their period in office, than like mere politicians, an ironic outcome for an election process that is far more directly and popularly democratic than any other high office in the world.

The question of just how much power an American President has is also interesting. Clearly he has a lot. Certainly in foreign policy, and as head of the military. In domestic affairs though there are all those famous checks and balances. Unless the President controls both Houses of Congress, and that is rare, he is really quite limited in what he can do. Big reforms are pretty well impossible. Even when he does control both houses, he still has to negotiate with the individual senators and congressman of his own party. There is no party whip to bring them into line. The prime minister of a parliamentary government, with a solid majority in parliament, has vastly more power, and can carry out the kind of substantial national agenda that an American President can only dream of.

In addition, of course, is the fact that most of the legislation that actually affects people’s daily lives in the US takes place at state level. And much of the US constitution is devoted to limiting the power of the federal government over the states.

The Media

Its has been interesting to watch the media turn on Obama after he lost Ohio and Texas. Before that they were crowning him (and before that they were crowning Clinton). Now its all Clinton again, and President Clinton’s remark about his wife having to win both big states now seems like another example of his extraordinary political skill. Never mind the fact that Clinton actually seems to have lost Texas, once the caucus results are taken into account. That is irrelevant, no-one cares because no-one knows. The big impact was the initial apparent win, and later corrections don’t change anything.

So now Obama can do nothing right, and Clinton is being talked about as the most likely nominee. Again, the fact that she actually has fewer delegates seems irrelevant.

These wild mood swings of the press drive home to me why the campaign’s spin doctors are so important, and why the campaigns find it so important to control the media agenda. The media (or the story) is like an unstable juggernaut, hurtling off at any moment in the direction of its most recent shove. Success in American politics is all about controlling that juggernaut. There is plenty of thoughtful and careful reporting, but it is overwhelmed by the breathless and non-stop nature of the TV coverage.

Clever of Clinton to be throwing out all these broad hints of a combined ticket with Obama. Somehow no-one imagines that she would take the VP spot. He is the younger, less experienced person, he has a future, very likely, as President, he would be formidable in 8 years time, with 8 years as VP to address the most telling argument against him, she could be too old in 8 years, etc etc. So I guess she calculates that most people would see the “dream ticket” as rationally and logically being headed by herself, not the other way round. She also knows that the Democratic Party won’t want to lose the new voters created by the enthusiasm for Obama. And she knows very well that she probably can’t win without getting the super-delegates to negate the result of the elected delegates, if not probably the popular vote.

Democracy is an extraordinary and powerful system. I would personally have voted for John Howard in the Australian election, but now that the Rudd government has taken office, I can see that a new team was indeed needed. The voters got it right. And look at the strength of the candidates that the American system has thrown up. Both Obama and Clinton would do a great job, and on the Republican side, McCain is clearly an acceptable alternative, a decent person of proven worth. But I must say that the system threw up a lemon with Bush junior. It was that second election win that really stunned the world. To elect him the first time was forgivable (and he lost the popular vote anyway). But a second time, after the Iraq war, that was unpardonable.

One positive so far is that the deep end of the cultural wars seems to be largely absent from the campaigns. McCain is not a social conservative, I don’t think. Maybe all that will still come. Even Huckabee, I think, while obviously he would hold all those opinions, appeared to be running mostly as an economic populist, rather than as a social conservative.

Broadly, as regards economics, I am what they call in the USA, a conservative. Capitalism produces wealth. But. Lots of people miss out, and so you need a regulated capitalism. In this modern world I think that is un-arguable. Its all about the degree of regulation. And when it comes to the current US election, as regards capitalism, the only question is the degree of regulation – contrary to what the wilder so-called right wing TV networks will tell you.

Despite being an economic conservative, I am generally on the side of the Democrats in US elections (not that that makes any difference). This is mainly because I am absolutely repulsed by the religious fundamentalist and socially conservative side of the Republican Party. Good economic policy is one thing, theocracy is quite another. And given that the economic left wing of American politics is still somewhat to the right of the right wing in most other democracies, I don’t see great dangers for capitalism in the Democratic Party. If anything, to avoid the ghastly but probably unlikely possibility of the US becoming like Brazil, probably needs the intervention of the Democrats every now and again to make sure the whole system is not just too weighted in favour of the rich.

Bias on TV

I have not seen enough American TV to be too dogmatic here. But certainly both CNN and MSNBC appear to be reasonably balanced, though there is a show on the latter that is an outright left wing opinion piece. Fox, while claiming to be balanced, can’t really be serious about that, because it is very strongly right wing. There is no particular show on Fox that is right wing, the whole station is just strongly and blatantly right wing. I would not have a problem with that if they weren’t claiming at the same time to be “fair and balanced”. I saw a portion of one show which the presenter claimed was the “Spin-free Zone”. Quite funny really, because it spun so hard I got dizzy watching it.



Post a Comment

<< Home