The fi­nal count­down

Malta Independent - - DEBATE & ANALYSIS -

Ihave yet to re­call an­other Pres­i­den­tial Elec­tion that was so much the talk of the town. Peo­ple are gen­uinely in­ter­ested in the out­come of this elec­tion and 48 hours be­fore this un­rav­els, a sense of fore­bod­ing fills the air that has al­ready been elec­tri­fied by months of in­ten­sive cam­paign­ing. Claim­ing that the sig­nif­i­cance of this elec­tion is un­prece­dented would, in my opin­ion, be an er­ro­neous his­tor­i­cal judge­ment.

The elec­tion of 1860 led to the Repub­li­can Party (led by Lin­coln) tak­ing an anti-slav­ery plat­form that even­tu­ally led to the se­ces­sion of 11 states and the Civil War (1861-1865) that caused 750,000 deaths. The elec­tion of 1912 saw the split of the Repub­li­can Party af­ter for­mer Pres­i­dent Theodore Roo­sevelt ran on a third party ticket (the Pro­gres­sive Party or as it was nick­named the Bull Moose party). Roo­sevelt had lost the nom­i­na­tion to Wil­liam Howard Taft, weak­ened the party he led for eight years, and paved the way for Harold Wil­son to be elected. Wil­son over­saw World War I and fought to es­tab­lish the League of Na­tions, but failed. In 1932, Franklin De­lano Roo­sevelt came to power putting an end to the na­tional night­mare caused by the Great De­pres­sion. Roo­sevelt formed the New Deal coali­tion that re­aligned in­ter­est groups and po­lit­i­cal par­ties for the next 30 years.

Each elec­tion has its his­tor­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance and I dis­count the idea that this is the most im­por­tant ever. Ev­ery elec­tion is unique in dif­fer­ent ways. In the 19th cen­tury, Pres­i­dents bought ter­ri­tory and ex­panded the Amer­i­can main­land. The 20th cen­tury pro­pelled the USA to un­ri­valled in­dus­trial and mil­i­tary power that even­tu­ally led to Pax Amer­i­cana. The 21st cen­tury sees this power chal­lenged by state and non-state ac­tors and the su­per-power arena shared with China and Rus­sia. But against such a back­drop, who will be lead­ing the coun­try?

Why Trump?

Would a Trump win be a sur­prise? No. To un­der­stand the Trump phe­nom­e­non one needs to look be­yond Amer­ica’s borders. As Fa­reed Zakaria points out in the Oc­to­ber is­sue of For­eign Af­fairs Mag­a­zine, “Trump is part of a broad pop­ulist up­surge run­ning through the West­ern world.” This pop­ulist wave has reignited ide­o­log­i­cal flames at both ends of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum. Lead­ers have picked on peo­ple’s re­sent­ment of ‘the es­tab­lish­ment’, cry­ing foul at the lack of trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity of peo­ple in author­ity. Both Alexis Tsipras (Greek Prime Min­is­ter, on the left) and Vik­tor Or­ban (Hun­gar­ian Prime Min­is­ter, on the right) were elected on a plat­form that chal­lenges the le­git­i­macy of poli­cies en­acted in Brus­sels. Aus­tria, Italy, Nor­way, Spain and Swe­den have all ex­pe­ri­enced a surge in pop­ulist move­ments and par­ties. Not to men­tion the Brexit ref­er­en­dum, deal­ing an un­ex­pected blow to the Euro­pean project. Th­ese de­vel­op­ments ought to be read care­fully. Pop­u­lar re­sent­ment feeds on dis­sat­is­fac­tion, a card that Trump played very well (though very clum­sily).

Why Hil­lary?

Hil­lary Clin­ton pro­vides the counter per­spec­tive of what the Trump phe­nom­e­non is. She runs for of­fice af­ter more than 30 years in pub­lic life, bring­ing in both ex­pe­ri­ence and per­sonal bag­gage. Hil­lary rep­re­sents the es­tab­lish­ment Trump is protest­ing against. When she was the wife of an At­tor­ney Gen­eral, Gover­nor and Pres­i­dent of the United States, she never ac­cepted the role of a by­stander. A lawyer by pro­fes­sion, she has of­fered ad­vice to her hus­band, and took ac­tive pol­icy-mak­ing roles as First Lady. This earned her the re­spect of ad­mir­ers, and the dis­dain of her de­trac­tors. As Se­na­tor of New York, she ac­quired more promi­nence as a law-maker, paving the way for her Pres­i­den­tial cam­paign in 2008, where she was beaten by an­other anti-es­tab­lish­ment can­di­date who ran for change, Barack Obama. She picked up the most im­por­tant Cab­i­net post as Sec­re­tary of State and led sev­eral im­por­tant ne­go­ti­a­tions such as the Copen­hagen Ac­cord (on Cli­mate Change), re­vived the peace process in the Is­raeliPales­tinian con­flict (2010), and claimed that ‘free peo­ple gov­ern them­selves best’ dur­ing the Arab Spring. She vis­ited 79 coun­tries while in of­fice, over­saw the elim­i­na­tion of Osama bin Laden but had to take the flak when Am­bas­sador Stevens and three other Amer­i­cans were killed on 11 Septem­ber 2012.

Are polls re­li­able?

What was pre­vi­ously a fore­gone out­come, has now be­come a very un­cer­tain race where pun­dits and poll­sters can­not pro­vide an ac­cu­rate pic­ture of how the elec­tion will turn out. There are a num­ber of polls in the USA, most of which claim that they are us­ing the right method­ol­ogy. The Wash­ing­ton Post-ABC News Track­ing Poll gives Trump an edge while Moody (with an ac­cu­rate pre­dic­tion record since 1980) claims that Clin­ton will have a com­fort­able win, pos­si­bly a land­slide. As the pic­ture un­folds, a land­slide seems un­likely. The can­di­dates seem to be run­ning neck and neck and pub­lic opin­ion is squarely di­vided. Many a time, polls have been mis­lead­ing.

In 1948 Harry Tru­man pulled an ‘up­set vic­tory’ with con­ven­tional wis­dom ex­pect­ing oth­er­wise. Then Repub­li­can can­di­date Thomas Dewey was cer­tain to win with po­lit­i­cal ex­perts in­vari­ably agree­ing that the farmer from Mis­souri would be thrown out of of­fice with rel­a­tive ease. So was the per­cep­tion of this idea that the press went to print in the even­ing as­sured that the morn­ing af­ter would only be a con­fir­ma­tion. The iconic pic­ture of the Chicago Daily Tri­bune of 3 Novem­ber 1948 will re­main etched in col­lec­tive mem­ory. The news­pa­per’s blunder (early print­ing was nec­es­sary to en­sure dis­tri­bu­tion) served as a warn­ing for later elec­tions.

What if it is a tie?

The prospects of a tie are very re­mote. This sce­nario is a daunt­ing one as it lands the de­ci­sion in the hands of Congress. A tie can only hap­pen if both Hil­lary Clin­ton and Don­ald Trump win 269 elec­toral votes (there are 538 Elec­tors in the Col­lege). That is one short of the 270 that is re­quired to se­cure the Pres­i­dency. One poll that is con­sis­tent all through­out is that the next Congress will be a Repub­li­can one. The prospect of a Di­vided Gov­ern­ment is nor­mal in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, whereby the Ex­ec­u­tive (led by the Pres­i­dent) is rep­re­sented by one party, while Congress and/or Se­nate are rep­re­sented by an­other party. When this hap­pens, Amer­i­can gov­ern­ment can get stalled caus­ing it to shut down (for ex­am­ple 1995-1996 and 2013).

In the even­tu­al­ity of a tie in the Elec­toral Col­lege, the 12th Amend­ment of the Con­sti­tu­tion is trig­gered and the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives will choose the Pres­i­dent, while the Se­nate will choose the Vice Pres­i­dent. This hap­pened in 1824 where Congress voted for John Quincy Adams rather than the win­ner of the pop­u­lar vote, An­drew Jack­son. Though in dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances, Congress de­cided again the 1876 elec­tion, award­ing the Pres­i­dency to Ruther­ford Hayes at the ex­pense of Sa­muel Tilden who had won the pop­u­lar vote.

The Obama legacy

There are many con­sid­er­a­tions at the end of each Pres­i­dency. How will his­tory judge it? Some will claim that it will take decades, if not cen­turies, to make an as­sess­ment. There is one thing that is undis­puted about the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion – he pre­served the dig­nity of the Of­fice and gave an ex­am­ple of how tem­per­a­ment is a very im­por­tant at­tribute of lead­er­ship. As from Wed­nes­day, Obama will have a new Pres­i­dent-elect with whom he will be shar­ing eco­nomic and mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence. While the hand­hold­ing is cus­tom­ary, Pres­i­dent Obama will be free to carry out his ex­ec­u­tive or­ders un­til noon of Fri­day 20 Jan­uary 2017.

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