Winds of change

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 March, 2008, 12:00am

From the time that Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville first philosophised on the American democratic project more than 170 years ago, democracy in America has never ceased to captivate world attention. Of all the lessons from the US, the human drama being played out in the current presidential primaries caps them all, with the likely realisation of a number of firsts in American politics. Whatever the outcome, America is on track to electing either its first woman, first black or oldest president in its history.

The three frontrunners are living illustrations of the truism that, in democratic politics, anything is possible. Republican candidate Senator John McCain was all but written off a year ago; Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, long regarded as 'inevitable', saw her double-digit lead in national polls evaporate in a matter of months. Many forget that the seemingly unstoppable Senator Barack Obama was almost an accidental senator; he won the race in Illinois in 2004 because his Republican rival was forced to bow out following a sex scandal. The election of any one of them would be a perfect example of the American dream - that, with or without a legacy, you can rise to the top if you have talent, intellectual firepower, broad-based appeal or character. If you have these qualities, then money - the essential fodder of any campaign - and popular support will flow your way.

You cannot attribute the phenomenal success of Senator Obama's insurgency to age alone. Yes, his more youthful looks on screen evoke dynamism and hope, and give him a visible edge over the older Senator Clinton, who often appears woefully tired and played out against her upstart challenger. Yet, Senator McCain is by far the eldest among finalists in presidential nominations. His age and well-known physical handicaps, until recently regarded as insurmountable hurdles, have hardly dented the momentum of his campaign. If age doesn't matter, what is the secret of the senators' success? I would suggest that it is energy, dynamism, character and, in Senator Clinton's case, resilience and the ability to pick up the pieces. In the case of Senator Obama and Senator McCain, it is the message of change that both carry which has cast the greatest spell on supporters.

As a first-term senator who can justifiably wash his hands of the sleaze and incompetence that has tarnished veteran Beltway insiders, Senator Obama stands out as transformational and inspirational. His freshness enables him to charge into battle with a strong suit of hope and moral ardour.

Likewise, despite taking a diametrically opposed position on the Iraq invasion, Senator McCain can equally justifiably claim moral clarity and consistency. Although he supported authorisation of the invasion, he has always been a strong critic of disgraced defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his prosecution of the war. As a prisoner of war, whose patriotism is beyond doubt, Senator McCain can hold on to his moral high ground, citing his opposition to torture and his doctrinaire objection to President George W. Bush's tax cuts. Both Senator Obama and Senator McCain are fiercely fearless and unequivocal on key issues. As outsiders to the Bush regime, both stand for change that can restore America's place in the world and repair its moral authority.

Senator Clinton cannot claim such clarity and consistency. Yet, she has distinguished herself by the indomitable way she has reinvented herself - and her ability to come back from defeat. Whatever doubts one may have on the idea of a Senator Clinton revival, or a co-presidency if the former first lady wins, she cannot be faulted for her fighting spirit, hard work, thorough preparation and ability to move with the times. Whichever of the three wins, he or she will make history, and history rewards those who show the greatest courage and take the biggest risks.

The winds of change are blowing worldwide. From Australia and Venezuela to Taiwan and Malaysia, voters are punishing those who betrayed their trust, and choosing those able to bring salutary change, not ossified ideologues who thrive on incompetence or division. Let the same headwind blow in Hong Kong.

Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is chairperson of the Savantas Policy Institute