The U.S. Presidential Race – Gene Kindberg-Hanlon analyses the battle for the centre ground
For over a year now, George Bush has found himself hovering between 30% and 40% in approval ratings. This makes him one of the most deeply unpopular presidents the United States has ever seen, with the war in Iraq and the potential economic crash key to his downfall. It is no surprise then that the Republicans see a dire need to reshape their party and the Democrats see an opportunity seize the reigns of governmental power.
However, Democratic success is by no means a sure thing. The Republicans are already trying and succeeding in gaining the centre ground. Sound familiar? It should do if we remember the rise of New Labour under Tony Blair and of the Conservatives under David Cameron. When Blair became leader of the Labour party in 1994, John Major was in much the same position as George Bush is now; mired in economic crisis (Black Wednesday), surrounded by party infighting and perceived as incompetent. But serious reforms were still needed to make the Labour party electable. Think of abolishing the heavily socialist Clause 4 and pledging to keep the top rate of income tax unchanged. The resurgence of the Conservative Party today is also driven by a reforming figure who is motivated by electability rather than classic conservative principles. Of course, in American politics, the left and the right do not have nearly as far to move to the centre as in Britain, but it is noticeable that the candidates, particularly Barack Obama and John McCain, have adopted positions that will make them more palatable to the opposition. McCain’s lead over the other Republican candidates is such that he is now the presumed nominee, while the Democratic race is closer but Obama is in the lead. Essentially the Republicans have already chosen their Blair/Cameron figure. He is deviating from the conservative agenda on the environment and foreign policy but, despite arousing anger from the party ideologues, is still leading in the name of electability.
McCain’s signature issue has been his policies on the environment. Both Hillary Clinton and Obama advocate an 80% reduction in greenhouse gasses from their 1990 levels and significant investment in renewable energy. Although McCain only wants a 30% reduction in present day levels by 2050, he is still making a commitment that the other Republican candidates refuse to make. Mitt Romney, one of McCain’s opponents in the race for the nomination who has since dropped out, opposed any specific target arguing that it would be bad for the economy. He found a weak point in McCain’s policies, with support from traditional Republicans who do not want to see any tax increases associated with reducing greenhouse gases. At the same time, while alienating many of these traditional Republicans, he was able to bring in many undecideds and wavering Democrats.
McCain has, in fact, broken away from the Republican mainstream with a whole host of policies. He has opposed waterboarding, explicitly labelling it as torture, co-sponsored a bill to allow the millions of illegal immigrants in the United States a path to citizenship and has even advocated stricter gun control laws (earning an “F” rating from Gun Owners of America). He has also previously opposed many of the Bush tax cuts on the grounds that they promoted inequality. All these things play well on the liberal side of America, convincing those undecideds that a McCain presidency will be nothing like a Bush presidency. Unfortunately for McCain, however, there has been a significant amount of backlash from conservative pundits like Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter who describe him as a “backstabber” who, if elected, will spell the end of the Republican Party. The reason he has done so well is that many Republican voters believe a McCain presidency is still preferable simply because he is not a Democrat. At the time of writing, polls show that McCain would have a slight lead in a presidential race against either Clinton or Obama.
For the Democr ats, healthcare is a good example of middle ground positioning by Obama. As is widely known, America’s healthcare system currently leaves around 45 million Americans without coverage. It has long been a goal of liberal America to implement some sort of universal system to allow more Americans to receive healthcare. All of the Democrats’ primary candidates advocated healthcare reform but the proposals from Clinton and John Edwards more or less provided universal coverage. Barack Obama, the self-proclaimed “force for change”, on the other hand, has proposed a much weaker version. All plans will provide subsidies for insurance for those who cannot afford them and will require insurance firms to offer insurance to all. Unlike the Clinton and Edwards plans, Obama does not want to mandate insurance for all. Obama’s supporters claim that everyone who wants insurance will have access to it, but then why stop short of mandating it? In the long run, those only signing up for insurance when they get sick simply raise premiums for everyone else. Essentially Obama’s plan has been designed not to alienate the right wing of American politics. This is despite the fact that many of Obama’s supporters stand to benefit greatly from a truly universal health scheme. The problem is universal healthcare is not acceptable to American conservatives. Mitt Romney, who supported a mandate system while governor of Massachusetts, shied away from anything remotely close to this while running as a presidential candidate. He advocated deregulation of the insurance industry to lower costs through competition and, by doing so, hoped to encourage more citizens to become insured. Mandates are demonised by the right wing due to fears of an over encroaching state. This will be a significant issue in the election. Obama has conveniently placed himself closer to the middle ground so as to avoid some of this controversy.
So, surprisingly, Obama can be regarded as less progressive than Clinton despite the media image. Of course healthcare is not the only issue that the candidates should be judged on, but Obama and Clinton also share similar economic views, both advocating fiscal stimulus packages including mortgage aid, while the Republican solution seems to be corporate tax cuts and a reduction of government spending. Neither differs particularly on social issues either and yet Obama still claims the apparent title of being the candidate for real change. While Hillary Clinton is potentially the first female president, she is also part of the establishment, having already been in the White House as first lady. Obama however is a young mixed race man who is relatively new to politics and was lucky enough to still be in the Illinois state senate at the time of the American invasion of Iraq. He is therefore untainted by the last 5 years whereas few established Democrats or Republicans can escape from having supported the war.
Iraq is also a key differentiator between the Democrats and Republicans, not just because of the invasion, but because of the current number of troops there. Clinton and Obama would favour caps on numbers of troops, leading towards phased withdrawal, while McCain supports the recent “surge” and would keep troop levels up in efforts to stabilise the country. More importantly there is a consensus among all candidates that the war was handled badly, especially because of poor planning for the end of the invasion and for the start of rebuilding efforts. This has been a method of distancing themselves from Bush.
At the time of writing it is virtually certain that the race will eventually be between John McCain and either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. From the race so far, however, there has been a noticeable shift to the centre ground with both sides eager to prove that the next presidency will not be like the current one. The last eight years of Bush have produced the conditions for an election where America will most likely have a woman, a mixed race man, or a maverick Republican as President.