With a potential rematch of Bush v Clinton in the offing, US democracy is in danger of atrophying, writes George Kerevan
YOU’D be laughed out of the room if you suggested it as the plot for a TV soap. Imagine: Hillary Clinton, the wife of a former (philandering) US president, gets her own back by going into politics and serving as a tough, no-nonsense foreign secretary. Now she plans to run for the White House itself.
Meanwhile, on their sprawling ranch in windy Texas, the oil-rich Bush clan are plotting to defeat Hillary and seize the US government for a third time. Patriarch George H, who founded the family fortune wildcatting in the Gulf of Mexico, was briefly president before being defeated by Hillary’s “good old boy” husband, Bill. He nurtures a grudge.
George H got revenge when son George W (a reformed drunkard) took back the White House on a legal technicality, despite winning a minority of the vote. It helped that the disputed ballots were in Florida, where younger brother Jeb Bush was governor. Now the Bush clan are bent on installing Jeb as the next president instead of Hillary.
Can this story of oligarchy and privilege really be happening in the United States, supposedly the greatest democracy on earth? Has the Jeffersonian Republic lost its virtue and become an empire in all but name, as Rome did under Augustus and the later caesars? Has vested interest and big money finally subverted a constitution written specifically (yet in mellifluous prose) to outlaw despotism and hereditary rule? Answer: a resounding yes.
It is easy to agree that Hillary makes a superb candidate: battle-hardened, globally experienced, emotionally secure, intelligent, articulate and perfect as the first female president. In fact, if I’d had a vote, Hillary would have been my choice in 2008, rather than the smooth talking but distinctly ineffectual Barack Obama, who was the candidate of the Senate Democratic machine.
That said, there is political life beyond Hillary for the Democrats. On the distaff side, there is Elizabeth Warren, a brainy, card-carrying liberal (she’s senator for Massachusetts) with a common touch. Or fiery Kirsten Gillibrand, the popular senator from New York. Gillibrand is soon to publish a memoir to encourage women “to make their voices heard” – code that she intends a political career beyond New York state.
Nor are the Democrats lacking in male talent. There’s governor Andrew Cuomo of New York, though the fact that he’s the son of Mario, a previous New York governor, is further proof that America is turning into an oligarchy. Martin O’Malley, Maryland’s governor and twice mayor of Baltimore (not an easy job), has proved he can actually run things.
At this stage, with two years to go, it’s hard to see Hillary being beaten for the Democratic nomination. Polls show her with 63 per cent support among Democrat voters, and vice-president Joe Biden trailing second at 13 per cent. A few other contenders might throw their hats in the ring in order to get national exposure, but Hillary is it.
On the Republican side, matters are more complex. The American right is split between the populist Tea Party insurgency (an American Ukip) and the party’s wealthy, conservative establishment. The latter knows that traditional Republican voters – angry, elderly, white, working class – are facing demographic extinction. To win the White House, the Republicans need a candidate who can reach out to the centre and minority voters, without alienating the party’s white, conservative core.
In 2012, the Republicans found it near impossible to find a presidential nominee who could pull off this trick. Instead, they got a string of political lunatics, amateurs and would-be demagogues who largely self-destructed when put in front of a TV camera. This time, the Republican establishment (meaning its wealthy backers) are determined to avoid another embarrassing beauty contest. Which is why they are promoting a third Bush candidacy.
Jeb Bush’s chances have been radically altered by the self-destruction of the guy who was supposed to be the Republican front-runner, governor Chris Christie of New Jersey. Christie, who looks like a character in The Sopranos, has a resonance with white, working class conservatives yet is more centrist in his politics. But he has been engulfed in scandal after it became known an aide had deliberately orchestrated a traffic jam as political retribution against a local mayor who was causing Christie trouble.
Is Jeb Bush the man for the job? “He would be outstanding,” says Henry Kissinger (yes, Doctor Strangelove is still alive). Jeb has all the money he needs to campaign, plus the formidable Bush machine to campaign for him: eg call in a lifetime of favours owed. Jeb is also liberal on immigration (for a Republican), which is central to winning the Latino vote. But these are not the attributes needed in the Republican primaries against Tea Party insurgents. In those ideological circles, being “soft” on immigration, or receiving encomiums from Kissinger, are the kiss of death. In fact, the latest polls suggest the Republican nominations battle is the most wide-open in decades. The five leading candidates are within four percentage points of each other. And even if Jeb wins the nomination, Hillary is beating him 53 to 41 per cent in head-to-head polls.
There have been dynasties in US politics since day one – witness the Adams family, who supplied the second and sixth presidents. Yet there is something deeply depressing about another Clinton versus Bush rematch. Regardless of who enters the White House, the oligarchy will have won. An oligarchy not of erudite, gentleman farmers but of hedge fund managers and media tycoons intent on manipulating the system for their own benefit. And as befits an oligarchy, there is not really that much difference in the political positions of Hillary or Jeb.
My long-term worry is that beneath the rowdy façade, American democracy is atrophying. In the 2012 presidential election, the voter turnout was a disturbing 57.7 per cent. Throw in the generation-long stasis in the living standards of ordinary Americans and the insanely widening gulf between rich and poor, and America could become very combustible indeed.