AMERICA'S RENAISSANCE OF HOPE

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AMERICA'S RENAISSANCE OF HOPE

AMERICA’S RENAISSANCE OF

HOPE

Robin V. Sears

Contributing Writer Robin Sears opens our cover package with an overview of the

American political landscape, and how the remaining three candidates, McCain,

Clinton and Obama represent a turning of the page from the failed presidency of

George W.Bush. John McCain is an authentic maverick. With strong appeal for

independent voters, he suddenly in 2008 became the choice of the Republican

establishment, and represents whatever hopes the GOP has of retaining the White

House. Hillary Clinton represents continuity as well as change, continuity with her

husband’s presidency and change as a woman in the Oval Office. But it is Barack

Obama, Sears writes, who represents America’s renaissance of hope. “Obama has

changed everything,” he writes. “How did this happen?” Read on.

Robin Sears propose une vue d’ensemble du paysage politique américain et

explique en quoi les derniers candidats à la course à la Maison-Blanche — Barack

Obama, Hillary Clinton et John McCain — incarnent tous trois un renouveau après

la présidence défaillante de George W. Bush. Authentique rebelle, John McCain a

toujours séduit les électeurs indépendants et est subitement devenu en 2008 le

candidat de l’establishment républicain, qui fonde sur lui ses derniers espoirs de

garder la Maison-Blanche. Première femme susceptible d’occuper le « bureau

ovale », Hillary Clinton représente le changement mais aussi la continuité en tant

qu’épouse d’un ancien président. Mais c’est Barack Obama, croit Robin Sears, qui

incarne vraiment le retour de l’espoir aux États-Unis. « Obama a tout changé, notet-il.

Comment est-ce arrivé ? » Lisez son analyse.

We’ve had some dark days in this democracy over the past seven

years and today the sun is out. It is shining brightly.

Missouri Senator

Claire McCaskill

Record low turnouts, historic high cynicism and deep

despair about the future: that was the conventional

wisdom about American democracy little more than

a year ago. At the nadir of the Bush presidency it seemed

impossible to predict a sunny future built on that stark legacy

of failed war and diplomacy, corruption and recession.

Yet with that confounding resilience American voters

demonstrate at least once a generation, a coalition of voters

in each party shook off that gloom, and demanded more.

They rejected conventional choices and backed transformational

candidates. Just as the voters in 1932, 1960 and 1980

chose “big candidates” to lead them out of a bleak status quo,

so their tough-minded grandchildren have placed three highly

heterodox candidates on the verge of power. There are lessons

for Canadian democracy in this renaissance of hope.

Whether it is a black man, a woman or the most unconventional

American Republican since their last war hero —

Dwight Eisenhower — who takes the oath of office on

January 20, 2009, now depends on the closing chapters in

the most exciting election in half a century. Whether you

think the astonishing roller coaster that is this election cycle

is the most important election since 1932 or 1968 depends

on your partisanship, your generation and your preference

for happy or sad endings. But there is no doubt that the

United States, its allies and its enemies are going to be challenged

by a very different White House with a very different

agenda in less than nine months.

For the majority of centre-left Canadians the real transformation

can come only from a Democratic president.

They will see a McCain presidency as a continuation of the

Bush war machine. They could not be more wrong.

This is a Republican with profound skepticism about

the “military-industrial complex,” deep commitment to

environmental change and genuine rage at the corruption

that has oozed into too many parts of American public

life. He is no liberal social reformer, but he will not be a

patsy for the pharmaceutical, defence and aerospace,

automotive and health industries. George W. Bush liked

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to compare himself to Teddy

Roosevelt, but McCain is closer to his

true heir: anti-establishment, bloodyminded

and seized of righteous

indignation at the abuse of power —

economic or military. An enemy of

the fundamentalist Christian hold on

the party, a realist on immigration

reform and a fiscal conservative who

attacked both the profligate spending

and the tax cuts for the rich of the

Bush administration, McCain is

determined to recapture the

Republican party from its hard-liners

and their destructive excesses.

Even on the war, some critics have

failed to understand how different his

approach will be from that of the Bush

administration. As a seasoned war veteran

and former prisoner, he has little

sympathy for political spin about

failed military strategy. While he

would not wind down the war as

quickly as either Democrat would, neither

would he continue to support a

failed military strategy. He would push

the Iraqis to decisions more aggressively

and attempt to rebuild international

support more sincerely. A McCain-led

Iraq exit would probably be bloodier in

the short term but more competently

managed than anything seen in the

humiliating past five years.

He is a conservative, yes; conventional,

no way.

Those seized of the Obama revolution

will increasingly diss the

Billary choice as “same old, same old,”

pointing to the bare-knuckle triangulating

style of the Clinton machine.

But they will also be wrong. A John

Edwards presidency would have been a

conventional Democratic administration

— as would a Kerry or a Gore

White House — populist in rhetoric,

incapable of coalition-building and a

failure at delivering change in the

party or the country. As it was almost

20 years ago that Bill Clinton began

his transformation of the Democratic

Party, it is easy to forget what a revolution

that was.

He and his small cadre of often

young Southern “New Democrats”

From the thousands who came out on a sub-zero Springfield,

Illinois, morning for his campaign launch last winter, to the

more than 100,000 voters who surged into his events in the

six days before the Super Tuesday primaries a year later,

Obama’s supporters’ numbers and raw emotion are more

reminiscent of a Billy Graham crusade or an early Rolling

Stones tour than a political campaign.

America’s renaissance of hope

broke the party’s addiction to stroking

every political niche, no matter how

small, irrelevant or extreme. Military

reform, welfare reform, tax reform,

bold trade agreements and pioneering

efforts at introducing performance

measurement in the public sector were

all legacies of this different approach

to centrist government. Many of the

policy and political sects within the

party — protectionists, public sector

trade unionists, tiermondistes — all saw

their power reduced and they remain

Clinton enemies today.

The Clinton generation of leadership

holds many of the key control

levers of the party at the state level to

this day. With control of both houses of

Congress, those regional allies will be a

formidable alliance for change. Clinton

would move aggressively on health care,

infrastructure, education and tax reform,

and rebuilding international relations.

Obama has changed everything,

however. It is hard to find historic

comparisons to the disruptive

impact his insurgent candidacy has

had on the contours and traditional

verities of the American political

landscape. Part Teddy Roosevelt,

part Henry Wallace, part Robert

Kennedy, part Jesse Jackson, it is

hard to pigeonhole the crusade that

his campaign has become for a

strange coalition of affluent educated

young white Americans, blacks

and independents.

Although his fundraising success

was an early sign that his candidacy was

not another Gene McCarthyesque/Ross-

Perot style sideshow, it was the crowds

that horrified his competitors and

stunned even jaded observers. That,

combined with an adroit use of the

Internet and other new media, and a

rock star charisma have

turned this campaign upside

down.

From the thousands

who came out on a sub-zero

Springfield, Illinois, morning

for his campaign launch

last winter, to the more

than 100,000 voters who

surged into his events in the

six days before the Super Tuesday primaries

a year later, Obama’s supporters’

numbers and raw emotion are more

reminiscent of a Billy Graham crusade

or an early Rolling Stones tour than a

political campaign.

No amount of organization or

money can draw 13,000 people to an

event in Boise, Idaho, on one night

and 30,000 to Minneapolis the next.

After a slow start, his campaign is

beginning to develop organizational

chops that have bested the vaunted

Clinton machine.

How did this happen? How did

this depressed and depressing

political scene turn into some kind of

Hollywood miracle of resurrection and

soaring expectation?

First, as Canadians, we might

acknowledge how much more open

the US presidential system is than our

own lockstep manner of choosing who

gets to be prime minister. Candidates

who believe in a return to the gold

standard (Ron Paul), in the existence

of flying saucers (Dennis Kucinich), in

replacing income tax with a 23 percent

national GST and that God created

man 8,000 years ago (Mike Huckabee)

all got massive airtime, donations and

media coverage for many months.

Elizabeth May will be lucky if she is

invited to a single debate and gets

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11


Robin V. Sears

more than passing mention from Peter

Mansbridge in our system.

This openness inevitably draws

more enthusiasts from a much wider

community into politics, however peculiar

some of their motivations may

appear to the mainstream media and

voters. Instead of two and a half leaders

battling for five weeks for attention, the

US system generated a dozen candidates

on each side struggling for political oxygen

for more than two years. With

arguably an excessive number of fringe

candidates, and a ridiculously long campaign

period, the campaign did energize

American voters dramatically. Primary

turnouts on both sides of the aisle doubled

and trebled from 2004.

Secondly, the gush of

money that supercharges

American presidential politics

surely pollutes the process, forcing

candidates to seek cash in

some unsavoury quarters, making

the campaign process

hostage to the insatiable

fundraising circus. The sums

are almost inconceivable: $400

million spent before the end of

January by the presidential candidates,

with an expectation

that they will spend more than

a billion by November, with the

other congressional and local

races adding another $2 billion.

By contrast, Canadian

politicians spend less than $100

million at all levels across all

parties, albeit a much shorter time

frame. Applying the usual 10-to-1 rule

in Canada/US comparisons, American

politicians lavished more than three

times as much per voter. While a huge

percentage of the expenditure is of

dubious value — up to $100,000 per

month for some first-tier consultants,

for example — some of it does flow into

events, Internet presence and direct

mailings that do stimulate debate.

This year a large percentage of the

“mother’s milk of politics” was delivered

by the Internet, rather than by

lobbyists’ bundled cheques. By the end

of January, Obama had assembled

nearly 250,000 online contributors —

The gush of money that

supercharges American presidential

politics surely pollutes the process,

forcing candidates to seek cash in

some unsavoury quarters, making

the campaign process hostage to

the insatiable fundraising circus. The

sums are almost inconceivable: $400

million spent before the end of

January by the presidential

candidates, with an expectation that

they will spend more than a billion

by November, with the other

congressional and local races adding

another $2 billion.

this before the addition of the

Kennedy, Oprah and Kerry mailing

lists. Hillary Clinton, previously

dependent on the conventional cocktail-and-dinner-event

driven form of

fund-raising, realized following her

embarrassment on Super Tuesday the

need to change direction.

To see the incredible virtuous circle

that leading-edge use of these new

media tools has created, visit the Obama

website. From video clips of his speeches

and interviews, some less than an

hour old, to precisely focused pitches for

volunteer support and money, to flashy

endorsement videos, to news coverage

and campaign calendar announcements,

Obama’s Net presence is a stunning

example of how powerful these

tools have become for the best US campaign.

Clinton’s and McCain’s efforts

are rather pale by comparison. The New

York Times quoted a Maine political scientist,

Amy Fried, saying that after she

registered at both sites, “I got very little

from the Clinton campaign. But I got a

lot from Obama, urging me to come in

and work and telling about events, just

giving me a lot more.”

This points to the second surprising

achievement of the Obama campaign. It

used electronic media to build traditional

street-level organization, creating

ground campaigns out of thin air. By

mid-February, the Clinton campaign

had fired its top two officials, as it

became clear that Obama was outorganizing

them even with the older, poorer,

female voters who were supposed to

have been the Clinton campaign bulwark.

As this Obama army grows from

state to state, and uses its electronic connections

to further spread its tentacles

nationwide, it is hard to see how the

Clinton campaign can catch up.

In another upheaval of campaign

clichés — the traditional struggle

between “machine and momentum” in

US primary campaigns — Obama seems

to have found a way of using momentum

to build his machine in realtime.

Stunned by the reaction to

the news that she had had to

lend $5 million to her own campaign,

the Clinton campaign

cranked up an Internet and

phone solicitation that it

claimed brought in another $10

million in less than a week.

Ironically the emergency campaign

cash injection had gone in

part to pay for a boring TV town

hall that the campaign had

bought nationwide airtime for in

advance of Super Tuesday. That

show drew fewer than 250,000

viewers, in the same week that

the Obama campaign’s Black-

Eyed Peas amateur YouTube

video drew millions a day. Cost

to Obama: zero.

The flow of donor support

has become such a barometer of future

prospects in this campaign that the

many Web sites tracking the daily

fundraising totals have become as

important as polling aggregators for

political junkies testing small shifts in

the political winds. Like polling numbers

in days of old, cash flow has the power

to become a campaign accelerator or

killer: donors see a decline in daily totals

and delay new contributions, or switch

to another campaign, increasing the

next day’s decline.

This massive spending, higher by

far than in any other democracy, did

raise the profile of the campaign for

every American. Voters in Iowa were

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MARS 2008


America’s renaissance of hope

CP Photo

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, as well as John McCain, all represent important currents of change in the race for the White House,

writes Robin Sears.

subjected to 8,000 spots by the Romney

campaign in the final two weeks of the

primary there. On the eight possible

stations available, that amounts to 500

spots per station, per week, or a spot

every 10 minutes from morning until

night. A woman in Massachusetts, a

Democratic Party activist, reported getting

five pieces of mail from the

Clinton campaign in one week.

The union, church and other special

interest groups will spend tens of

millions on ground organization separate

from the campaigns. Those “get

out the vote” (GOTV) drives are getting

more sophisticated in every cycle, and

therefore more effective in delivering

votes. The phone banks and email centres

used by the GOTV campaigns now

use software that can cross-correlate as

many as 21 variables per individual:

from traditional demographic data such

as age, gender and income level, to special

interests, club membership, academic

history, mortgage levels and

driving record.

One might reasonably ask when

solicitation turns into harassment

at these levels, and given the

shallow hectoring of much of

American political campaign rhetoric,

how much voter-education value these

expenditures have, but they do make

the campaign a centrepiece of community

life in a way Canadian political

activists can only drool at.

Then there is the volume of contests

taking place at every level of the

country. The presidency absorbs most

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Robin V. Sears

of the media oxygen, but voters are

also faced with Senate and congressional

races, often House and Senate

races at the state level, and even county

and municipal contests, all demanding

attention at the same time.

Canadians have one contest between

three to five candidates in their riding,

surrogates for the national contest.

Along with the highway sign clutter

and voter confusion is a heightened

awareness of the campaign season.

So why are American turnouts

typically so low, with all this fuel for

the political system pumping interest

and attention? Until recently, the difficulty

of registering and the weakness

of the party systems locally in getting

voters to register were a drag on participation.

Telephone and even online

preregistration systems are increasingly

easing access to the system. “Rotten

boroughs,” gerrymandered district

boundaries and one-party dominance

in many states made turning out seem

pointless to many voters. In Chicago

until recently, the only competitive

races at the local level were on

Democratic primary day; the general

election was a foregone conclusion.

But a deeper reason for voter apathy

was probably the sense that it didn’t

matter who won in most contests. The

war and the never-ending policy failures

of the Bush administration, from

Katrina to social security, have changed

that. In a contest between a Walter

Mondale or a Michael Dukakis against a

Bob Dole or a George Bush the elder,

one could forgive voters for thinking it

didn’t matter much which one of the

boring old white guys got the prize.

Today their choices are more sharply

drawn. As Rick Mercer acidly observed

about the contrast between Canadian

and American voters’ choices this year,

Americans have a black guy, a woman,

and a war hero; “We get to choose

between a pudgy white guy a skinny

white guy, and that other guy.”

The contrasts between our skinny

and our pudgy candidates are real,

It is hard to overstate the consequence of a serious “multiracial”

candidacy by one of the two national parties in the

United States. Even two years ago, such a prospect would have

been pooh-poohed by most pundits. That Barack Obama has

captured much of the traditional establishment of the

Democratic Party — as personified by the Kennedy family — in

an open contest with the Clintons is even more breathtaking.

and the contrasts between Hillary

Clinton and Obama may be more

about tone and priority than substance;

nonetheless at the level of

leadership style and political values,

American voters have had a fascinatingly

broad spectrum of choice in this

election year.

Canadians should probably avoid

too much sanctimony about how well

our system represents the diversity of

this country, versus the United States,

based on the astonishing conclusion

of this primary season. A woman has

never been elected prime minister, and

no woman has been elected to provincial

power. Worse, the half-dozen

women who have achieved opposition

success at the provincial level and in

the NDP federally have had short

political lives, often shot down in a

barrage of sexist snickering about their

attempts to play a man’s game.

We have had one non-white premier,

Ujjal Dosanjh, but he inherited

the job and failed to win re-election.

We have very few black or Asian parliamentarians

at either level, and even

fewer who have won election in ridings

where their community was not

among the largest by ethnicity.

It is hard to overstate the consequence

of a serious “multiracial” candidacy

by one of the two national parties

in the United States. Even two years ago,

such a prospect would have been poohpoohed

by most pundits. That Barack

Obama has captured much of the traditional

establishment of the Democratic

Party — as personified by the Kennedy

family — in an open contest with the

Clintons is even more breathtaking.

As Maureen Dowd of the New York

Times sadly observed, this election

offers a chance to test whether misogyny

or racism remains the

strongest prejudice in

America today.

Canadian politicians

might also reflect on the

impact that an inspirational

candidacy can have on party

standings and voter turnout.

Our trio of “the pudgy white

guy, the skinny white guy

and the other guy” are not going to fill

any football stadiums in Canada any

time soon. A candidate from out of the

mainstream, capable of seizing the imagination

of young Canadians, could well

do so, and overthrow the verities of our

political culture as well. It is not hard to

conceive of such an insurgency following

a lacklustre Canadian election where

Dion is an embarrassment, Harper a disappointment

and Layton an irrelevance,

in the same year as the American election

cycle has galvanized the world.

And it surely has captured the

attention of Palestinians, Saudis and

Israelis in the Middle East, the

Chinese man in the street and African

heads of state, in a way no election

has since Kennedy. Travelling in some

of these countries this year, one is

asked everywhere, first, “Is it really

possible that Obama could win?” and

then, before one can answer, “Do you

think they understand how that

would transform America’s reputation

around the world?”

Another lesson for Canada is the

value of a national candidate-vetting

process. There is no doubt that the candidates

who survive emerge better qualified

to govern, with a far deeper

understandings of the aspirations of

their voters. It is hard to imagine, for

example, the Liberal Party making the

disastrous leadership choice it did in

Stéphane Dion if he had been blooded

in a national primary contest of some

form. It is hard to conceive of how such

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MARS 2008


a process could be grafted onto our parliamentary,

indirect election of leaders.

It would be worth some academic and

political veterans’ reflection.

If one accepts that 2008 is closer

to 1968 for Democrats than any

other year, there are several sobering

lessons ahead. The first is that the

party leadership had better not be

tempted to let the “superdelegates,”

the modern party bosses, choose a

candidate who has not won the

majority of pledged delegates in primaries

and caucuses. Hubert

Humphrey had not won a single

major primary when he was chosen

by the party bosses at that convention.

The impact of the resulting

riots and the ignominious defeat resonates

in the party still.

The party had also better understand

the importance of unity, however

forced and fragile it may be at

the beginning. Again, stay-at-home

And it surely has captured the attention of Palestinians, Saudis,

and Israelis in the Middle East, the Chinese man in the street

and African heads of state, in a way no election has since

Kennedy. Travelling in some of these countries this year, one is

asked everywhere, first “ Is it really possible that Obama could

win?” and then before one can answer “Do you think they

understand how that would transform America’s reputation

around the world?”

voters in 1968 and Democratic Party

activists gave Richard Nixon not one

but two presidential victories, probably

prolonging that generation’s

unpopular war by several years.

The Democratic Party and the

nation should pray that their

exploding gun culture, and its

America’s renaissance of hope

appeal to the angry and the unbalanced,

does not once again deprive

America of the political hope of a

generation. That bloody year

deprived black and white Americans

of two of the most important leaders

in a generation and erased for a lifetime

the political engagement of

millions of Americans.

Finally, Obama should

be aware of the terrible

power of voters whose

expectations of real change

have been dramatically

pumped by his candidacy

— if he disappoints. Canadians

were seized by such a

transformational candidate

in that same summer of

1968, and came within

hundreds of votes of ending that

superstar’s political career only four

frustrating years later.

Contributing Writer Robin V. Sears, former

national campaign director of the

NDP, is a principal of Navigator Ltd., in

Toronto. rsears@navltd.com


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