US: A tale of two Conventions

Where is the presidential election going?

The conventions of the two main parties in US politics are stage-managed affairs. This year was no different. No real debates on policies occurred. In fact, proposed policies are barely talked about. Still, the conventions of the Democrats and Republicans showed a shift in the presidential election campaigns, which has been reflected in the polls.

This election is taking place in the most turbulent times, for decades. Around 85% already think the country is on the “wrong track” but the economy’s downturn has by no means reached the bottom yet.

The Republicans are inheriting the least popular outgoing President in the post-World War Two world. The voter turnout at the Democratic primaries reached record highs as voters felt that they were electing the next President. The Barack Obama campaign electrified millions and instilled a sense of new beginnings in American politics.

Now, we are confronted with a situation thought unthinkable by many: the polls are close, and John McCain is now leading according to a recent poll conducted by ‘USA Today’. How did this happen?

Obama: Not Shining Anymore

As the campaign moves on, Obama’s luster is beginning to wear off. Initially, people were excited to see such a marked contrast to the current madness in today’s White House. George Bush is not exactly a tremendous speaker; he also does not exude thoughtfulness. Bush and Cheney are not exactly comforting faces to many oppressed or young people.

Obama’s message of “hope” and “change” was a breath of fresh air for many young people who have grown up with an ingrained hatred of Bush. With unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with a continuously uncertain economy, millions were flocking to the new good news of a light at the end of the tunnel.

Big business, in order to restore people’s faith in the main institutions of power, also hopped on the Barack Obama bandwagon. Someone who appeared as an outsider was needed to perform a very important task: giving legitimacy to an institution (US government) that has lost its credibility both on a domestic and world scale.

The interests of the corporations who back Obama and the voters who want a future worth looking forward to aren’t the same thing. The super-rich powerful capitalists in the US don’t want people to expect too much in the way of tangible positive change. The elites will seek to make working people pay the price for this crisis in their capitalist economic system. Very few, if any, CEOs and directors will lose their homes or health benefits.

The corporate backers needed Obama to show that he was loyal to them over his voting base. In both the Senate and the State Senate, Obama had never been one to upset big money. His break with Reverend Wright was the first clear signal of Obama’s plans to shift his campaign.

In a sloppy move right, as Obama was declaring his victory in the Democratic primary, he gave a speech to AIPAC, the Israeli government-supporting hawks in the US. At this event, Obama contradicted many of his previous statements, by declaring his outright and unconditional defense of any possible actions by the Israeli state. He even brought up the possibility of a pre-emptive strike on Iran. The AIPAC speech angered many Obama supporters who had actually believed the previous rhetoric on this issue.

Over this summer, Obama supported the NISA wiretapping bill in Congress, yet another bi-partisan attack on the privacy and civil liberties of Americans. Obama supporters were visibly angered. Despite all these shifts, the biggest factor in the dying down of “Obamania” is not what Obama has said: it is what he has not said.

As the excitement over Obama lessened for millions of Americans, his empty platitudes about “hope” and “change” are not enough, anymore. After all the rhetoric, people want substance; they want policy promises. McCain is posing as a candidate of change, as well. So if Obama wanted to show his contrast, he had to be concrete. What type of change are we talking about?

Obama’s earlier rhetoric has not been followed with a demand for free, quality healthcare. He has not said he will provide a significant increase in the minimum wage, and he will not cut war funding. With Obama’s previous momentum, big business cannot afford for him to make any of the usual Democratic populist promises that they do not intend to follow through on.

The Democratic Convention usually gives a boost in the polls to the nominee. That did not happen this time. Obama’s voting base was not excited by stage-managed conventions. In fact, many young people and African-Americans felt disenfranchised and alienated by a Convention process that does not include them. On top of that, Joe Biden, the Democratic Vice Presidential hopeful, is the walking definition of Washington insider corporate hack.

This was not accidental. Despite what his supporters may think, in truth, Barack Obama is a corporate politician. He has raised more money from corporate interests than any candidate in US history. Many of his top donors are heavily connected to the same predatory big banks that have received billions of dollars in bailouts while working Americans lose their houses.

All along, Socialist Alternative (CWI US) analyzed and exposed the contradictory nature of the Obama campaign. Now, as his campaign disappoints millions, an election that once seemed like a sure Democratic victory, is looking a bit more complicated. Throughout all of our criticisms of the Democrats, we have noted a particularly uncanny and unique Democratic Party skill: they are very good at losing elections, even against the greatest of odds.

McCain: Embarrassed by Bush

John McCain did get a boost out of the Republican Convention (RNC). However, while hundreds of protestors were getting arrested and mistreated by the police outside the event, it was McCain (not the majority of the peaceful demonstrators) who wanted to “shut down the RNC.”

McCain tried to use Hurricane Gustav as an excuse to virtually shut down the RNC altogether. In a cynical move, he used the opportunity of this disaster to distance himself from the Bush regime’s negligence around Hurricane Katrina. When Gustav missed New Orleans, McCain was upset because the Convention had to go on.

In his speech at the Convention, John McCain did not mention George Bush or Dick Cheney. Vice Presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, did not mention George Bush or Dick Cheney. Keynote speaker Rudy Guiliani did not mention George Bush or Dick Cheney. Note: George Bush and Dick Cheney are the President and Vice President of the United States, respectively; they are also leaders of the very Republican Party that was holding this convention.

While Joe Leiberman, a former electoral opponent of Bush, appeared in person at the Republican Convention to great cheers, Bush appeared over a big screen TV, making a brief speech. The convention even stole the Democratic 2008 mantra of “change.”

The choice of Sarah Palin, an anti-abortion politician who is in favor of teaching creationism in schools, on ‘equal footing’ with evolution, is an attempt by the Republicans to inject the “culture wars” into the 2008 contest. The cultural themes dominated Karl Rove’s election campaigns for Bush. Palin, who’s immediate family holds two union memberships, appears to be a “hockey mom” outsider who shares some of the values (and problems) of white working class people in rural ‘middle America’. Obama picked a politician as a running mate; McCain tried to pick a demographic to exploit anti-establishment sentiments.

While the Evangelical voting base of the Republican Party is not near what it was a few years ago, the opportunity to portray Democrats as out-of-touch elitists was once again taken up by the Republican leaders. The ridiculousness of John McCain, who does not know how many houses he owns, accusing someone of being ‘elitist’, should be laughable. However, the contradictions of the Obama campaign could allow this accusation to gain an echo, as the Democrats are unable to answer mainly of the Republican attacks on them.

What Now?

Young people, working class people, and people of color all want change. Due to the hatred of Bush and the Republicans, the Democrats will likely increase their majorities in both houses of Congress (despite disappointment with their record, over the last two years). However, there could be a close race for the presidency.

Corporate America likes close Presidential races. Close races squeeze the potential vote for independent candidates. Big business does not want to see the forces behind Ralph Nader and Cynthia McKinney’s presidential campaigns emboldened by a big vote.

Cindy Sheehan, the most prominent anti-war activist in the US, is running against Democratic Party leader, Nancy Pelosi. Sheehan recently told Socialist Alternative that she envisions the launching of a new party alongside Nader, McKinney and other forces. We would welcome this development, to begin the process of providing a working class alternative to the two parties of US big business. If there is a close election, then the Left vote will be smaller, thus leading to less momentum behind this type of initiative.

Also, close races serve to keep candidates completely beholden to the interests of the capitalist class, as a whole, rather than to just one section or clique of ideologues. This can become particularly important, as the relative decline in power and prestige of US imperialism leads to splits in the ruling class over key policy issues.

However, the main motor moving us towards a close election is not some sort of corporate conspiracy. The nature of events is making it so that the Democrats do not look so sleek and shiny anymore.

Obama and the Democrats cannot promise real, tangible big changes, due to their fundamental outlook as a big business politicians. The empty rhetoric can only last so long. Still, it is possible that the Obama campaign can pull out to a big lead, if they can successfully tie McCain’s image to Bush’s policies; also, if the economy moves sharply downward before the election, this is likely to hurt McCain more than Obama.

Even armed with only empty rhetoric, the combination of job and home losses, inflation, Bush’s legacy and Obama’s shocking stores of election campaign money, in a polarized country, could sweep the Democrats into all branches of government. The polarization will probably undercut support for independent candidates, like Nader, McKinney and Sheehan, but will not mean a blank check for Obama.

Although the Democrats seem to have a lot going in their favor, an Obama win is not at all a foregone conclusion, and it is looking more plausible that John McCain, as unthinkable as it was, just a few weeks ago, could be the next president.

Whatever politician oversees US capitalism in the coming period, it will not be easy for them. The recession has not yet reached its lowest point, and this downturn is following a “recovery”, in which millions of jobs were lost and the labor process became heavily intensified. For the first time since the end of World War Two, new generations of US workers are doing worse economically than their parents.

The waning power of the US ruling class internationally will cause problems for big business and a re-thinking of the situation amongst a wide layer of society. Anger will be fueled by this situation. There is currently an important strike at Boeing, the airplane and weapons manufacturer, that has made massive profits in recent years.

As the federal government is forced to bail out more failing banks and corporations, while spending hundreds of billions of dollars on wars and foreign occupations, the demands of the working class for decent jobs, quality healthcare and secure housing will grow. The combination of events taking place could open up a new phase in US politics.

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September 2008