John McTernan: US in all its contradictions

The Vietnam Memorial is a fine example of the way America works: the folly and waste but also the pride and patriotism. Picture: AFP/Getty
The Vietnam Memorial is a fine example of the way America works: the folly and waste but also the pride and patriotism. Picture: AFP/Getty
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America may have been damaged by its budget squabble, but there is a conviction that for the forseeable future the presidency will remain with the Democrats, writes John McTernan

Washington was enjoying a late burst of autumn sun when I visited last week. The monumental landscape of the Mall was thronged with visitors.

At the Vietnam Memorial I got a reminder of the enduring America. That most uniquely American of sights – a veteran searching for the names of his fallen comrades. A former Marine – he wore a jacket with their motto “Semper Fidelis” and a matching baseball cap – who stepped close to the black wall of names when he found the one for which he was searching. Minutes passed as he stared in silence, rocking back and forth on his feet. An act of profound remembrance.

Finally, he pulled away slightly from the wall, stiffened his shoulders almost to attention, pinched the bridge of his nose to discreetly wipe away the tears welling in his eyes, and walked away in deep thought.

Here was the greatness of America in all its contradictions. The folly and utter waste of Vietnam. The pain. But also the pride and the patriotism.

America in the world was the sub-text of most of the discussions I had with politicians, think-tankers and commentators. Democrats were in a good mood. President Obama had gone toe-to-toe with the Tea Party – and had won comprehensively. But there was an acknowledgement that the shut-down had damaged America’s standing in the world. This came across in a number of different ways at the major conference I attended.

The Center for American Progress – the most influential progressive think-tank in the US, and indeed the world – was celebrating its tenth birthday. An audience of 100 progressives from round the world were addressed by a stellar line-up of speakers – from Al Gore, John Kerry and Jerry Brown to rising stars New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley (remember these names).

Speaking in the morning, both Madeleine Albright and former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard acknowledged that the US had been damaged globally by the shutdown. Julia Gillard’s was the sharpest observation. Noting that the US are committed to a “pivot to Asia” she pointed out that when President Obama cancelled his attendance at APEC (the organisation for Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation) it had spooked America’s Asian friends and allies.

The suggestion that domestic politics trumped foreign affairs worried them. For alliances to be long-term they also have to be constant, not subject to flickering attention.

Secretary of State John Kerry addressed these concerns directly. He came straight off a plane to speak at the conference. He had been in Paris, London and Rome on a three-day trip. In his words: “A marathon session with Prime Minister Netanyahu, with the London 11 Syrian support group, with Saud al-Faisal in Saudi Arabia and others.”

His overall message was clear and honest. In a passage worth quoting at length he said: “The leaders in that [Asia-Pacific] region agreed that the strength of our partnership is much greater than a moment in politics – thank heavens – but those politics also, I’m telling you, clearly weighed heavily on their minds. And it has entered into the calculation of leaders.

“As we negotiate with Iran, as we negotiate with the Middle East peace process in Israel, can we be counted on? Will the Congress come through? Can the President make an agreement which will be held? Believe me: The shutdown, and the dysfunction, and the simplistic dialogue that came with it, didn’t impress anyone about the power of America’s example.”

He framed it as a temporary, but real setback, and thoughtfully refined the description of America’s role in the world. Not the US as the world’s policeman: “That’s not what I’m talking about, and that’s not what President Obama’s talking about. We can’t solve every problem, certainly not on our own, but we remain the indispensable partner, the anchor of global security, and a catalyst for global prosperity.”

And the absolute conviction of everyone I spoke to was that for the forseeable future it would be Democrat presidents leading that process. That view is widely held and strongly rooted.

As one observer put it to me, there are now two US political systems – congressional and presidential. In the former the House of Representatives seats are almost entirely safe ones, with such massive majorities that hardly any seats ever change hands. So the only threat to a sitting congressman is in a primary, which is why – if you are a Republican – the Tea Party and the NRA hold such sway. If you don’t vote their line then they will pick someone – anyone – to run against you in your primary, and your political career will be over.

The consequence? A Republican Congress in the House of Representatives that has shifted radically to the right. Just how polarised things are was shown in a Washington Post analysis recently. In 1982 there were so many left-wing Republicans and right-wing Democrats that you could identify – from their votes – over 300 who broadly shared political beliefs. By 2012 that number had shrunk to around 15. This will stay the case as long as the Tea Party are influential. And they look like they are going nowhere.

The challenge for the Republicans is simply put. What wins in primaries is death in elections at large. One fact tells everything. The Republicans polled 28 per cent in the middle of the shutdown – their lowest ever rating. But that will not deter the Tea Party, who believe that is a strong base of true believers to build on.

Richard Nixon famously said that to win the presidency as a Republican you have to run to the right to gain the nomination and then run as fast as you can back to the centre to win the general election. As John McCain and Mitt Romney showed, even maverick and moderate Republicans can no longer get back to the centre, the nomination process generates too much baggage.

Any Republican moderate enough to be attractive to the general public – say New Jersey governor Chris Christie, or former governor Jeb Bush – is likely to get destroyed by the grass-roots in the primaries. The big issue? Immigration. There is a huge coalition – from business to the liberal-left – in favour of reform. With 12 million “illegals” in the US, reality dictates some form of regularisation, of “earned citizenship”. The hard right of the party will not accept this. In a recent report “GOP 13”, the great pollster Stan Greenberg studied Tea Party Republicans and concluded that they see everything through the prism of race. In this context Jeb Bush, Spanish-speaking, and with a Hispanic wife, is unelectable. Yes, you heard me, the Bushes are the moderates.

The stark fact is that every four years the US electorate gets 2 per cent less white, and until the Republican Party gets that, it will be Democrat presidents as far as the eye can see. Starting with Hillary in 2016.