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Home > India > News > Columnists > Amaresh Misra

American commonsense picks Obama over Hillary

June 05, 2008

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Americans the world over are still in a state of shock over Barack Obama winning the Democratic nomination. Obama is the first African American to join the race for the White House on a major party ticket. This, in a country where till the 1960s and 1970s, racist White groups like the Ku Klux Klan were lynching blacks -- in fact Obama is very much a product of the post-1960s generation, and has enjoyed the freedoms that have come his way after the successes of the American civil rights movement in the 1960s.

More importantly, Obama was seen by many ignorant Americans as a Muslim black American. This, in the post 9/11 scenario, was akin to committing hara-kiri -- in any year other than 2008, the rumour, whether substantiated or not, would have been enough to deny Obama even a race in the primaries.

But 2008 America is a changed place -- the sudden realisation that Bush and his neo-cons took Americans for a ride over Iraq and fiscal-economic policies, has forced heartburn and soul-searching. This was reflected acutely in the dark, pessimistic tone of many front-ranking Hollywood films made in 2007, including those that won the Oscars.

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The class act which Obama has put up signifies a new 21st century America. In the past, most Democratic Party nominees hailed from chic, upper class, White liberal background. Franklin Roosevelt and John F Kennedy had family wealth written over them. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton [Images] were professionals who had made a lot of money before they got the ticket. That is why Obama's defeat at the hands of Hillary Clinton was considered natural by political pundits. Despite being a first time woman ticket-seeker, Hillary came with the 'Clinton' brand.

American electoral polity can be divided into six broad categories: Group A consists of liberals, Democratic issue and labour activists; Group B is made up of labour, African-Americans, working families, low-income seniors, urban Latinos and Asians, singles -- these two groups constitute what is considered as the classic core base of the Democratic Party.

Then comes Group C, comprising middle class suburban and ex-urban families and seniors; Group D, made up of working class rural, suburban and ex-urban families and seniors. Group C and D form the floating strata or the uncommitted American voter. The remaining two sections, Group E comprising high income professionals and business people, fiscal policy-based Conservatives; and Group F, made up of religion-based Conservatives and Republican issue-activists, form the classic core base of the Republican Party.

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During the last two elections it was the Republican ability to connect with Group C and D -- the uncommitted forces with families. In 2000 and 2004, while the core base of the parties remained intact, the success of Republicans in connecting with the 'family' sentiment and issues proved crucial. It was less, as is commonly believed, the religious right which determined Republican victory. It was the unseen `family' voter who tilted the balance in Bush's favour.

In the 1990s, before the disastrous Monica Lewinsky episode, Clinton too had connected well with Group C and D and that was the primary source of his victory. During the 2000 elections, Republican strategists came up with the clever tactic of telling C and D Group forces, that if they vote Democrat, they would be identifying themselves with the largely Liberal-Left-Black-Latino A and B Group.

After successive defeats, two lines of thinking emerged in the Democratic Party. While one line advocated a distancing from the party's core liberal values, the other line spoke of a greater emphasis on the liberal-left image of the Democrats.

In the beginning of the Democratic nomination race for the 2008 presidential elections, Hillary Clinton was supposed to carry Group A and B, and was also the most capable of reaching out to C and D, winning back the 'middle ground' ceded to Republicans. In this game, Obama was considered an outsider, the representative of A and B radicals.

However, the course of the Democratic primaries revealed a different picture. It seems that A and B groups, long ridiculed as the 'loony left', managed to craft a strategy and image that touched the other aspect of Group C and D -- the fear of losing jobs, social security and family cohesiveness./P>

The alliance between Republicans and the American family groups was always tenuous -- the Republicans failed repeatedly to deliver on issues of social security and medical care; then fiscal policies got out of control after the sub-prime mortgage disaster. The Iraq issue boomeranged in a way conservatives had not predicted -- it started feeding into the American middle class scare of a cowboy president ready to risk lives and limbs of ordinary Americans in a war that is clearly without end and mired in several murky controversies.

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This brings up the issue of a point missed by political analysts -- that in electoral politics, it is politics and not ideology that works. There is a minimum common sense, defined largely by the floating voter, that determines the outcome. This common sense sometimes transcends party loyalties, ethnicity, caste and other cultural factors.

In the recent Nepal elections, reviewers looking at politics from the top miscalculated the common sense perception building in the middle and lower rungs of Nepalese society in favour of the Maoists. In the Karnataka election the Bharatiya Janata Party did not win merely by virtue of its ideology or the 'Lingayat vote'. It was the common sense perception that B S Yeddyurappa had been wronged by Congress and the JD-S that transcended caste and party ideological loyalties.

In the Democratic primaries, Obama's outspoken criticism of the Iraq war and his radical stances, and his being black, all screamed against his getting the ticket. But a radical common sense seems to be building in America -- this happened in 1960 when Kennedy got elected. For several middle rung voters, Hillary Clinton symbolised too much of the old order -- she was, as one commentator put it, a moderate and smiling Colin Powell.

In the midst of a deep moral, political and economic crisis, the American public is obviously looking for a fresh perspective. Hillary's failure is not the failure of a woman candidate being thumbed down because of her gender. Hers is a political collapse brought upon by the inability to catch the desperate mood of ordinary Americans.

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