Rockin’ all over the world – in a perpetual election season

Rockin’ all over the world – in a perpetual election season
Former US Vice President Joe Biden delivers the Class Day address at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA 24 May 2017 (reissued 25 April 2019). Biden announced that he will seek democratic nomination for the 2020 US elections. EPA-EFE/LISA HORNAK

All over the world, somewhat dazed and confused voters are confronting the issues of who will get their vote this time. Former US Vice President Joe Biden’s formal entry into the American presidential race has already served to stir up the electoral competition in the US. Will there be yet further surprises?

South Africans are justly caught up in the final days of their own election, even though, at the national level, it seems almost certain the African National Congress will retain control. (At the provincial level, though, things are a bit more fluid, with the possibility that the ANC could be forced to govern Gauteng in a coalition, while the Democratic Alliance may lose its once solid majority in the Western Cape as well.)

Meanwhile, India is continuing its enormous national electoral process, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi aims for a parliamentary majority again. Further east, Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo has already managed to gain a victory for a new term in office. In Israel, meanwhile, that nation just wrapped up its election, as the new Blue and White Party tied Binyamin Netanyahu’s rightist Likud Party in parliamentary seats – but it seems unable to stop Likud from forming a new government with a still-to-be-determined coalition built out of gaggle of small, even more right-wing and religious parties.

And on Sunday, Spain was in the midst of its own national election with the very distinct possibility that a very right-wing party, Vox, will become central to a new governing coalition in the country. This would be the first time for an avowedly right-wing party in government since the country’s longtime dictator, Francisco Franco, ruled the nation after the Spanish Civil War until 1975.

And lest we forget, there is that electoral adventure unfolding in the United States. India’s electoral process includes many more people in it, but there is little doubt the American electoral adventure is more complex and takes even more time than any other nation’s electoral cycle.

Now that former Vice President Joe Biden has joined 19 others in seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination to be that party’s candidate in an election that only occurs in November 2020, an apparently full roster of candidates is now set. With this entry by Joe Biden, his party will now undergo a long, drawn-out winnowing down to a much smaller handful of presumably viable candidates. Then it will go on until the candidate with an overwhelming lead in delegates awarded through the various state primaries and caucuses is formally nominated in the party’s national convention. In the midst of all this, there will be intense competition for raising the enormous funds needed to run for office.

At least at this point, incumbent President Donald Trump – despite all of his now-well-documented missteps, prevarications, lies, and domestic and international policy debacles – will be his party’s nominee, with only some symbolic opposition by renegade politician, former Massachusetts Governor and 2016 Libertarian Party’s vice-presidential pick, William (Bill) Weld. As a result, Donald Trump has a free field of fire to attack any and all of his potential opponents, even as the horde of Democrats will be forced to engage, in that famous judgement of Thomas Hobbes about the natural order of society, of “the war of all against all”.

With the entry of Joe Biden as a formal candidate, the campaign for the nomination, at least in its current, early phase, is lining up as a kind of conflict between those like Senators Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders – who would propose major new, national economic programmes and complex policy initiatives – and someone like Biden who wants to calm a national state of anger and growing enervation. In just a few days, he has already attempted to cast himself as the candidate who would be the national restorer and reassurer; the man who would soothe the agitated national psyche, and be the right man to heal the breaches and wounds that have resulted from Trump’s ongoing misrule.

Longtime conservative commentator George Will (certainly no supporter of Biden over the years), sensing this impulse, wrote at the end of the week in The Washington Post:

Biden, whose smile is Jack Nicholson’s without the naughtiness, is not angry. His sporadic attempts at seeming so are transparently, and engagingly, synthetic. Neither, however, are most Americans angry. Rather, they are embarrassed and exhausted. Biden has a talent for embarrassing himself, but not the nation, and he probably might seem to weary voters to be something devoutly desired: restful.”

That was, in fact, the pitch in his video announcement of his formal candidacy, in addition to slamming the message of Donald Trump, of course.

Meanwhile, while Donald Trump faces virtually no intra-party battle, so far, his circumstances are not obstacle-free by any means. While he has at least dodged an immediately lethal bullet from the two volumes of the Mueller report, the unpalatable details of a Trump campaign that played footsie with various people associated with the Russian government or its bot factory in order to gain an edge in the general election campaign against Hillary Clinton, have been laid bare for all to grimace over – or worse.

The second aspect of the Mueller examination has been an unflinching look at the president and all his men and women’s efforts to obstruct the Mueller investigation in its work for the past two years. Moreover, the report detailed how the president was evidently prevented from insisting on some rather serious illegal activities and the foundation for a potential impeachment and conviction, only because some of those senior staffers refused to carry out some of the more outrageous orders.

But there is a third, yet-to-be-written volume, metaphorically speaking, that would constitute the potentially damning financial shenanigans from the Trump style of operating. (Note: Shenanigans is a word that, among contemporary politicians, only Joe Biden can deliver with great theatrical contempt.)

There are several key elements to this. The first is the possibility that, over the years, the Trump business empire became deeply beholden to large amounts of effectively laundered Russian oligarch money, washed through the compliant books of the Deutsche Bank. Were that the case, it would open up concerns of potential undue influence on Trump by Russians with close ties to the Kremlin. Second, there is the opaque state of the Trump finances, given his death grip on releasing his tax returns, unlike every other president since Gerald Ford in the 1970s. The third is the possibility of federal tax law infractions – both small and large – based on the standard modus operandi of the Trump businesses.

Collectively, these issues are now being examined by prosecutors in the Southern District of New York (i.e. Manhattan) and perhaps the federal tax authorities as well. But they will be coming under the purview of the various committees of a House of Representatives now controlled by some tough-minded Democrats as committee chairs such as Adam Schiff of the House Intelligence Committee, Elijah Cummings of the House Oversight Committee, and Jerry Nadler of the Judiciary Committee.

Over the coming year and some, these committee chairs will lead their committees in their constitutionally mandated oversight roles, holding hearings and issuing summonses and subpoenas for damaging documents and testimony. What comes out of all this could well be a compelling public theatre, as well as numerous revelations that are deeply damaging to the Trump reputation, but not, perhaps, quite enough to end his presidency before November 2020. The Trump administration will inevitably fight nearly every investigatory effort, therefore, all the way to the Supreme Court, and that fight, too, will likely be riveting political theatre.

But, of course, even though he seems the current front-runner among Democrats, Joe Biden has some of his own troubles in demonstrating a convincing, winning posture. Throughout his career, he has been known to stumble with his public garrulousness and from gaffes such as that charge of plagiarism in cribbing words by British politician Neil Kinnock in one of Biden’s major speeches. Then, too, there has been his admitted touchy-feeliness with women, inconsistent with the #MeToo era, even if no one has charged any sexual intent by Biden. More seriously, there is the still-bitter taste for many from the way he chaired the Senate hearings of the nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, and, crucially, the way those hearings had maltreated Anita Hill when she had testified to charge Thomas with sexual harassment when she had served him as his law clerk.

Finally, there is the challenge of age. Put bluntly, the question is whether, at 76, he is just too old. An irony, of course, is that Donald Trump is also in his seventies, and Biden’s presumed chief challenger for the nomination, Bernie Sanders, is even older than Biden is. While 70 may be the new 50 by some standards, the presidency (and even running for the office) is a tremendously punishing effort – physically and mentally. And Donald Trump has already made Biden’s stamina a topic du jour among the presidential tweetstorm.

In this sense, Biden’s (and Sanders’ to some degree) key task, at the beginning of this campaign, is to create a narrative of a man fit for the presidency by virtue of his near half-century in public office, without that point also reminding people that he is at the age when one is usually referred to as an elder statesman.

Don’t be too surprised if the American electorate is, in 2019-2020, subjected to a growing number of photo and video moments of Biden (and Trump and Sanders too) being active, vigorous, and all sweaty, perhaps even something in the manner of those “manly man” images of Vladimir Putin enjoying bare-chested fishing and riding, and the showing off of his virtuosity as a karate-ka – or is it as a judo master? Maybe some bright spark will even organise a televised debate with an athletic prowess element in it too? It is going to be quite a campaign. DM


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