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February 16, 2016

US election doesn’t get more exciting than this


February 16, 2016

Islamabad diary

American elections are usually a grey blur, with little to remember when they are over. The Nixon-Kennedy match must have been exciting but that was in 1960, an entire generation away. The recent incumbents…the two Bushes, father and junior, Bill Clinton, even Barack Obama for all his soaring words, not much really to remember them for.

The junior Bush you remember but for all the wrong reasons – the disaster of Iraq and all the drivel about the end of history and American supremacy that went by the name of neo-conservatism. Clinton will be remembered more for his flashing zipper than anything else…his trousers which kept falling.

This is a cautionary tale by itself. John Kennedy was a serial zipper flasher too, once telling British PM Harold Macmillan that the day he didn’t go to bed with someone he had a headache. Macmillan, an unfortunate cuckold (I am not making this up) did not know what to say.

Kennedy’s fondness for dalliance was well-known in his inner circle. For the public at large it remained a well-kept secret. But Clinton’s dalliance – his skill with his zipper – became known to the world. Fifty years from now will anyone remember anything about Clinton except his romp with Monica Lewinsky?

Compared to this stuff-as-usual history, this year’s presidential race is exciting – all because of two individuals, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. They’ve brought colour and oomph to this race, both, in their different ways, appealing to the general mood prevailing across the United States – the disenchantment with standard politics.

This mood is anti-establishment, anti-status quo. By his attacks on Wall Street and the power of big money Bernie Sanders has electrified young Democrats…young women included, much to the chagrin of the Hillary camp, which took it for granted that the female vote would gravitate towards her. Bernie is 74 and calls himself a democratic socialist. This would be death in US politics but Bernie has the guts to describe himself thus. I daresay with the young this would be part of his appeal.

Trump has dominated the Republican race by his personality, his brash comments about everything – from women to Muslims to whatever – and his pitch to working class whites who think they are getting a raw deal in the present economic climate. Imagine a candidate taking on Fox News, before this campaign an unthinkable proposition. Before him no one took on Rupert Murdoch’s network…you sucked up to it.

Not long ago every pundit worth the name in the American media was writing him off…everyone, and I mean everyone, blithely suggesting that his dominating the polls was a flash-in-the-pan which couldn’t last. His candidacy would blow out as the race progressed. Now they are eating their words and wiping the flush from their faces. Trump has not cared for the media establishment because he’s shown an uncanny ability to dominate the news and create his own news cycle.

Personally what I find most refreshing is the way he blasts the disaster of the Iraq war. American politicians pussy-foot around this issue because so many of them supported the rush to war. This is especially true of the Clintons because Hillary Clinton supported the war resolution in the Senate.

At the most recent Republican debate you had to see how Trump said the Iraq war was based on lies. There were no weapons of mass destruction and they knew there were no such weapons but they went to war. And when Jeb Bush, who was making a desperate attempt to attack Trump, said that his brother, the one and only George, had done so much for national security, Trump said the Twin Towers came down in his realm. When Jeb said his mother was a strong woman Trump tartly said she should be running for president.

In the Republican hall of ideology you don’t talk about these things lightly. Iraq may have been a disaster but you don’t say this if you are a Republican. And you suggest, as Marco Rubio did during the debate, that it was all Bill Clinton’s fault because he did not kill Osama bin Laden when he had the chance. Trump enters the same hall of ideology armed with a sledgehammer demolishing cherished myths. Hate the man, dislike his opinions but you’ve got to relish his gusto.

Now you shouldn’t make predictions in politics. It’s a dumb thing to do. But here goes. The South Carolina primary is on Feb 20 and in the Republican pack Trump’s lead is big. If he wraps it up there, as he is sure to do, my feeling is that the Republican nomination will be all but over. So there will be a spectacle to savour: Trump as a presidential candidate. It can only get more interesting from then on, a presidential race not easily forgotten. Who will he be facing? That’s the question.

Hillary has the money and the backing and the Hispanic and black vote and the Democratic establishment behind her. The accepted wisdom was that she had the nomination in her pocket. But it hasn’t turned out that way. Bernie Sanders as the race started was for many people Bernie Who? He was trailing way behind Hillary in the polls. But he was neck-to-neck with her in Iowa and a big winner in New Hampshire. Hillary has all the advantage in South Carolina where the black vote, traditionally supportive of the Clintons, figures big in the Democratic Party.

Hillary for the Democrats is the dependable choice, Bernie the more exciting one. But this is an election in which stereotypes are being broken and conventional wisdom upended.

New things have come to the fore and new ideas are being debated. A year ago both Trump and Sanders would have been considered dead meat. Yet here they are dominating the race. Amongst the Republicans no one else has the same charisma as Trump. On the Democratic side, Hillary still has much going for her but Bernie has put her on the defensive and has certainly robbed her sure-fire status from her. She now walks a tightrope. So who can tell?

There’s a lesson in all this for us. Look at our politics. We are still stuck with leaderships we discovered 30-35 years ago. There are no fresh faces here except Imran Khan but he doesn’t have the knack of discussing new ideas. He has the Bernie Sanders factor working for him in that the young still root for him. But Bernie has ideas. Imran Khan has for the most part tired faces around him. I wish for his sake that he studied the Trump and Sanders phenomena a bit more carefully.

For the rest what an old cast we have. The Sharifs have been around since before Bill Clinton and Bill Clinton is almost ancient history in the US. They have something new in India in the shape of Narendra Modi…like or dislike his politics is another matter. We are still stuck with the old. Pakistan stands badly in need of a Trump or indeed Sanders renewal…denoting someone with the flair to shake the stable doors and turn things upside down.

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