Friday, February 08, 2008

No clear winner on Tsunami Tuesday

Tsunami Tuesday is over, and the picture of the US electoral scene after what was virtually a national referendum on who should represent their party for the presidential election later this year is mixed. The Republican frontrunner is clear — maverick Senator John McCain —whose candidacy came back from the dead to sweep aside challengers and confound the influential socially conservative wing of his party.
But he has not yet delivered the knock-out blow to his rivals Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee. The situation in the Democratic camp is still hazy. If Hillary Clinton won voter and delegate rich New York, California, Massachusetts and New Jersey, Barack Obama swept up 13 of the 24 states that had their primaries on Tuesday. Both remain locked in a battle that may clarify by March 4 when the next big lot of primaries takes place, or actually go on to the party convention in Denver in August, for the final decision.


It is important to remember that this is not an election, but a nomination process. It is also run by the Republican and Democratic party state organisations and has all manner of rules that would bewilder an outsider. Thus, the Democratic national party has stripped Florida of all its delegates for having an early primary. The Republicans have halved their number for the same reason. California is even more complicated. First, both the Democrats and Republicans allow voters unaffiliated to either party to vote in the primary. Second, they allow them to cast absentee ballots by mail. As a result, some 4.1 million Californians had already cast their vote before February 5. These voters may have skewed the contest in favour of Clinton because the polls in the run-up to the Tsunami Tuesday showed Obama catching up. Even more complicated is the manner in which California distributes its delegates. 370 of the 441 delegates are allocated proportionally to presidential candidates; 241 of the 370 on basis of the votes cast in each of the state’s 53 Congressional constituencies. Then, 129 delegates are allotted to candidates based on the vote across the state. On May 18, the remaining 71 delegates will be selected from among party leaders and elected representatives.
Whatever be the outcome of the primaries in terms of the percentage of votes picked up, what matters is the number of delegates they have — as of now, the winning Democratic nominee needs 2025 out of a total of 4049 delegates and the Republican, 1191 of 2380. Tsunami Tuesday may have decided the way that 50 per cent or so delegates will vote, but none of the candidates are anywhere near their respective magic figures. As of now, Clinton leads the Democrats with 845 delegates, and Obama has 765 and on the Republican side we have McCain with 613, Romney 269, and Huckabee 190. As we have explained, so arcane are the Democratic rules in distributing delegates, that the true outcome of the primaries will take some time to emerge. The California vote may be in, but its delegates are yet to be allotted. But since the popular vote is available, the candidates will use the “bragging rights”— Hillary in Massachusetts and Obama in Missouri — to push on further for the next goal, the party presidential nomination.
The immediate consequence of Tsunami Tuesday will be that McCain has time on his side to rebuild his campaign and, more important, his rocky relationship with the conservative factions in his party. And while he will have time to consolidate his position, the Democrats could be slugging it out for some more months to come. The recent primaries show that they are now divided on race and gender lines and whoever wins will have to put in that much of a task of healing the rift. But the danger is that the fight could become so bitter that it could give McCain the needed opening when the actual presidential campaign gets under way in September.


But first McCain needs to not only clinch the nomination, but also heal the rift with the strong social conservative wing of his party. Just how he will square the circle on issues like abortion and immigration reform, where he has liberal views, with those of the conservatives is not clear. But in the end the latter have the choice of lumping it, or watching an even bigger enemy win the race — Hillary Clinton. Some fire-eaters say that they would rather see that happen than allow the GOP to lose its soul by having a McCain presidency.
As in many other countries of the world, there is an asymmetrically huge interest in India on the outcome of US electoral processes and polls. What do the current front runners signify for India ? A major issue of concern is the American non-proliferation policy and the place it occupies in America’s strategic calculations. While McCain, Clinton and Obama are broadly supportive of the Hyde Act that enabled the India-US Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, no one is taking a radical position, either for or against us. The Left will be glad to know that India does not occupy an important position in the strategic worldview of any of the leaders of the race at this time. Even Clinton who is co-chair of the Senate India caucus is cautious about committing support for a permanent seat for the country in the UN Security Council. Indeed, her stated commitment to pushing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty will pose major problems for the hawks in New Delhi who want to negotiate their way into the treaty instead of being told what to do. Obama has also promised the same and he goes a step further in backing the “verifiable global ban on the production of new nuclear weapons material.” We wonder how this would sound to those, many former Department of Atomic Energy officials, who oppose any kind of restraints on India’s nuclear programme in the context of the Indo-US nuclear deal. Obama has, somewhat uncomfortably retained that Democratic party agenda of pushing India and Pakistan to make peace on Kashmir. Clearly any one of these could emerge as obstacles in Indo-US relations in the coming years.


As a “traditional” Republican, McCain would be India’s best bet because he is unlikely to turn the non-proliferation screws on the country. Neither is he likely to get involved in one of those high-minded fits that periodically afflict the Democrats to resolve the problems of the world, and India and Pakistan in particular. McCain, a former POW and war veteran is a healthy realist, of the kind India can do business with. And speaking of business, he is the most forthright in dismissing concerns over outsourcing and efforts to undermine his country’s free trade posture.
Given the interest that merely the nomination process of American political parties is attracting across the world, we could demand that the US give a one-fourth of a vote to non-Americans to participate in the process. But more seriously, what it reveals is that, despite the profligacy of George W Bush, the US remains a pivotal global power. So it is a matter of great interest to everyone as to who will be the leader of the country.
What the campaign reveals till now is that while the failings of the Bush presidency have created an enormous yearning for change — the factor that Obama is tapping — worries about the economy could provide the decisive edge to a candidate. With foreclosures already upon them, and a recession around the corner, Americans would be keen to see experienced hands at the helm, rather than heed a soaring message calling for radical change.
This article appeared in Mail Today February 7, 2008

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