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27 April 2017 07:23 (South Africa)
Politics

$4 billion later, US midterm election finish line beckons

  • 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.

  • Politics
mid-term

It is – finally - the day for America’s midterm election. This time for many it has probably felt like a national, virtual-reality version of “Groundhog Day”. Americans have lived through a seeming lifetime of political activity – first the interminable campaigning for the primary elections and then the months leading up to today’s polling. All that’s left is the vote later on Tuesday. By BROOKS SPECTOR.

About R100 per person has been spent for every man, woman and child in America (roughly $4 billion) on behalf of thousands of candidates at the local, state and national levels in a blizzard of advertising on radio, TV, along streets and roads, in mailboxes and via social networking. And it has paid for an army of campaign workers, pre-election research and polling, as well as all the other spending now essential for carrying out sophisticated political campaigns in 21st century America.

In that country’s multilayered political system, a midterm election means that roughly a third of the Senate is up for election every two years, the entire membership of the House of Representatives is up for grabs and numerous governors, state legislators, mayors and regiments of local officials are all on ballots.

While the president and vice president are not up for re-election, a veritable tsunami of commentary, analysis and advocacy journalism on radio, TV and the blogosphere has been explaining that this election is effectively a referendum on the Obama administration. Meanwhile, the president, vice president, their spouses, best friends, assorted stars and political advisors have been criss-crossing the country to try to rally support for the increasingly beleaguered Democratic Party and its candidates. The country has also had to endure a quasi-religious, ostensibly non-political rally organised by Fox News political haranguer Glen Beck in Washington, followed by a very different kind of rally organised by comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

But, such is the anxiety around the current administration that many ostensibly Democratic candidates have waved off a presidential show of support, choosing to demonstrate their political independence in an effort to hold off resurgent Republicans. Incumbency has, for many, become akin to a curse. The campaigner of choice for Democrats has instead been former president Bill Clinton and his tireless efforts on behalf of Democrats have brought back memories of those happier days of Clinton-era economic sunshine.

Besides the impending chastisement of the Democrats, the big story of this election, of course, is the impact of the Tea Party movement. If the subtext of the 2008 presidential election was an extraordinary mobilisation of younger, often disaffected voters in tandem with the new tool of social networking, to channel enthusiasm on behalf of Barack Obama’s incantations of change they could believe in, this year voter anxiety and fear has fuelled the Tea Party insurrection in its place.

Photo: Delaware Republican senatorial candidate Christine O'Donnell gestures as she speaks during a Tea Party Express rally in Wilmington, Delaware, October 31, 2010. REUTERS/Tim Shaffer.

More a quasi-religious movement than a formal political party, about 120 candidates appear to have Tea Party endorsements. If enough of them win, this should fuel a further rightward lurch in the Republican Party at the national level. This will be truly significant, if, in line with all the polling and electoral simulations, the Republicans gain control of the House of Representatives by up to 50 seats out of 435 - and come close to taking control of the Senate as well. The latest predictions are that the Senate will remain in Democratic hands – but only just - with a likely final tally giving 51 or 52 seats to the Democrats to 49 or 48 to the Republicans.

There are two underlying causes for all this “sturm und drang”. One is the continuing economic weakness of the country, and most especially persistent unemployment hovering near 10%, following the financial collapse of 2007. This is now coupled with a growing fear the Obama administration has been unable to deal with it economically and politically – or has chosen the wrong remedies.

Despite being passed during the Bush administration, the national bank bailout has generated a blowback of criticism as more and more people, fearful of losing their homes, see the bailout as a demonstration of a fundamental unfairness in the economy – one path for the rich, another for everyone else. Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s nearly $800 billion stimulus package, despite the hopes of its proponents, has so far failed to generate a significant re-energising of the economy and a decline in unemployment, leading to feelings, cleverly and effectively exploited by Republicans, that the stimulus package was simply a way to impose growing federal control over the economy.

Obama’s 2008 triumph was a seeming demonstration of the collapse of support – even a revulsion - for the Bush invasion of Iraq and the continuation of the war in Afghanistan, together with enthusiasm for a broader social agenda that included financial reform, healthcare reform, infrastructure investment and climate-change legislation. Most analysts now agree, however, that the Obama administration fell victim to a kind of hubris and a sudden and unexpected flat-footedness in its communication skills. While Obama gained good marks for setting a definite route out of the Iraq quagmire, his message became muddied by his administration’s decision to build up American forces in Afghanistan, preparatory to their departure next year.

But the biggest problem seems to have been holding the course on a national domestic agenda in the face of continuing unemployment and economic malaise. Spending his political credibility in getting Congress to pass a healthcare reform package, but allowing Congress to carry out its typical horse-trading over this, ended up being read by many voters as a presidential failure to demonstrate leadership or control of message. This in turn allowed his opponents to recast the measure for the public (in tandem with the big insurance companies who stood to lose revenue) as another of those Democratic efforts to exert government control of an ostensibly private sector of the economy.

Photo: California Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown speaks during a campaign rally ahead of Tuesday's election in Oakland, California November 1, 2010. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

The likely result of all of this will be a thorough chastising of the Democrats and their president, as Republicans gain control of the House and come to the brink of taking the Senate. This divided government will present Obama with a tough choice from 3 November onward. In one scenario, he can find a way to carry out a strategy of political triangulation in the way of Bill Clinton, by plucking an occasional legislative victory after luring a few Republicans to cross the party line for various reasons. Or he can try to demonise Republicans in the style of Harry Truman, painting them as the enemy of ordinary hardworking citizens in the run-up to the 2012 election.

The results of the election will also set up the ground as Republicans jostle for attention and the credit for their putative 2010 win. We’re going to be hearing a lot more from Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee, Mitch Daniels and a whole pack of other potential claimants to the Republican nomination in 2012.

Also, and somewhat overlooked in much of the coverage of this election so far, is the fact that likely Republican wins in state legislatures and governorships will mean they will control much of the redistricting of congressional seats that comes in the wake of the 2010 national census. Northern and Midwestern states like New York and Illinois will almost certainly lose congressional districts to Southern and Southwestern states and control of this process allows creation of districts that maximise Republican Party chances in succeeding elections.

Races to watch include those of the two Republican businesswomen, Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman, trying to unseat current Senator Barbara Boxer and fend off Pat Brown’s own run for a return to the state’s governorship in California. These two races may be a good measure of the actual impact of campaign spending to move voters. Also, keep an eye on the Senate race in Florida where Republican Marco Rubio is trying to beat former Republican governor (now independent) Charlie Crist and Democrat Kendrick Meek; the Paladino-Cuomo race for the New York governorship; as well as Senate races in places like Pennsylvania, Nevada and Washington that will be important measures of the impact of the Tea Party movement.

A final point, however, is that, despite all the polling, some of the results may yet be different than expected. Many states have adopted advance balloting that means many have already voted (and thus ignored the last-minute pleas of candidates and the effects of their campaign spending). Also important – especially in midterm elections – is the ability of political campaigns to motivate voters to actually go to the polls and vote. With rates of participation generally well below 50% in typical midterm elections, voter enthusiasm becomes a key, and somewhat unpredictable, variable that only becomes known when the votes are counted after the polls close today. Stay tuned. DM


For even more – read the coverage in any American newspaper, on every American television network and on most US blogs on the Internet. They will be filled with coverage. Try The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, Time, CNN and Pew Research, just for starters.

Main photo: Two young supporters of U.S. Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) wave signs at a campaign rally for Reid at Canyon Springs High School in Las Vegas, Nevada November 1, 2010. REUTERS/Rick Wilking.

  • 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.

  • Politics

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