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US Presidential Election – the Right to Make the Wrong Choice

07 January 2016

By Amir Taheri

Though it is still early days, if things continue as they are we may get the least exciting presidential campaign that the United States has offered for decades.

Having spent 10 days in the US this month, a visitor was unable to notice any rise in adrenaline on either side of the traditional political divide. Most US presidential campaigns generated excitement for one or more reasons. The first being that as a teenage political junkie, I took an interest in the elections of 1960 that ended up pitting Senator John Kennedy against Vice President Richard M. Nixon.

Kennedy was an exciting candidate both because of his good looks and his eloquent speeches. Subsequently, I found out that he owed the latter to his speech-writers, notably Ted Sorensen. Some of JFK's notable-and-quotable phrases, such as ''ask not what your country can do for you'' etc. were plainly intriguing, to say the least. A country is an abstraction while the ''you'' thus addressed is a reality. Also, I wondered if the senator was inviting his audience not to submit any demands to ''their country'' but instead get regimented in its service whatever that meant.

JFK was also interesting because he was the first Catholic to have a reasonable chance of winning the presidency. Needless to say, Nixon too, was interesting, though for different reasons. While Kennedy belonged to a wealthy family, Nixon hailed from a modest middle class background. The fact that he had already reached the vice presidency was a sign that the much-talked of ''American Dream'' was alive and well. With bipartisan accord on foreign policy never assured, the campaign focused on domestic issues. However, the center of interest was the personalities of the two contenders.

Years later I learned that Kennedy owed his victory to a little bit of vote rigging by Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and Senator Lyndon Johnson in Texas.

The next two presidential campaigns were dominated by the war in Indochina, the civil rights movements at home and the emergence of terrorist groups such as the Weathermen and the Black Panthers.

The next campaign that led to Jimmy Carter becoming president was interesting because it indicated a popular rejection of the Washington political elite. It showed that the phrase ''in the US, anyone can become president'' was no myth; with Cater, ''anyone'' did actually enter the White House.

The 1979 campaign that led Ronald Reagan to presidency was exciting both because of the tense international atmosphere, including the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran by Khomeinist mullahs, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the success of Marxist guerrillas in a number of Latin American republics.

That election came at a time when the Soviet bloc seemed poised to win the Cold War. Thanks to the détente strategy devised by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the Soviets were not only given a free hand in the so-called ''Third World'' but also benefited from access to global capital markets to secure resources needed for a massive arms build-up and the sustaining of a moribund economy. While Kissinger pursued his mirage of a world order based on the 17th century Peace of Westphalia, the Soviet leaders were scoring points with 19th century colonial-imperial policies.

Reagan's election was a true page-turner. I would hesitate to endorse the claim that it was Reagan's policies that led to the fall of the USSR and the end of the Cold War. The Soviet system was bound to implode as a result of its inner contradictions and the fact that an ideology that seeks to plan human behavior is based on nothing but dangerous fantasy. (The best laid plans of mice and men…) Nevertheless, Reagan helped highlight the Soviet contradictions, challenge Moscow's fantasies and ultimately accelerate the inevitable demise of the USSR.

The 1992 campaign was exciting because it was the first three-way race in two decades and the first that was predominantly concerned with economic issues. Though Bill Clinton won with just 41 per cent of the votes, his election, a surprise to many, triggered a generational renewal of the American political elite at the highest level.

Though boring to the maximum, the 2000 presidential election generated some excitement as a result of the dispute over the number of votes cast in Florida. The fact that the losing candidate Vice President Al Gore agreed to concede the election indicated the solidity of US institutions. At the same time, Gore was following in the footsteps of Nixon who, though aware of vote rigging by the Kennedy camp, accepted the results of the 1960 elections.

The 2008 campaign was made exciting by the presence of Barack Obama, the first Afro-American, and a man with an Islamic background, to represent one of the two major parties, and, in the end, to win handsomely.

Despite its lackluster starting phase, this year's campaign has some interesting features. For the first time a woman, Hillary Clinton, is almost certain to be one of the two finalists. That would also make it the first time that the wife of a former president reaches the top in a presidential race.

Another first this time is the presence of Senator Bernie Sanders who is the first major politician to seek the presidency with an avowedly socialistic platform.

Also interesting this time is the fact that the galaxy of wannabes represents the rainbow nation that America has become. Apart from women in both camps, we have an African-American, Dr. Ben Carson, close to the top of the Republican Party list of hopefuls. That list also includes two senators, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, with Latin American backgrounds, a representative of the old establishment Governor Jeb Bush, and the businessman and TV personality Donald J Trump, currently the front-runner.

So far the only excitement created in this campaign is Trump's work, especially his promises to build a wall alongside the Mexican border, expel 12 million illegal immigrants, and more recently, a plan to prevent all Muslims from entering the United States until ''we know what is going on''.

According to opinion polls, more than 30 per cent of registered Republican voters support Trump, even in his most provocative version. That would account for some 10 per cent of the electorate in general, a good base for building the coalition needed to win.
Obama won by building a coalition of minorities consisting of Afro-Americans (12 per cent), Latinos (12 per cent), Jews (2 per cent) Arabs and Muslims (2 per cent) Native Americans (one per cent) and gay and lesbians (2 per cent.) If that coalition falls apart, Mrs. Clinton will have a hard time winning next November.

Thus the republicans have a good chance of winning this time provided Trump does not do a Ross Perot by standing as an independent candidate and taking his 10 per dent away with him.

Most analysts I talked to in the US last week insisted that Trump had no chance of winning either as the candidate of the Republicans or as an independent. However, the beauty of democracy is that the results of an election cannot be foretold with absolute certainty.

Almost all pundits I talked to insisted that Trump would be the wrong choice. However, a nation that picked Obama, another inexperienced operator with weird ideas, and survived, need not fear another amateur with bizarre notions such as Trump.

In any case democracy includes the right to make the wrong choice.

Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran (1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In 1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11 books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York. 

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