An American democratic jamboree

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 February, 2008, 12:00am

'Electrifying' is probably the only word to describe what is happening in US election politics. The rise and rise of Senator Barack Obama in the Democratic Party primaries and caucuses has been electrifying. The spectacle of American democracy in action has also been electrifying, with voters right across the country able to assess the candidates from within handshake range.

Americans can be legitimately proud. Is there any other country in the world where everyone gets such an opportunity, not just to vote for the leader, but to shape the debate and the choice of candidates over such a long period? But they should also be humble enough to ask whether their form of democracy has dangerous flaws that prevent it from being adopted as a model for other countries.

The presidential campaign show has been almost as enthralling, with as many unexpected twists and turns and sudden appearances of unusual characters, as the most entertaining soap opera. A year ago, most pundits had all but anointed Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton as the Democratic candidate who would extend the Bush-Clinton dynasties' grip on power to 28 years.

Now, there are three real contenders for the top job, and a determined hanger-on. They are: a genuine war hero, who tells it straight and is aspiring to be America's oldest person elected as president; the first woman candidate, who has already been first lady; the first African-American, who is both genuinely African - with a Kenyan father - and genuinely American, with a white American mother, who brought him up as a single parent when his father went back to Kenya; and an Evangelical Christian preacher. In the meantime, many wannabes have unexpectedly fallen.

The primaries demonstrate the real choice that ordinary Americans have, and they are turning out in impressive and unprecedented numbers to attend rallies and to vote. And this is still only the preliminary contest to choose the competitors for the real fight.

Many commentators have pointed to the dangers that this brings even before the presidential vote, with the very closeness of the contests leading to intense bitterness.

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who was born in the same small town of Hope as former president Bill Clinton, is trailing Senator John McCain, but is clinging on without even a mathematical prayer of getting the 1,191 Republican delegates he needs.

Self-styled 'conservative' Republicans, as well as evangelical Christians, resent Senator McCain and might be prepared to take him down in the name of ideological purity. But they would then lose his appeal to the wider electorate, and the presidency, and this could destroy the party.

In the Democratic Party, neither Senator Clinton nor Senator Obama is likely to get the 2,025 delegates before the convention, so the role of the 796 so-called superdelegates - congressmen and Democratic officials who are allowed to vote as they wish - will be crucial.

Supporters of the system say that the superdelegates are the wise people who will calm the bitter passions and point the party to the candidate who is the popular choice of the electorate and most likely to win. But reports from the Clinton camp suggest that their candidate is ready for a fight if that is what it takes. If that happens, it could be a Pyrrhic victory, with the winner and the party wounded, perhaps fatally. Would New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg then step into the breach?

Most other countries could afford neither the time nor the money for the democratic jamboree of the US. Money politics always hovers as a threat, and the bills this time round could top US$5 billion, with US$2 billion spent on the presidency alone. Yet Senator McCain was running on almost empty coffers when he became the 'Comeback Kid' by winning in New Hampshire. Mr Huckabee has never had much money, and Senator Obama has raised more money than Senator Clinton by mining the internet for thousands of individual contributions.

The real democracy deficit of the primaries is that, although there is almost a kaleidoscope of action, sound and fury, there is no calm debate with the issues being addressed point by point.

It is a question of image: Senator Obama's audacity of hope against Senator Clinton's claim to be 'ready on day one' as both commander in chief and chief economist, and Senator McCain's emphasis on action, not words, and warnings against trying to take 'a holiday from history'.

However, once the president is installed in the White House, no one knows how he or she will behave in the face of unknown threats and unexpected crises. Who could have predicted the September 11 terrorist attacks?

My concern is what happens after the new president, whoever it may be, is sworn in: from day two to the end of his or her tenure in the White House. The White House is, as journalist Maureen Dowd called it, an 'insular, heady womb'. The president is insulated and isolated from all the democratic passions that he or she had to endure as a candidate.

True, if Congress is controlled by the opposition party, the president faces difficulties in getting legislation passed. And he or she is likely to face a critical, if not downright hostile, media on the issues of the day. But the increasingly imperial president, George W. Bush, has shown how the person in the White House can bypass or ignore criticism.

The president does not have to debate policies or plans on nationwide television as the candidates do, still less seek popular support. The president does not have to go to Congress to argue his case, as a prime minister does before parliament; he appears once a year to deliver his State of the Union address, and is applauded as a king or emperor.

This is the biggest flaw in the US system - that it's all democracy until the president is elected. Afterwards, the sound and fury of democracy swirls all around, but the president does not have to listen to or accept it.

Kevin Rafferty is a political commentator