Monday, September 15, 2008

Marked contrasts between the Republican and Democratic Conventions

Republican Politics, American Style
Published on September 11th in Metro Eireann By Charles Laffiteau

By the time you read this column it will be September 11th, the seventh anniversary of the al Qaeda airliner attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington DC. But for Senator John McCain and the Republicans assembled in the Xcel Energy Center here in St. Paul Minnesota last night, it almost seemed like the attacks had come only last week rather than almost seven years ago.
Senator McCain must have used the word “fight” at least three or four dozen times during the course of his Republican Presidential nomination acceptance speech. He then closed his address and got his audience on its feet cheering him by saying “Stand up, stand up, stand up and fight. Nothing is inevitable here. We’re Americans, and we never give up. We never quit. We never hide from history. We make history.” While McCain is correct in his observation that we Americans do make history, unfortunately the type of history we make isn’t always the kind we can (or should) stand up and cheer about.
But the tone of John McCain’s acceptance speech was just one of several remarkably stark contrasts I noted between the Republican and Democratic National conventions over the last two weeks. One of the other more vivid differences was the colour (or maybe I should say lack of colour) of the skin of the participants in the Republican National Convention. While the participants in previous Republican conventions over the past twenty years have also been predominately white and male, I cannot recall one that has ever been either as white or as male dominated as this year’s.
More than two thirds of the 20,000 plus in attendance were men and I would estimate that no more than seven or eight hundred of the Republicans (counting both men and women) were Hispanic, with another three to four hundred members who were black. As a result it wasn’t to difficult to distinguish the racial, gender and ethnic differences between the crowds at the Republican and Democratic conventions. Whereas the Republican convention was probably 95% white Caucasians and 70% male, only two thirds of the convention goers were white and there were equal numbers of men and women at the Democratic convention in Denver.
A worrisome sign for the future of the Republican Party in America is the fact that the Democratic convention in Denver much more nearly reflected the current ethnic, gender and racial makeup of the United States. Why should the Republican Party be concerned? Because based on current demographic trends, thirty years from now Caucasians will represent less than 50% of the United States (US) population, which means the Republican Party has decided to hitch its wagon to the largest but also the most rapidly shrinking segment of the US electorate.
However when I point out my fear, that the Republican Party is on a path which will lead to a semi-permanent status as the minority opposition party in the US, to other Republicans, the vast majority are loathe to acknowledge such a possibility. In fact, more often than not, they usually respond by citing the fact that 44% of Hispanic and Asian voters went for Bush in 2004 while ignoring the reality that these two rapidly growing minority groups still make up only 3% of the total of all Republican delegates.
But as is so often the case, my Republican cohorts won’t be able to acknowledge much less confront the truth about where their party is heading until a series of electoral defeats over the span of several election cycles forces them to. Since the 2006 Congressional elections was actually the first time the Republican Party had lost seats in a generation, I think they will not only have to lose this November but will also have to lose again in 2010 before the party will be ready for some long overdue soul searching.
John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his Vice President was also in sharp contrast with Barack Obama’s pick of Joe Biden as his running mate a week earlier. For several months McCain considered Governors’ Tim Pawlenty and Bobby Jindal, former Governors’ Tom Ridge and Mitt Romney as well as Senator Joe Lieberman to be his Vice Presidential running mate. But when McCain’s campaign aides floated the idea that McCain might pick a pro-choice candidate like Lieberman or Ridge (McCain’s top two choices to be his running mate) as his Vice President, Republican social conservatives put him on notice that they would rebel if he did so.
Because McCain was afraid of arousing the anger of these social conservatives, he resigned himself to finding someone who would please them as his Vice Presidential nominee. While John McCain knew that Pawlenty, Romney and Jindal would all be acceptable choices, none of them were favourites of Republican social conservatives.
So McCain dispatched his campaign aides to interview one of their favourites, Sarah Palin, on Wednesday, met her for the first time on Thursday, and then offered her the job after interviewing her for two hours. At this point I can’t decide which disturbs me more; McCain’s caving in to social conservatives or the haste with which he made his decision to go with Sarah Palin. I think maybe I’ll leave that for a later column.
Senator Obama also spent a couple of months doing background checks in addition to traveling and making campaign appearances with Governors’ Tim Kaine and Kathleen Sebelius as well as Senators’ Jack Reed, Evan Bayh, Chuck Hagel and Joe Biden as part of his evaluation process. But unlike Senator McCain, Obama did not make his choice of Joe Biden in haste or as a reaction to pressure from many Democrats to select Hillary Clinton as his running mate. Obama did so because he thought it was important to purposely select a nominee he both liked and respected and because he knew that picking Clinton as his Vice President would severely undercut his message of “Change”.

Witness to history

Republican Politics, American Style
Published on September 4th in Metro Eireann By Charles Laffiteau

After a month of attacks by his Republican opponent, John McCain, which had succeeded in narrowing his lead in national polls, Barack Obama chose last Thursday night 28 August, to finally respond to them. So what do I think about Obama’s response?
Only time will tell how effective Barack’s speech was in answering the Republican attacks on his candidacy, because his audience wasn’t actually the 84,000 people who joined me to listen to his Democratic presidential nomination acceptance speech in Denver’s Mile High football stadium. Obama’s real audience was the record number of 43 million plus voters who were watching it on the US television networks.
So on a warm summer evening, under clear skies and in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, Senator Obama delivered what I believe was the most important speech of his Presidential campaign thus far. But unlike his keynote address to the 2004 Democratic Convention or his Philadelphia speech on race relations earlier this year, this speech wasn’t notable for its inspirational message. It was however, exactly the type of speech Barack Obama needed to deliver under the circumstances. As such, it may well go down in US political history as one of the best purely political speeches ever delivered.
There is an old saying that “All’s fair in Love and War.” Since many people believe that political contests are very much akin to war, they also use this analogy to justify the use of whatever tactics they think will help them win elections. While the vast majority of American voters decry the use of negative personal attacks on political candidates by their opponents, the fact of the matter is the only reason many politicians continue to use such strategies is because they work. That is because many of the very same voters, who profess not to like these tactics, nonetheless respond to them by voting based on their perception of the truth of such personal attacks rather than on what the candidates’ positions are on the political issues that concern these same voters.
Senator Obama’s message of “Change” is rooted in his belief that for America to move forward and deal with its many foreign and domestic problems, US politicians must move beyond these bitter and divisive personal attacks and instead focus on the issues. McCain himself has espoused a similar approach in years past but, with the US Presidency almost within his grasp, decided to abandon this approach in favour of the same negative personal attack campaign strategy that worked so well for President Bush.
So the challenge for Obama in his speech last Thursday was to respond to McCain’s personal attacks, which are designed to portray Obama as a “celebrity” lacking any real substance who is also “unpatriotic” and an “elitist”, without stooping to the same level as McCain and making similar attacks. The situation reminded me of that facing King Henry V almost 600 years ago at Agincourt in Northern France.
Henry V’s men were exhausted so all Henry wanted to do was sail home, but the French were determined to engage them in battle rather than let them withdraw to England. Forced to engage in battle when he had no desire to do so, King Henry V countered the overwhelming advantages of the French army by turning their offensive attacks against his positions back against them. As a result King Henry won this famous battle even though he and his men had no desire to fight on the grounds of Agincourt.
In a similar vein, last Thursday evening Obama succeeded in hurling all of John McCain’s attacks back against him saying at one point. “If John McCain wants to have a debate about who has the temperament and judgement to serve as the next (US) Commander-in-Chief, that’s a debate I’m ready to have.”
In response to McCain’s claims that Obama was “unpatriotic” because of his political positions including his opposition to the Iraq war, Senator Obama responded “What I will not do is suggest that the Senator (McCain) takes his positions for political purposes. Because the things that we have to change in our politics is the idea that people cannot disagree without challenging each other’s character and patriotism. The times are too serious, the stakes are too high for this same partisan (Republican) playbook. So let us agree that patriotism has no party. I love this country, and so do you, and so does John McCain. The men and women who serve in our battlefields may be Democrats and Republicans and Independents, but they have fought together and bled together and some died together under the same proud flag. They have not served a Red (Republican) America or a Blue (Democrat) America – they have served the United States of America. So I’ve got news for you, John McCain. We all put our country first.”
During the course of his speech Obama also responded to McCain’s “elitist” attacks by noting his upbringing by a single mother who struggled to support her family and the college loans he and his wife needed to use to finance their educations. And in response to McCain’s charges that he was just a “celebrity” with a message of hope that was lacking in substance, Senator Obama went point by point through the various economic, energy, environment, health insurance and tax issues and said very specifically what exactly he planned to do to address them once he became President.
Finally, Barack closed his address by borrowing a line from the “I have a Dream” speech delivered in Washington DC by Dr. Martin Luther King 45 years ago on the same day. “America, we cannot turn back. Not with so much work to be done.”
What Obama did not do was attack McCain’s elite upbringing or any of John’s numerous shortcomings as a person. It will be interesting to see how John McCain responds to Barack Obama’s acceptance speech when he gives his own Republican presidential nomination acceptance speech this evening. I’ll discuss that next week.