Living in the country adjacent to the United States it’s only natural that Canadians would take at least a passing interest in the American political process. Most of us did one year of American history somewhere along the way through our secondary school education and know all about your three levels of government; the checks and balances that were supposedly built in to ensure none of those levels would gain too much power.
There’s also no denying the impact that American policy and leadership have on Canada, given our economic and social connections. John F. Kennedy was as inspiring to a generation of politically and socially active people in Canada as he was to Americans of the same period and Canadians mourned his and brother Bobby’s murders as if we had lost two of our own. Of course not all of America’s leadership have had as positive an impression on Canadians with Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George Bush Jr. all managing to raise the hackles of the public at large up here for one reason or another.
It was Richard Nixon who first aroused my interest in American politics, specifically his fall from grace with the Watergate scandal. The first book that I read dealing about American politics was Bob Woodward’s and Carl Bernstien’s All The President’s Men, the book that detailed the opening days of their inquiries into a burglary of Democratic headquarters at the Watergate apartment/hotel complex and their subsequent investigations. But the book that really hooked me on American politics was Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail.
In 1972 Rolling Stone Magazine sent Hunter out to cover the American presidential campaign, starting with the primary season. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail is a collection of all of the articles Thompson wrote during his time traipsing across the country after politicians. Taken together like that they present one of the clearest pictures of life on the campaign trail that will ever be written. Given today’s political climate there is no chance that any reporter will ever gain the access to the candidates and his or her people that Hunter had when he wrote his articles.
Fear and Loathing on Tthe Campaign Trail also taught me something else – American politics can be addictive, habit forming, and injurious to your social life. People tend to get a glazed look in their eyes when you start analysing the results of the Iowa caucuses at parties, discoursing on how you think they are going to impact the voting in New Hampshire. They really start looking for the exits when you invite them to start making predictions for “Super Tuesday’s” results based on analysis’s of voting trends in New Hampshire and Iowa.
It’s been a while since I’ve paid close attention to campaigning south of the Canadian border, but I started to follow along again this year during the Iowa caucuses. I must admit to some surprise at the results, and the first thing I wondered was, what happened to Rudy Giuliani?
In the period after the attacks of September 11th 2001 the Mayor of New York city was being touted as George Bush’s successor almost before Bush had even won his second term. Now it seems the only way he gets headlines is with reports on his poor finishes in the primaries and the financial troubles besetting his campaign. Did people get sick of him? Did he peak to early? Obviously I missed something in the lead up to Iowa.
While he claims to still be hopeful of making a comeback, with all the attention on newcomer, another former Arkansas Governor, MIke Huckabee, New Hampshire winner Arizona Senator John Mccain and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney there’s not much room left for him in the public eye. Anything less than an all out win in most of the states available on Super Tuesday could well be the end of Giuliani’s political aspirations.
Do you remember the seven dwarfs? In 1988 while George Bush Sr. cruised past earnest Bob Dole in the Republican primaries seven Democratic candidates waged a war of attrition to see who would face him in November. Michael Dukakis ended up being the one served up on a platter for Bush to devour. After seven months of bashing each other the Democrats didn’t stand a hope in hell of beating a relatively unified Republican party.
This year with three, and if Giuliani stages the miracle comeback he’s predicting, four, Republican candidates publicly sparring for months on end, one would think they could be looking at the same bleak scenario with there being only two serious contenders for the Democratic nomination. But with the two Democrats being New York Senator Hilary Clinton, white woman, and Illinois Senator Barack Obama, male African American, precedent and election history are thrown out the window.
No matter which one of them wins the nod to represent the Democratic party they will be going into uncharted territory. No African American or woman has ever run for President of the United States before, and nobody can predict the effect either one of their candidacies will have on the voting population.
Will the thought of a white woman or an African American man as president frighten enough people to the point that ‘anyone but’ campaigns are mounted to ensure people get out and vote for whatever the Republicans nominate? Or will the hope of real change motivate the close to 50% of eligible voters who haven’t voted in recent elections to go into the polling booth and vote for whichever one of the two Democrats secures the nomination? (According to an article on voter turnout in Wikipedia , the average turnout for an American election is 54% of eligible voters. Those figures don’t take into account the unknown number of people who don’t even bother to register to vote)
In a perfect world it wouldn’t make a difference what race or gender the candidates were, or their religion either for that matter. (Ask Mitt Romney if being a Mormon has affected his candidacy) But we live in a world that’s far from perfect, so we know it will be a factor in both directions. There are people who are going to vote for Mr. Obama for the sole reason that he is Black just as there are people who will vote against him for the same reason. The same is true for Mrs. Clinton in that she is sure to garner votes from women simply because she is the same gender, while others will vote against her because they will not believe that a women should hold a position of such power.
Fairly or unfairly, America is going to be judged by the results of this election. In the eyes of a good proportion of the world it won’t be won or lost because one candidate has been able to convince the public that they are the better candidate. It will be seen to be won or lost on the issue of race and gender.
If Barack Obama becomes the Democratic nominee and loses it will be because of his race, and if Hilary Clinton loses it will be because she was a woman. But I wonder if people would believe that if they were both running as Republicans and not Democrats? Is it only because they represent what America considers liberal politics that race or gender is an issue? If it were Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice as the Republican against Al Gore as the Democrat would it still be about race or gender?
Would African Americans or women be inclined to vote as a block for a conservative representative of their race or gender as they appear to be prepared to for a liberal? Probably not given the history of the Republican party on social issues that impact both women and African Americans more than any other segment of the population. If that’s the case the argument that the election will come down to a matter of race or gender is flawed.
After George Bush’s reelection in 2004 much was made of America’s division along liberal and conservative lines. Given that recent history doesn’t it make as much sense to consider the two Democratic front runners as penultimate liberal candidates instead of in terms of race and gender?
The 2008 presidential election could very well secure conservative power in the White House for generations with a Republican win as the liberals would have fielded a candidate who epitomized liberal thought in America and failed. But should either Mr. Obama or Mrs. Clinton win in November, the set back to conservatism in America would be equally crippling. Not only will a liberal candidate have been elected president, but it will be one whose very candidacy represents the very essence of liberalism. In either case it will be a long time before either side recovers sufficiently to be a political force.
In reality the only issue that has ever really mattered in recent American elections has been the battle between the conservatives and the liberals for the emotional support of the American people. While race or gender will factor into the final decision this time, it is only because both issues are part of the larger conflict between the two political ideologies that dominate American politics.
There are still plenty of primaries to be run, and the final nominee for each party decided upon, but the battle lines for this election were drawn years ago. Even in 1972 the contest between George McGovern and Richard Nixon was seen as liberal versus conservative, and nothing has changed. The only thing different in this election is that the liberal Democrats are finally going for broke and offering a real alternative to the conservative Republicans.