The Last Lap


A specter is haunting America — the specter of socialism. (Well at least, it’s haunting the election campaigns of the two main candidates). All the powers of the Right have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter: Radio Show hosts and evangelicals. McCain and Sarah Palin. Bloggers and Burghers. Bill O’Reilly and Joe the Plumber. Fox News and assorted conspirators.

Barack Obama, a wimpish centrist Democrat, now defends himself against charges that he is "Socialist."  His supporters respond to it by "hurling back the branded reproach"  —  did not McCain support many of these self-same ‘Socialist’ policies ? (Like pouring hundreds of billions of dollars from taxpayers’ wallets down Wall Street’s bottomless pit)?

Pro-Obama television channels are running dictionary definitions of ‘Socialism.’  These aim to clear the air by establishing that nothing he has proposed falls into that dreaded territory.  In no other electoral democracy in the world is this kind of response possible. Certainly not in Europe where so many of Washington’s allies wear the labels — if not the legacy — of ‘socialism’ and ‘labor.’  To those from most other countries, this ‘debate’ must seem whacko. Here, it still has adherents, even if they are confounded by the scarier specter of economic crisis.Two million families could lose their homes in the mortgage avalanche. But the buzzword, for the republicans at least, is ‘Socialism.’

"Obama says he wants to spread the wealth around," McCain now protests. "That’s a basic tenet of Socialism. If I were President, I would never do that."

This could be the last charge of the Right Brigade prior to Nov. 4. Into the Valley of Vote ride the Noble 600. Wall Street to the right of them, Foreclosures to the left of them, Meltdown in front of them have volleyed and thundered. But those issues are not their focus. Maybe, this time, too, somebody blundered.  It isn’t all over yet, though. Weapons washed away by the tsunami of the super-rich, John McCain’s campaign has fallen back on the good old Pavlovian signals of Socialism and Race. (The latter continues to be a major, if less overt factor.) From their point of view, they have few options.

The disclosure that the Republicans have spent $150,000 on "campaign accessories" (read designer clothing) for Sarah Palin has damaged their vice-presidential candidate perhaps more than the political scandals attached to her name in Alaska.  This was extremely bad handling of a powerful rabble-rouser by her own party.  For such decisions are not taken by the candidate. In this nation’s elections, the tiniest thing a contender does is scripted and choreographed by campaign handlers.  (Sometimes, even fake "errors" on stage are carefully rehearsed.) For someone bonding with the "working class" voter, this could be messy.  Hockey moms do not spend $150,000 on clothing.  It makes it harder to brand your opponent ‘elitist’ as the McCain-Palin wagon has done with Obama.  The Republicans have undermined a hard-hitting campaigner of their own. (Though it must be said few estimates exist of the "campaign accessories" costs of a male candidate.)

The much derided Sarah Palin has in fact drawn far bigger crowds than John McCain has at any time during his campaign.  She is pretty much of the Reagan school:  folksy talk, rustic one-liners, playing the outsider struggling to clean out a corrupt Washington. As with Reagan (and later Bush Jr.)  there’s a lot of fiction, falsehood, fear-mongering  and off-the-wall claims in her speeches. She was never brought in to add intellectual gravitas to the sagging McCain campaign. She was brought in to consolidate a conservative evangelical Christian base highly suspicious of McCain.  She did that. She was not there to win over Democrats, but to fire up the demoralised faithful. She did that too, to an extent where the campaign rallies and speeches can now spark violence. She was to go after Obama, while McCain looked lofty and presidential. McCain failed to do that, Palin succeeded.

She has attacked Obama with a ferocity that mainline candidates rarely dare attempt.  The flow of lava has been so heavy that the latter’s campaign, which  — rightly  — evaded saying a negative word about her, now feels compelled to respond to some of the more outrageous charges she comes up with. It was Palin (after Hillary Clinton), not McCain, who succeeded in spreading the "palled around with terrorists" canard about Obama.  It is she who  now leads the "Obama is a Socialist" chorus.

This is a genuine right-wing populist. The Left specimens of that species went extinct a long time ago in this country.  And while a defeat would mean the end of John McCain, it may not mean that at all for Palin. She could well be in the race for office in 2012.  Unless, of course, her campaign handlers destroy her before that. They’ve just made a great start worth $150,000 and further huge disbursements on hair stylists, accessories and voice coach. 

The McCain campaign feels it has no choice but to hit Obama in savage, personal terms.  The economy is not helping  – though even there, they made a spirited effort to distance McCain from Bush (seen as the Curse of the Oval Office). It didn’t work.  The McCain camp rightly feels it was the economic meltdown that pushed Obama ahead.  They believe that had the crisis not happened, McCain would have been ahead in the polls right now. That too, is very plausible. So the economy does not provide the best plank for them in this campaign. What’s worse, the Democrats are raising more money. The despair is evident when the champions of corporate wealth and the super-rich start hitting out at the "unprecedented money power we’re seeing in this election."

The Obama campaign raised a record-breaking $150 million in September, after having touched $65 million in August, his previous best). In all, the Democratic candidate’s total fundraising has crossed $660 million.  That’s unprecedented even in a country with the world’s most expensive election campaigns. And so, though this is a nation accustomed to being drowned in TV ads, the scale of the national and targeted video advertising has been without parallel. And Obama is outspending McCain massively.

McCain has grumbled darkly about history’s lesson that  "where unlimited amounts of money are in political campaigns, it leads to scandal."  Certainly  true but hardly a remark he would have made had roles been reversed. Obama’s records are a new high (or new low) but still occur in an electoral system that was already the most obscenely expensive one in the world. Out-gunned, outspent, out-advertised, and with less than two weeks to go, McCain’s outfit has to go for broke on the fear-mongering front.  If nothing else, it has revived the word ‘Socialism’  and a degree of curiosity about it. There is just one member of the United States Senate  –  Bernie Sanders of Vermont  –  who calls himself a "democratic Socialist."  But he has voted with the Democrats 98 per cent of the time.

One happy outcome of the past few months, though, is the frequency with which the phrase "Socialism for the rich" is being heard in public discourse. (That and ‘Crony Capitalism.’) This comes not from leftists (such as there are) but from those of impeccable conservative and wealthy credentials. Even from a few big investors like Jim Rogers of Rogers Holdings. One of his throwaway lines:  "America is more Communist than China is right now. You can see that this is welfare of the rich, it is socialism for the rich… it’s just bailing out financial institutions."  Earlier this year, he asserted that with investment banks "going bankrupt since the beginning of time…if you bail out every investment bank that gets into trouble, that’s not capitalism. That’s Socialism for the rich."

But while the attack on ‘Socialism’ of the kind the McCain camp tags to Obama’s name is explicit and unapologetic, a much less overt  – and should it work  —   far more potent lever, is Race.  Pollsters seem convinced that the "Bradley effect"  (where people say they are voting for a black candidate but don’t) will work in reverse this time. They believe a lot of white voters who won’t tell their neighbors they’re voting for Obama, will. They also believe that several Republicans won’t tell their neighbors they’re voting for a Democrat, but might.  Yet, quite a few also agree that Obama should have been many more points ahead at this stage given the advantages of the meltdown. (And the McCain camp’s own, relative  ‘financial crisis.’) All in all, no one seems too comfortable with the opinion polls.

However, the niceties of present-day debate in an America far more diverse than it was decades ago, make overt racism a bit more complex. Like the situation at a Republican rally where one McCain supporter was indulging in anti-Muslim, anti-Obama rhetoric. Intervening between him and angry "Muslims for McCain" was a Black campaign marshal  –  also a Muslim. So that approach can help consolidate one front while hurting another, unless you handle it with sophistication  –  and quietly.

On the other hand, it’s open season for going after Socialism. The American variant of that specter being as confused,  curious and befuddled as those it haunts.

P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu, where this piece appears, and is the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. This fall he is giving a course at UC Berkeley. He can be reached at: psainath@vsnl.com.


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