American diversity is on display in this year’s presidential elections in a manner previously unseen in American history. In a country that has only ever elected white male presidents, all of them Protestants bar JFK, change is afoot.
A progressive African-American or a woman will be the Democratic Party nominee. Meanwhile on the Republican side, an unpredictable battle continues between an Italian-American, a septuagenarian, a Mormon and a jovial former preacher with a funny name.
It is likely that Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or a non-establishment Republican will be the next US president. The obvious reason for the rise of these new types of politicians is the unpopularity of Republican president George W. Bush. Turning in a new direction thus appeals to many Americans.
The Republican Party has always been the party of the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) establishment, while the 20th century saw the Democrats become the party of so-called “minorities” - a grouping often said to include women.
The last time the Republican Party was in such a hole was in the mid-1970s in the wake of the Watergate scandal, Nixon’s resignation and the loss of the Vietnam War. In response Americans elected President Carter. He wanted the people to call him Jimmy, turned up to work in jeans and promised a foreign policy guided by a commitment to human rights. Those unusual times also provided the springboard for Ronald Reagan’s unconventional rise to the presidency.
America is again living through unusual times, which has opened up political opportunities for newcomers and outsiders. The big winner has been Barack Obama, who, like Jimmy Carter, offers Americans a break from the past and a chance to feel good about their country again. Obama’s style is chiefly measured and professorial, but on the big occasions he has the ability to inspire. The fact that he has a serious chance of being the first Afro-American president is historic in a nation that has only one black Senator out of a total of 100; and has only elected five black Senators and two black Governors in its entire history.
First, however, he needs to defeat Hillary Clinton. Some have tried to suggest Hillary is an establishment candidate. This claim ignores her symbolism for many American women who now see their opportunity to elect the first female president ever. Like all the Democrats, her message offers a damning critique of the Bush administration and a new direction for American politics.
Hillary’s strengths are her drive, her first hand knowledge of policy-making and her mastery of policy details (in these areas she is a more impressive candidate than her husband was in 1992). However, she joins Al Gore and John Kerry in failing the “living room test” for many Americans with poll results bearing out her continued unpopularity with a large number of voters. This at times visceral dislike (and distrust of the Clintons more generally) makes Hillary a high risk nominee for the Democrats. Further, even though Hillary’s policies are more centrist than those of Obama, her presidency would be more conflict ridden than his.
2008 is certainly not the best year to be running as a Republican. As a result the leading candidates are all running as individuals first and Republicans second. Of the likely Republican contenders Mike Huckabee is slightly ahead at this stage. Huckabee is running as a compassionate Christian conservative - I heart Huckabee - to use the grammar of the current president and the title of a recent film. He has been the most willing to distance himself from Bush’s foreign policy; however, his folksy style is reminiscent of Bush in 2000.
The next favoured candidate is Senator John McCain whose biography includes over five years as a POW during the Vietnam War. McCain has been a consistent Bush rival and critic. However, this long-time maverick’s campaign faltered badly last year when he was punished for his moderate views on immigration and struggled playing front-runner rather than his more familiar role of the candid outsider.
The last two possible nominees are Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani. Both men have been running from their formerly pro-choice and moderate social views. Romney is the slickest candidate in the field and offers articulate competence with a TV anchor-man’s smile. Giuliani is running on Bush/Cheney foreign policy, and is possibly even more bellicose in his attitudes toward Iran and other American adversaries.
We should know who the Democratic and Republican nominees are by early February with the new president being elected on November 4. It is highly likely that whatever side of politics the winner comes from, the new president will have disavowed significant elements of the Bush presidency. It is also likely the new president will not be another white male protestant. Either way, the Bush presidency may well have pushed America into turning a new page in its history.
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