It's The Bushes And Clintons Again

by Vijay Rao - Jun 12, 2015 01:48 PM +05:30 IST
It's The Bushes And Clintons Again

The chatter in the news cycle is slowly, yet inexorably, moving the conversation towards one single question: who will succeed Barack Obama as the next US President? The upcoming election for that office is now a year and a half away, and already candidates, donors, campaign hacks, journalists and other sundry opinion givers (like yours truly) are taking positions and making predictions.

2016 will be a highly consequential election year. This has been true for the four previous 21st-century presidential elections and there is no reason for this one to be any different. Taking recent history in sequence, the 2000 election was made consequential by subsequent events. At the time (however much one may have felt differently) there was little to separate the governing principles of a Gore/Clinton from a Bush. It was only after 9/11 and the Bush response (ie. the Iraq war and so-called Bush Doctrine) that daylight could be seen between the rival party positions. Bush’s way got a temporary endorsement in 2004 before being summarily rejected in 2008 in our young century’s most incredible election.

The election of Barack Obama was less an endorsement of a particular policy platform (it needs to be repeated that “hope” is not a policy) rather than an emphatic rejection of the politics of the previous two decades. It is important to note Obama ran against the records of both the Bushes and the Clintons. What the country voted for was “change”.

What the country got, however, was more of the same. Consider his first nominees for the three most important cabinet positions. Obama appointed a Clinton at State, a protégé of Bush’s outgoing Treasury Secretary, and famously re-appointed Bush’s very own Defense Secretary. Promises to shut down the jail at Guantanamo were left unfulfilled. Drone usage and an aggressive approach to terrorism in foreign countries were intensified. Over-reliance on unreliable allies like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia continued. And most significantly of all, American domestic politics remained as divided, bitter and shrill as ever.

This is not to say that nothing changed – Obama pushed through a radical health care reform and (as he has often boasted) “ended” the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, although it seems that someone forgot to inform the Iraqis and Afghans of this.

But the central point remains – if anything the American body politic has grown more partisan in the last seven years and this was unexpected in the immediate aftermath of the Obama victory. What was certainly unexpected was the emphatic re-emergence of the Bushes and the Clintons, the glorious leaders of the “politics as usual” camp. It is in this respect that the promise of the Obama presidency has had its most significant failure. To persuade a country that was sick of the status quo that the alternative is a poorer choice is indeed noteworthy.

So we now return to an era when multi-millionaires try and convince the yeoman farmers of Iowa and the sturdy individualists of New Hampshire that (to borrow a phrase), “they feel their pain”. Rival party machines, with the attendant groups of PACs, SuperPACs, soft money and Rove-ian data crunching will dictate the narrative of the next year and a half. This includes apparently innocuous concepts like “opposition research,” a euphemism for large-scale and open character assassination. Billions of dollars will be spent in order for us to watch the spectacle of a Clinton beating a Bush at the ballot. All we need now is Ross Perot to bring back the nostalgia of 1992.

In many respects, America is a fundamentally different country to what it was in 1992. The conversation on issues like gay rights, immigration reform and race relations is dramatically different today than it was then. Information technology has completely revolutionized every aspect of the country, from peoples’ day to day lives, to the news cycle, political mobilization to political scandal (case in point – a controversy surrounding deleted emails from a personal server would have sounded like gibberish to the average voter of 1992). The experience of terrorism, war and subsequent retrenchment has left the foreign and military policy of America in a state of radical muddle-headedness (not to mention the disastrous impact of budget sequestration – an idea so insane only the US Congress could come up with it).

The most significant difference between 1992 and 2016, of course, is the question of national identity. 1992 saw America as the sole super-power, the successful leader of a global coalition to reverse the Saddamite invasion of Kuwait. A country poised to lead the world into a new age where history had ended. The question wasn’t whether the US would be a successful leader – the question was how it would exercise that leadership.

The US today has none of that confidence or exuberance. Battered by recession, hampered by a still festering and poisonous race divide, radically altered by bruising culture wars, and no longer confident after years of foreign policy failures, Americans today may probably feel glad that the political choice before them appears so charmingly conventional.

Vijay Rao is a writer based out of Bangalore.
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