The US presidential electoral process gathers momentum

Dhaka,  Fri,  22 September 2017
Published : 16 Oct 2016, 20:28:01 | Updated : 16 Oct 2016, 20:29:42

The US presidential electoral process gathers momentum

Whoever wins the election has to carefully calibrate his or her response to the storm of terrorism that is presently raging in different parts of the world, writes Muhammad Zamir

The world has been watching a reality show for the past few months. It has been full of humour, sarcasm and tangential remarks. The evolving US presidential dynamics has now reached the last corner before the final sprint to the finishing line. A few weeks are left before the polls actually take place in the 50 States of the USA on  November 08. The citizens of that country as well as the rest of the world have been treated to a series of televised debates where the rival participants have argued and put forward their own interpretations on issues that will affect the citizens of the United States and most countries of the world for the next four years.

The first debate between the Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and the Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump was held at Hofstra University on Long Island, New York on September 26. After that came the debate between the Democrat vice- presidential nominee Tim Kaine and the Republican vice-presidential nominee Mike Pence on October 04 at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia. Mr. Pence, according to analysts, appeared to have done better in this discussion than his over-enthusiastic rival. The second debate between the Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was held on October 09 in St. Louis. This was in the format of a town hall meeting, with uncommitted voters asking about half of the questions. The third and last debate between the Democrat presidential nominee and the Republican presidential nominee will be held on October 19 in Las Vegas and will feature the same format as that of the first. This has been a challenging exercise for the participants as well as the moderators.

Analysts have pointed out that these exchanges of views have been unlike any other in the television era: The first female presidential nominee of a major party has faced off against an alpha male businessman with no political experience; both of them world-famous and both of them deeply unpopular. Time magazine of  September 26 noted that more than 6 in 10 voters say Clinton and Trump are each not honest and trustworthy, with him often scoring worse than her. Subterfuge, falsehoods and smears also appear to have played a significant role in Trump's arguments, particularly with regard to Mexicans and Muslims and this community's connection with terrorism. Similarly, Clinton has demonstrated her distrust in principle for more information and the way that information will be handled by the public. This has cast a long shadow on public trust in fundamental institutions - from Courts to the media to organised religion.

The two Presidential nominee debates took on a surreal quality at times, with more discussion of insults like "slobs" than immigration or the Affordable Care Act. Mrs. Clinton, till now has come off as a classically prepared debater and has used Mr. Trump's record and words against him while Mr. Trump appears to have been improvising on stage most of the time. The two nominees have been clashing over trade, the Iraq war, his refusal to release his tax returns and her use of a private email server, with Mr. Trump frequently showing impatience and political inexperience as Mrs. Clinton has also pushed him to defend his past denigration of President Obama. Mr. Trump, on the other hand, has put Mrs. Clinton on the defensive over her support for free trade agreements that, he argued, had cost Americans jobs.

On issues of race and gender, Hillary broadened the issue and moved beyond Obama, his birth certificate and so-called birtherism. She accused Trump of having "a long record of engaging in racist behaviour" and reminded him that his family's real estate company had been sued by the Justice Department in 1973 for racial discrimination. Mr. Trump did little to rebut her charges of racism, xenophobia and misogyny but took the opportunity to point out to Hillary that during the 2008 Democratic primary she herself had treated her rival Obama harshly and with disrespect.

Trump and his vice-presidential nominee have also tried to consistently pin blame on both former Democrat President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton for decades of American policy, including the decision by her husband, Mr. Clinton, to sign the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) into law, as well as her past support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). He has used this tactic to gain support from the millions of unemployed US workers who feel that the United States is creating greater unemployment within the country through its support for free trade.  Analyst Benjamin Appelbaum suggests otherwise and has referred to the Congressional Research Service concluded in 2015 which opined that the "net overall effect of NAFTA on the U.S. economy appears to have been relatively modest." The reason for this has been explained by the fact that trade with Canada and Mexico comprises a small portion of American economic activity. Other economists like Mark Landler have also drawn the attention of Hillary Clinton to her growing opposition to TPP and pointed out that she should not have changed her position on the TPP (after speaking out more than 40 times in favour of the trade deal) as she herself had declared earlier that it would be a "strategic initiative that would strengthen the position of the United States in Asia."

TWO BLOWS FOR TRUMP: The first week of October has seen two further blows for Trump. The first came from his charitable foundation being accused by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman of being engaged in illegal fundraising because it had not been registered with state authorities. This fitted with Hillary Clinton branding the property tycoon an unscrupulous businessman. This negative image was further bolstered with the news that Trump might not have paid income tax for nearly two decades after he declared a loss of $916 million on his 1995 tax return.  This enabled Hillary Clinton to be severely critical and point out that "While millions of American families, including mine and yours, were working hard paying our fair share, it seems he was contributing nothing to our nation".

The second upset for Trump came soon afterwards with revelations in The Washington Post of recordings from a tape from 2005 where Trump was found making obscene remarks about women. This has led to 33 senior Republicans withdrawing their support for Trump. This list now includes former Republican presidential candidate John McCain, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, New Hampshire Senator Kelly Ayotte, House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Republican vice-presidential nominee has also expressed his dissatisfaction over Trump's remark but has also referred to the fact that Trump has since expressed his regrets over this matter. Pence's comment has been an example of how Republican politicians are manoeuvring amid the fast-changing political environment to protect their own future as well as the short-term run-up to the election. Trump's campaign has repeatedly tested the limits of convention, credulity and even decent political discourse. 

Hillary will definitely be focusing, between now and November, on Trump's stream of insults towards women and use this to rally female voters to her side. Professor Hamid Dabashi of Columbia University has interestingly observed that Hillary Clinton is the preferred candidate not just of the Democratic Party but also of the prominent members of the Republican Party, including former President George H Bush and his wife former First Lady Barbara Bush.

TAX PLAN: There has also been, as expected, several exchanges between the two teams about the prospective tax plan that could be implemented in the future by either party. Mrs. Clinton has mentioned that Mr. Trump's tax plan would increase the federal debt by "over $5.0 trillion," and that it would penalise middle-income families. The Trump campaign, however, has insisted that the final cost would be just $2.6 trillion. This is based on a stripped-down version of Mr. Trump's plan - one that is inconsistent with his campaign's public promises. It also assumes that lower tax rates would encourage much stronger economic growth, reducing the cost. 

The question that economists are asking is whether Trump's plan would hurt the middle class?  Binyamin Appelbaum has pointed out that Mr. Trump's plan would reduce the average tax burden for low-income, middle-income and upper-income households - but it would not cut everyone's taxes. Indeed, a new analysis finds roughly 7.8 million families with children would pay higher taxes under Mr. Trump's plan.

These debates have touched on some other aspects related to foreign policy and national security. This includes differing views on the emergence of ISIS, the manner in which this problem could have been handled; Russia's conducting of cyber attacks and the US role in Iraq.  The debates have also drawn attention to another controversial comment made by Trump a few weeks ago with regard to Iraq - that the United States should have taken Iraq's oil. This childish assertion has antagonised international opinion against Trump and has helped Hillary indirectly. Matthew Rosenberg has correctly pointed out that seizing Iraq's oil - or the resources of any country - is illegal under international law, and doing so would have likely prompted condemnation from around the world, including Iraq. In purely practical terms, such seizure would have also required stationing of tens of thousands of American troops to protect Iraq's oil infrastructure, which is spread out across the country. Such an irresponsible comment coupled with his remark that Climate Change is "a hoax" has only exacerbated the existing anxiety about Trump's abilities. 

Hillary has emerged from the presidential debate process with a lead over Donald Trump. The support for the two candidates will probably change slightly by November 08. Some of Clinton's edge in this poll can be attributed to the effects of that enthusiasm shift on the makeup of the likely electorate. It is still too early to call the final result but the drift is towards Hillary Clinton. One should however also not forget the importance of the currently 'undecided' voters, who might just be the tipping point.

Some Republican Party leaders have already started talking openly of Trump stepping aside from the election but that is unlikely. He will continue with Pence until the last. Any move to replace Trump would also run into a legal minefield as there is no system in place within the US election paradigm for States to recall votes or offer new ballots to Americans who have already voted in the election. Ballot access deadlines have already passed in some States. So there would certainly be legal challenges.

The second debate, while it chugged along, did demonstrate that Trump has learnt a few lessons from his previous debate shortcomings. In fact he did better than many had expected. Hillary, on the other hand, continued to muddle along in her answers concerning the use of a private email server.

One can only hope that the elections will be completed peacefully and stakeholders from different communities living in the USA  - of Mexican origin, of African origin and of Muslim origin - and citizens from other countries do not have to face uncertainty about their relationship with the United States within its future strategic paradigm. Whoever wins the election has to carefully calibrate his or her response to the storm of terrorism that is presently raging in different parts of the world.

The writer, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.

Editor : A.H.M Moazzem Hossain
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