The best reality show in the media these days is unquestionably the US presidential primaries and caucuses. The two major parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, will both be confirming candidates in their national conventions this summer for president and vice-president. The Republican Party has neither the President (Bush) nor the Vice-President (Cheney) on the ballot. With no incumbent seeking the nomination, for the first time since 1952, this is a natural recipe for change. That very word change has been on all the candidates’ lips.

Republicans cannot afford to run on the record of President George W. Bush without some serious risks. The war in Iraq, the economic slowdown, various corruption scandals within the party and administration, and controversies such as the handling of the 2005 Hurricane Katrina emergency measures have brought President Bush’s poll numbers to the lowest level of any outgoing presidency since Harry Truman’s in 1952. If anything, Republicans are running away from the Bush legacy. They promise change in how government will be conducted and how they will deal with issues such as the economy, immigration, the environment, health care and national security. The reference to President Bush is minimal.

The emergence of Arizona senator John McCain as the presumptive nominee is a sure expression of change to come within the Republican Party. McCain, a dedicated but maverick conservative, has had a history of steering his own course. The « straight talk » is a reflection of a candidate who is not a prisoner of ideology nor of the party line. He has over the years displayed a capacity to reach beyond party lines to develop consensus.

The law on campaign finance reform (McCain — Feingold, a Democrat) is a case in point. The consensus around an immigration amnesty bill was achieved with the support of Democrats (Ted Kennedy). These two initiatives may have raised the ire of the more conservative Republicans who have resisted his momentum and surge in January and February, but the McCain candidacy provides hope for Republicans intent on staying in the White House because of this ability to reach across party lines.

His conditional support of the conduct of the Iraq War and his early opposition to the Bush tax cuts are further illustrations of his independent streak. While he always supported the decision to go to war in Iraq, he has constantly criticized the way it was waged and especially the way Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld conducted it. He argued for more troops from day one against the wishes of the Pentagon. With the war highly unpopular, he still supported the latest surge proposed by Bush under General David Petraeus when most polls showed opposition to it. This stance was taken at a time when he intended to launch his presidential bid.

On tax cuts, he originally argued against them because never before in American history had taxes been decreased in time of war. As a war hero who knows the sacrifice associated with combat, opposing a sitting president of the same party on this issue showed courage. He has revised his stand in recent months and his Democratic opponents are already on the offensive for this change of heart.

The Democrats have had the more engaging and exciting contest to date. They started with eight candidates, but the showdown between Illinois senator Barack Obama and New York senator Hillary Clinton has all the drama of a presidential contest in itself. This nomination contest has attracted more voter participation in the primaries than any in recent memory and is now considered the most expensive ever, with both Clinton and Obama raising over $100 million by the end of 2007. The excitement has reached beyond the borders of America.

When you are the challenging party, it is obvious that you have a decided advantage on the question of change. Democrats have enlarged the debate by promoting a far-reaching agenda of change. Tax reform, universal health care, far-ranging environmental initiatives both domestically and globally, fighting special interests, reducing poverty, tackling the economic slowdown, offering relief programs regarding the subprime mortgage issue, greater access to higher education and tax relief for the middle class are some of the policies proposed and show the scope of debate and discussion within the Democratic Party. The hope for the Democrats in November is to present the choice as between the party of real change and the Republicans as the extension of the unpopular Bush administration, under new ownership called McCain.

With the Iraq War seemingly endless and with casualties always mounting, it was obvious Americans would eventually tire of it. The fact that there is clear evidence that the justification for war was based on erroneous evidence has further eroded support. The general feeling that little progress has been made and the sense that the other theatre of war, Afghanistan, remains contentious have only exacerbated the frustration and the impatience of the American public. The 2006 congressional results were a reflection of the discontent of the voting public with the conduct of this war more than a new love affair with the Democratic Party. The war on terror also remains inconclusive, and the fact that terrorists have expanded their activities within the borders of Iraq adds to the feeling that the Republicans may have created a situation seemingly out of control. The Democrats, who helped authorize the Iraq War, are now calling for a timetable for withdrawal. The fact that Clinton voted to authorize the war and Obama opposed it is a wedge issue within the Democratic Party.

This will set the stage for a battle on national security between the nominees of each party. The Republicans will argue that withdrawal with a fixed and known timetable only emboldens the insurgents and the terrorists. The Democrats will counter that withdrawal over time will allow the Iraqi government to gradually replace the American presence and establish Iraqi security and control over its own territory. This will reduce the pressure on the US military presence in one area and allow for greater flexibility to counter the terrorists or threats elsewhere.

The fear factor will surely emerge, as it did in 2004, and the Democrats will remain vulnerable on this issue. The Republicans will say the Democrats are soft on security issues. Should an act of terror take place on American soil in the run-up to the election, we can be sure that national security will emerge as the central issue in the campaign. Not good news for Democrats.

While the Republicans hold a perceived advantage on national security matters, the Democrats have a more positive and credible record on the economy in recent years. The longest growth period in history took place during the Clinton administration, from 1993 to 2000. When Clinton left office, there were no deficits, there was low unemployment, interest rates were down, and the dollar was strong. And America was not at war! The Democrats’ discourse on the economy is more appealing because it speaks of economic security, tax fairness and job protection. The Republicans are seen as free-traders and perceived to be ineffective in stopping the export of jobs and illegal immigration.

If economic insecurity is compounded by an endless, out-of-control war, then the Democrats clearly have the edge over their opponents. This is why Obama and Clinton are pushing their economic programs and trying to show McCain’s lack of interest in this issue.

Of the 18 candidates who ran for president (10 Republicans and 8 Democrats), three have retained the attention of the voters in the respective parties. All three candidates, the Republican McCain and the Democrats Clinton and Obama, promise change. All three have shown resilience and character and, at various times, have had and then lost momentum. I submit that if any one of the three becomes president, America will undergo a more significant change than we would normally anticipate in the normal course of new governments.

It is fair to say that there is a possibility that the agenda of change could be more one of transformation (more far-ranging and long-term, one of vision and new processes) than one of transaction (more one of policy initiatives and short-term governance with new managers in place).

The choice of McCain may not appear at first glance as one of transformational change. After all, he has been in Congress for over 20 years, and while he may be a maverick, his brand is related more to matters of character. McCain is an authentic American hero, a man who was captured during the Vietnam War and suffered torture over a period of five years. He has served in the public service all his life and he is regarded more as a man of integrity and courage than an as advocate of political reform.

With his nomination a mere formality, McCain is emerging as a serious candidate, and could be to a large extent the right man at the right time for his party. The Republican Party has been out of the mainstream of US politics for far too long. Ever since Newt Gingrich and his Contract with America swept the Congress in the 1994 mid-term elections, the Republicans have appeared more rightwing and dogmatic, with the social or religious conservatives and the neoconservatives strengthening their ascendancy over the more traditional and moderate fiscal conservatives. They have increasingly appeared disconnected or uninterested on issues affecting health care and the environment. They are seen as the party of the rich with policies creating greater inequality.

We are a long way from the party of Lincoln (abolished slavery), the party of Theodore Roosevelt (took on the big corporations and favoured the environment) and the party of Dwight Eisenhower (who kept the New Deal programs in place and warned about the military-industrial complex). It is barely the party of Ronald Reagan, who often reached across party lines and made government work. To Democrats, Reagan represents the beginning of America’s decline. But to Americans in general, Reagan’s optimism and the fact that he presided over good times and the end of the Cold War make him a respected president. George W. Bush and his version of Republicanism will likely leave a legacy of divisive and partisan politics which is out of touch with the current mood of America. At 71, and undoubtedly a conservative, John McCain may well be the one Republican who can transform his party into a more centrist and less partisan entity — one that could bring in significant reform initiatives in the environment, health care and education. This can only lead to a different brand of politics in Washington, very much in line with how McCain has conducted himself over the years. The Republican Party of 2008 could resemble more the Republican Party of the postwar era, moderate and less dogmatic.

Hillary Clinton hopes to become the first woman president of the United States of America. The former first lady has been a tenacious and solid performer in the public domain for over 30 years. While she has been in elected public office only since 2000, she has proven to be an effective senator and is respected across party lines. It is said that she is a polarizing figure and the one Democrat who can mobilize Republicans against the Democratic Party in November. This may be true for rank-and-file Republicans, and social conservatives in particular, but she is well liked in her Democratic base and is possibly a less risky choice for political operatives in a general election than her opponent, Barack Obama. Her experience and toughness under fire may make her more attractive as the choice to take on McCain.

It is impossible to fully appreciate her candidacy without recognizing the presence and the influence of her husband, former president Clinton. Bill Clinton, arguably one of the most brilliant political minds of the last century in US politics, is a two-term president who had the best economic growth cycle in history and left office more popular than when he began. There were scandals and he was impeached, but he rebounded and finished his term with a 60 percent approval rating. In his post-presidential years, he has been involved with many issues and is a leader on a number of causes, including AIDS in Africa and global warming. He has also been instrumental in bringing relief to populations affected by nature-driven disasters. As we saw in the early part of the primary season, Bill Clinton can also be an aggressive and influential campaigner. No doubt a second Clinton presidency will be seen by many as a continuation of the first.

Hillary Clinton has pushed her experience as her principal asset and claimed from the outset of her campaign that she is ready to be president on day one. Her campaign began with an aura of invincibility and inevitability. The policies she promotes are innovative and progressive, and her skills in debate have been shown to be second to none. The first woman president would be change in itself, as she has claimed on many occasions. The point is well taken but the conduct of her campaign, which has encountered serious setbacks since the primary season began, has been traditional and conventional. She can undoubtedly be an agent of change but her style and her vision have often been more transactional than transformational. However, the first woman commander-in-chief and one who is undoubtedly assertive and headstrong has the potential to be a transformational figure. The degree to which she makes this her first presidency and not a continuation of her husband’s will determine whether she will lead a transformative presidency.

Barack Obama has proven to be the biggest surprise of the campaign season, and has emerged as the most exciting political figure in the US since the Kennedy brothers. In what started as a long-shot candidacy, the African-American senator from the state of Illinois with less than four years in the Senate has transformed what should have been an easy victory (Super Tuesday on February 5) for Clinton into a classic battle that has gone way beyond expectations and has generated an interest and a mobilization among young voters (ages 18 to 29) of all regions and races as never before seen. And this could be indicative of generational change! Obama has collected more money from more donors than any other candidate in American history, further reinforcing his status as an agent of change.

Just like Clinton, Obama has pushed the agenda of change. But unlike Clinton, he has defined change in conceptual terms. He speaks of transformation, idealism and hope. While she argues the fine points of her health care program, he uses the power of words to capture the imagination of voters and make people dream. To some, he is beyond change.

Yes, Obama’s uniqueness is his ability to make people dream. He is similar to Bobby Kennedy, and his words inspire. Hillary says, « It is just words and I am a woman of action, » or « He’s for promises and I’m for solutions. » But the power of words has special meaning in America and has come to define and inspire the American dream. The words of Lincoln, of FDR (« We have nothing to fear but fear itself »), of Thomas Jefferson, of JFK launching the New Frontier or of Martin Luther King describing the « Promised Land » have defined the ideas that make America what it is. It is those very words that inspire, mobilize and engage the quest for change. It is said the moment has defined his candidacy, and it has become to many more a movement in its own right than a mere candidacy for office. If McCain can transform the Republican Party, and if Clinton can transform the role of government and empower more women in the process, it is believed that Obama can transform how politics is conducted in America and beyond. To many, he represents the best hope to restore America’s moral strength and leadership in the world. Above all, he may bring new voters and new consensus into the political process.

This election will represent a new beginning. Both parties are emerging with new leadership and new policies and will face new challenges and difficulties. America will no longer be the sole military and economic power in the world. Already, the economic power is being shared with emerging powerhouses such as China and India. Dependence on foreign oil, which has grown from 30 percent in the 1970’s to 60 percent today, represents a risk and a challenge that cannot be avoided. Global warming cannot be just a debating topic when the situation is approaching a tipping point. National security, terrorism and genocide remain very much realities in the new millennium. America by its very nature will be summoned to be a player, to be a leader. But there will be competition for this role in the world as never before. Changing America, whether under a McCain, Clinton or Obama administration, is a given. The only questions that remain are: What kind of change? And what change is best for America and the world?

John Parisella
John Parisella has held numerous positions in the public sphere over the course of his career. He is an author, business manager, political analyst and Quebec’s delegate general in New York City. He was also the chief of staff for a number of Quebec premiers. More recently, he was executive director of the major fundraising campaign for HEC Montréal, Polytechnique Montréal and Université de Montréal.

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