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29 July 2016 00:15 (South Africa)
World

Into the US election void: What do we do now?

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

  • World
Photo: US Republican presidential candidate John Kasich with his daughter Emma (L), wife Karen (2-L), and daughter Reese (R), speaks during an election night rally at Baldwin Wallace University, in Berea, Ohio, USA, 15 March 2016. EPA/DAVID MAXWELL

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s dominance in the 15 March primary election contests in America have begun to put real meat on the bones of the increasingly likely shape of the general election, come 8 November. J. BROOKS SPECTOR looks at the results as well as some of the underlying dynamics.

In that great, evocative film about American politics in the television age, The Candidate, Robert Redford plays an outsider candidate for the Senate who unexpectedly wins a hard-fought race. In the final scene, a stunned Bill MacKay, Redford’s character, turns to his top aides and with an astonished look on his face, says, “What do we do now?” Right about now, there is a rather large crowd of Americans saying that to each other. And they are not just defeated candidates, political strategists, commentators and pollsters.

On yet another Super Tuesday, pretty much by acclamation, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump came away the biggest winners of the day. Meanwhile, after failing to break through in Florida where he is an incumbent senator, Marco Rubio dropped out of the race, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders put their best possible game faces on over rather less than stellar performances, and Governor John Kasich, winning his home state of Ohio in a winner-take-all primary, lived to fight at least one more day – or one more primary.

Given the real distribution of delegates – that is what really counts, after all, not the cumulative number of states won – Hillary Rodham Clinton now seems firmly on course to score the requisite delegate total to win her party’s nomination. However, given her dogged opponent, there will still be a slog through many of the remaining spring primaries until she crosses over the magic threshold of 50%+ 1 delegates. Despite the results of 15 March, Clinton’s opponent, Bernie Sanders, has continued to say he is – resolutely – staying in it until the very last delegate from the very last primary for the party’s national nominating convention is selected. At this point, however, an honest observer will conclude that he is playing more for the chance to nudge his party leftward in economic policy than in striving for any real chance of winning the actual nomination.

Meanwhile, the arc of Donald Trump’s trajectory continues to rise. But, given the fact that opposition to his nomination is now largely focused on a hard-core, hard-right opponent, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, there remains a real possibility (or at least a mathematical one) that Trump will finish the primary season in the lead, but without that majority-plus-one for Trump of all the delegates selected across the country in all of the primaries and caucuses held from the first caucus in Iowa until it is all over. This comes despite Trump’s attempt to deride the principle of winning a majority to become the nominee, as in his recent comments that such a victory moment is just some arbitrary number plucked from the heavens by unknown, dark forces.

A primary process without a clear winner for the Republicans, should it come to pass, would generate the first open, rather than effectively decided in advance, convention for many decades. Commentators point to the 1952 nomination as the last time this happened for Republicans. In that convention, General Dwight David Eisenhower beat Ohio Senator Robert Taft. If this happens, it will be riveting television, but thoroughly unpredictable, dangerous politics, given the kinds of incendiary rhetoric both Trump and Cruz have been using to fight their respective corners.

In the actual state primary votes on 15 March, bombastic businessman-steak/water/wine/snake oil pitchman, casino builder and political outsider-turned-fiery protectionist Republican, and world champion narcissist, Donald Trump gained wins in Florida, North Carolina, and Illinois, and was maintaining a close lead in Missouri (where vote counting has been extremely close). Ohio Governor John Kasich won in his home state convincingly, however.

While the states of Ohio and Florida were those vaunted winner-take-all votes, giving Kasich and Trump big hauls in delegates respectively in each state, for the other states the actual delegates will be split proportionally, although precise rules for this vary state by state. While Missouri awards three delegates to a candidate who wins the vote in a particular congressional district, there is also a significant bonus of delegates given to whichever candidate wins the overall state vote.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton convincingly won four of the five states – Florida, Ohio, North Carolina, and Illinois – and was in a close race with Bernie Sanders in Missouri, with a number of ballots still to be counted conclusively. In the Democratic primaries, all of the votes for these five states were divided proportionally, according to individual state rules.

If it all stays this way, once every vote has been confirmed the all-important delegate counts (rather than the number of states won) will come out this way:

Total delegates

Trump: 621

Cruz: 396

Kasich: 136

Rubio: 168

(1,237 needed to win for Republicans)

Clinton: 1,561

Sanders: 800

(2,383 needed to win for Democrats; above totals include super-delegates)

However, gross totals can also obscure some important details in the overall voting that will be diced and sliced by commentators and analysts in the days ahead. Veteran journalist and commentator Ron Brownstein had already observed on CNN during the overnight counting that exit interviews and polling taken at the voting stations after people had voted showed Trump was winning close to half of all nontertiary degree-holding Republicans who were voting. And that cohort significantly overlaps with the people who used to be called Reagan Democrats as well as with blue-collar workers (or former workers).

Meanwhile, traditional Democratic voters were significantly in Hillary Clinton’s camp, but independents (who can pick whichever party primary they wish to vote in in many states) were trending substantially towards Bernie Sanders. Bad news for both Trump and Clinton, however, is that they both still register poorly on the trust/don’t trust axis whenever a question like that has been asked by survey takers. It is going to be an extraordinary election when a majority of voters distrust the two likely candidates vying for the presidency.

Still, while Tuesday’s voting has been significant in winnowing down the field and confirming frontrunners, numerous state contests still remain, along with large hauls of delegates. On 22 March, Arizona, Idaho, and Utah; 26 March has Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington; 5 April offers Wisconsin; and 9 April is Wyoming. Then, 10 days later, comes New York, followed by Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Indiana, West Virginia, Kentucky, Oregon and a number of other states, until, finally, on 7 June there is the big enchilada, America’s most populous state of California. As can be seen from this roster, primary voting in some very big states (in delegate terms) such as Pennsylvania, New York and California are still off in the future. And it is this very calendar that – presumably – gives both Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz their remaining hopes and dreams (or, perhaps, their delusions) that their respective opponents can yet be stopped, and that they can steal that so-called cheese, despite all the naysayers gathering their forces.

Cruz, in speaking to hundreds of his enthusiastic supporters in Houston, gave them a dripping-with-symbolic-bloody-red-meat, a veritable “run the table” of a hard-edged “victory” speech, despite his failing to win very many actual delegates on Tuesday. His remarks touched on almost every right-wing platitude there was as he placed the blame on President Obama’s shoulders for every one of the nation’s difficulties – both at home and abroad – and as he set out his own right-wing legislative agenda, should he manage to catch up to Trump, gain the nomination, and then pummel Clinton into defeat in the general election. Or as he told his followers, “after tonight, America now has a clear choice”, adding that only he and Donald Trump have a shot at winning the Republican nomination, before going on to slam Trump as well as the Democrats.

By contrast, as Hillary Clinton, in her victory speech, had said, “The next president will walk into the Oval Office next January, sit down in that desk, and start making decisions that will affect the lives and the livelihoods of everyone in this country, indeed everyone on this planet.”

She then listed the three big tests she believes the next president must face and then argued Donald Trump comes up short for each of them.

Steven Stromberg, reporting for The Washington Post, had written, “‘First,’ she [Clinton] said, ‘can you make positive differences in people’s lives?’ She mentioned a series of policies she would like to pursue — lowering student debt, providing affordable child care, investing in infrastructure. One could object to one proposal or the other — cutting student loan interest rates for everyone, for example, instead of just for those who need it. But she brought the speech back to her larger point about political responsibility. ‘Every candidate makes promises like this. But every candidate owes it to you to be clear and direct about what our plans will cost and how we’re going to make them work,’ she said, establishing a standard that she has satisfied more than any other presidential candidate this year. ‘That’s the difference between running for president and being president,’ she declared, eliciting some of the loudest cheers of the night.

The next test, Clinton explained, is ‘can you keep us safe?’ ‘Our commander-in-chief has to be able to defend our country, not embarrass it,’ she said. ‘When we hear a candidate for president call for rounding up 12-million immigrants, banning all Muslims from entering the United States, when he embraces torture, that doesn’t make him strong, it makes him wrong.’ Clinton nailed Trump for being reckless. But she is already running a risk not putting national security first on the list of presidential priorities. She needs to expand this section to explain what she would do rather than merely what she would avoid doing. Foreign affairs should be one of Clinton’s core strengths.

Clinton’s third and final test is the most pointedly anti-Trump: ‘Can you bring our country together again?’ She condemned Trump’s ‘bluster and bigotry,’ saying that ‘to be great, we can’t be small’. ‘We can’t lose what made America great in the first place.’ Once again, she contrasted Trump’s rhetoric with her experience. ‘Running for president is hard, but being president is harder,’ she said. ‘No one person can succeed in the job without seeking and finding common ground.’ Clinton has a record of working with Republicans; like her foreign policy point, she should develop this one to show off her strengths as much as highlight Trump’s weaknesses.”

This was clearly not a speech crowing about her night’s work trouncing Bernie Sanders but, rather, setting out the terms of engagement with her likely Republican nemesis, The Donald, instead.

In the days leading up to these 15 March results, much was made of the increasingly angry, violent texture of the crowds at Trump rallies. Trump smirked and sniggered his way around any thought he might be responsible for all that “righteous” anger on the part of his supporters. Moreover, he insinuated that protesters at his rallies were really some kind of attack by fifth columnists stealthily sent by the Bernie Sanders politburo black arts section (a charge that has been vehemently denied by Sanders, just as the violence at Trump rallies has disavowed by Trump’s own Republican opponents).

In reality, it is the very tenor of Trumps’ remarks that have contributed significantly to revving up the levels of anger and intolerance palpable at his crowds, although some protesters seemed to be prepared for a bit of a tussle as well. (Some often-replayed TV footage of one of those events showed a few demonstrators wearing crash helmets – just in case, apparently.) Still, the Trumpian rhetoric that has repeatedly called for “taking out” protesters, has promised to pay legal costs for anyone detained for assaulting protesters, and that he said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in New York City without losing any of his supporters has clearly helped ramp up the temperature and stoke fires of belief anyone who dares disagree with him is un-American – or a traitor.

But where does so much of this anger – and Trump’s bizarre metamorphosis from TV pitchman to its champion and grand marshal – come from? Aside from the rather visible feeling there is a racialised quality to his rhetoric, what with his demonised references to Mexicans, Chinese, Muslims and anybody else who he deems a target, recent analysis points out that a real economic basis for this should not be overlooked.

As a just-released report by Mark Muro and Siddharth Kulkarni of the Brookings Institution (a highly regarded think tank in Washington) has explained, “Tom Edsall [a commentator at the New York Times] fingers the ‘end of net upward mobility’ and the ‘shrinkage of the middle class.’ Norman Ornstein [a prominent elections observer] points to the Wall Street bailouts after the financial collapse of 2008. And for that matter, Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities stresses the frustration of decades of stagnant to declining real wages for low- and middle-earning workers. All of which seems about right. However, the Rust Belt geography of the nation’s anger suggests another, perhaps deeper, explanation for the populist rage that has driven Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders victories in primaries from New Hampshire to Michigan.”

The Brookings study posted a chart showing the substantial decline in American employment in manufacturing industries over the past 35 years, explaining, “Reflecting decades of deindustrialisation, it displays one of the most crucial sources of anger among working-class Americans — including those in upcoming primary states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. In this regard, the chart traces not just the demolition of labour-intensive commodity manufacturing in America but also a crucial source of this year’s backlash against Wall Street, managerialism, and globalism, especially in Rust Belt states. According to these data, globalisation, offshoring, and automation have since 1980 liquidated nearly 7 million manufacturing jobs in US communities—more than one-third of US manufacturing positions — as manufacturing employment plunged from 18.9-million jobs to 12.2-million. Moreover, as the chart depicts, while the trend is longstanding, it actually accelerated in the 2000s.”

Brookings went on to point out, “As to the labour market, wage, and social impacts of these developments, they have been brutal — as is well known. Notwithstanding the heralded consumer benefits of trade and deindustrialisation, these trends have also created substantial adjustment costs and distributional consequences in the labor market, with much of the pain visited on blue-collar workers in manufacturing-oriented metro areas. Exacerbating all of this, meanwhile, was the onset of what the economists David Autor, David Dorn, and Gordon Hanson call the ‘China shock’ — the period beginning in 1991 when local factories found their outputs competing directly with Chinese imports. Those wondering about the deepest sources of populist anger in 2016 will find no better guide than the same authors’ painstaking new analysis of the regional and worker impacts of the China shock.”

The Brookings study concludes that given this mass decline in blue-collar employment, and with the sector only recently beginning to stabilise, this decline is a primal scene of economic dissatisfaction. Accordingly, it is one whose impacts will be felt politically for the coming generation of elections and political life in America – regardless of whether the angry break for someone like Donald Trump or for Bernie Sanders instead, as well as whether there will actually be sufficient angry voters to put Trump into the White House.  To be continued. DM

Photo: US Republican presidential candidate John Kasich with his daughter Emma (L), wife Karen (2-L), and daughter Reese (R), speaks during an election night rally at Baldwin Wallace University, in Berea, Ohio, USA, 15 March 2016. EPA/DAVID MAXWELL

  • J Brooks Spector
    brooks spector 02 BW
    J Brooks Spector

    Spector settled in Johannesburg after a career as a US diplomat in Africa and East Asia. He has taught at the U. of the Witwatersrand, been a consultant for an international NGO, run a theatre, and been a commentator for South African and international print/broadcast/online media, in addition to writing for The Daily Maverick from day one. He says he learned everything he needs to know about politics from ‘Casablanca.’ Maybe he's cynical about some things, but a late Beethoven string quartet, John Coltrane’s music and a dish of Pad Thai will bring him close to tears.

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