By Shashi P.B.B.Malla
With the Republican National Convention already completed and the Democratic National Convention slated this week, it can be said that both parties have now started their campaigns for the general election on November 8. Both candidates for president have also chosen their presumptive vice president. For ninety plus days both parties will conduct a heated fight to decide who will occupy the White House for the next four years starting with January 20. If the primaries were unusual in many respects, the coming weeks will definitely witness attacks and counter-attacks from both sides. Now it seems that Russia has entered the fray on the side of Trump by hacking emails of the Democratic National Committee (which favoured Clinton against Sanders) and leaking them to Wikileaks to discredit the Democratic Party!
The Republicans wound up their convention crowning the outlandish New York tycoon Donald J. Trump as their presidential candidate, but not without shows of disharmony and slip ups. Trump finally had his moment, but it remains to be seen whether he will go on to take the oath of office after a rocky convention and a murderous general election campaign. The Democrats are now spoiling for a fight and trying to capture the limelight in their own convention. In a certain measure, Hillary Clinton has already done so even before the party’s jamboree, by naming Virginia Senator Tim Kaine as her running mate or vice-presidential candidate. He is a centrist former governor of a crucial ‘battleground state’. She first informed President Barack Obama and her supporters, and last Saturday they made their first appearance together at a rally in Miami, Florida. Her decision was a fitting climax of a highly secretive, month-long process to find a political partner. Clinton and Kaine will make a strong team against Trump and his running mate, the Indiana governor Mike Pence. Kaine has been active in the US Senate on foreign relations and military affairs (which put him over the top), and has built a reputation for bipartisanship as Virginia’s governor and as mayor of Richmond. He is also fluent in Spanish, making him a valuable asset among Hispanic voters.
Previously, the speech by Trump’s wife Melania was supposed to be the biggest one in her life, but then it put a blot in much of the action at the gathering in Cleveland. The delegates in the hall cheered wildly, but it turned out that she (i.e. her speechwriter) had lifted word-for-word phrases and ‘borrowed’ complete passages and themes from Michele Obama’s speech at the Democratic convention eight years back! It was an embarrassing moment and a completely avoidable faux pas committed before a television audience of more than 23 million. Instead of owning to the mix-up, the Trump campaign denied any wrongdoing of plagiarism and went into denial mode – which may cause lasting damage to Trump’s cause. The incident also exposed the weaknesses of the campaign organization which may have prevailed during the primaries, but was woefully inadequate in the general election. It also had its intriguing moment – that the wife of the Republican candidate should steal the words of the wife of the incumbent president, especially since Trump himself has been hostile to the country’s first African-American president, going to the extent of even denying him American citizenship! The blatant episode and organizational breakdown caused a furore among Republican operatives and the leadership in general. Above all, the controversy set off waves from the political class to average Americans, especially African-Americans and will consolidate Clinton’s hold among the latter.
The convention also made evident the wide gap between the party’s formally nominated standard-bearer and the Republican party itself. Many traditional Republicans were less than enthusiastic about Trump. The party elite’s endorsement of Trump was only half-hearted. This was true of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnel of Kentucky who lamely declared that Trump would sign laws passed by the Republican-majority Senate. Paul D. Ryan, the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the ranking Republican by that very fact, was also muted in his support and openly conceded the rift in the party, alluding to “our arguments this year”. This was reflected in the delegate count – 721 delegates cast their votes for candidates other than Trump, the most remarkable expression of party friction. Ohio Governor John Kasich, one of Trump’s leading opponents, should have been on hand to greet the presumptive candidate (after all Cleveland is in Ohio!), but he pointedly absented himself. It seemed that the party was only united in its rabid hatred of Hillary Clinton. Many leading Republicans, in fact, had already given up on Trump to win the presidency, and were positioning themselves for the 2020 primaries/election. Prominent among them was Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, Trump’s chief rival and tormentor, who spoke in a major slot but flatly refused to endorse Trump causing a huge uproar.
On the eve of his acceptance speech at the convention, Trump detailed his conception of US foreign policy in a wide-ranging interview with the International New York Times (INYT). The United States, he said, has to “fix our own mess” before trying to alter the behavior of other nations. Furthermore: “I don’t think we have the right to lecture.” According to the INYT, he reiterated the hard-line nationalist approach that has marked his improbable candidacy. He would force allies to shoulder defence costs that the US has borne for decades, cancel long-standing trade agreements he views as unfavourable, and redefine what it means to be a partner of the United States. He said the world would have to adjust to his new policies. He again emphasized his primaries theme of “America First”. He made it crystal clear that under his leadership, the US would not automatically extend the security guarantees that give the 28-members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) the expectation that the full force of the US military stands behind them. In the case of countries threatened by Russia, the US would come to their aid only after reviewing whether those nations “have fulfilled their obligations to us”. He reduced American global interests to questions of economic benefit to the US – even its role as an international peacekeeper, as a provider of nuclear deterrent, as an advocate of human rights and as a guarantor of allies’ national security. His lack of in-depth knowledge in these key issues and his lopsided policy prescriptions will be a major factor in the coming months.
Trump’s own acceptance speech at the convention was full of negative tones. This time, he did not speak off the cuff, held himself in check and mainly kept to the teleprompter. It seems that his advisers had him fully under control, and he did not stray from the scripted text prepared for him. In the one-to-one autumn debates with Hillary Clinton it will not be that easy to get the better of her. Alone, he could thunder ominously: “Our convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation.” He took advantage of the currentspate of public shootings to present himself as the “Law and Order” man (although he remains vehemently opposed to gun control) and the only person capable of saving the nation from its current so-called diminished and humiliated state. He also promoted his hard-line views on crime, immigration and hostile nations. But he had nothing to offer women, Hispanics and African-Americans. It remains to be seen whether his brand of populism will still appeal to voters on election day. The Washington Post, one of the country’s leading newspapers, has this to say about the would be ‘American saviour’: “Donald Trump is a unique threat to American democracy…until now a Republican problem, this week became a challenge the nation must confront and overcome…he is uniquely unqualified to serve as president, in experience and temperament.”
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