Transcript

U.S. Election lead-up

2 October 2008

altman-bisleyDennis Altman and Nick Bisley

You can also listen to the interview [MP3 21.6 Mb].

Matt:

This is the La Trobe University podcast, I'd be your host Matt Smith, good morning, good afternoon and good evening, it does all depend on where you're standing. This would be a very special podcast because we're joined not by one, but by two guests today. If I could have a generous round of applause for Professor Dennis Altman, and if we could have an equally impressive round of applause for the man in the sidecar, Associate Professor Nick Bisley. Thankyou for being here, guys.

Dennis:

Are we supposed to be on a motorbike?

Nick:

A very high tech motorcycle, Dennis.

Matt:

It's theatre of the mind, come on! So we're here to talk about the U.S. election today. Things are hotting up at the moment, slowly but surely, and we have two very interesting and very different candidates as well.

Dennis:

What I think of them personally is obviously very different to how I see them as political figures. I think that what's striking is that if we were here a year ago we wouldn't have picked either of them probably, to be Presidential candidates in a sense that each of them is somewhat an outsider in their own party. Obama particularly, a senator who's only been there a couple of years who only got into the senate almost by accident, and who therefore can claim to represent something new. Who can claim as most Presidential runners do that he's running from outside, that he's not running for the establishment. John McCain more complicated because he's been in the senate a long time. He represents in that sense a great deal of Washington establishment but at the same time has always positioned himself publicly as a maverick. And what's going on at the moment is a quite successful move by McCain I think, to simultaneously run as the candidate of experience and the candidate from outside Washington. If he can pull that trick off my hunch is that he can win the election.

Nick:

Well I think the most obvious thing of course is the very striking age and physical difference between the two, which reflects the extent to which the voters are going to be presented with what seems to be two quite distinct packages, as Dennis said, both of them were by no means a shoe-in to win the nomination, and to some extent I think are struggling, Obama particularly, to turn a successful primary campaign into a general election message. Particularly in the wake of the sort of the show stealing that came out of the Republican National Convention where the selection of Governor Palin as the Vice-Presidential candidate suddenly stole the thunder, and team Obama hasn't thus far been able to recapture news momentum or to tell a story as to what they've been presented with.

Matt:

Do you think that sort of decision is going to benefit McCain?

Nick:

It certainly seemed very effective in getting him momentum and there's no doubt that polls, which should always be taken with a certain amount of caution, but the polls have turned around very sharply, the gap that Obama had had, while narrowish but had been fairly solid, has turned around and that can in no small part can be put down to the extent to which the surprise of the Palin story and the ability for it to galvanise various parts of the election in different ways from reenergising the conservative core that had always been slightly suspicious of McCain through to attracting working class Democrats, women and others to the McCain ticket which they otherwise might have had a great deal of difficulty doing. So I think it's a momentum story, but I think as time goes on I think that Palin will become less significant but in terms of halting what had been a fairly entrenched pattern it was pretty effective.

Dennis:

Two quick points. Firstly I think things will change once the Presidential debates happen. There will be four debates, one with the two vice-Presidential candidates, but three with the Presidential. I really think that at that point the focus will switch back as it has to, to the Presidential rather than the vice-Presidential nominees. The second point I'd make is that the Republicans have a history of running with not very impressive vice-Presidential nominees and winning. Democrats often have a history of having what look like very impressive vice-Presidential nominees and losing. So I don't think that the Palin effect is going to have much of an impact in the end, I agree entirely with Nick, it was an enormously successful short term tactic for re-energising the Republicans. I'd be really surprised if that effect lasts through to November.

Matt:

It definitely got attention though at this stage.

Dennis:

The interesting thing to me is that it gave McCain a bigger television audience for his acceptance speech than Obama got, and again I don't think anybody would have predicted that, and that is a clear impact, I think, of the Palin choice. That I think is going to be pretty much overcome by what happens in the Presidential debates. And in those debates the visceral image of the two guys going up against each other and the difference of age and race will become the crucial one.

Matt:

At the moment internationally we've got a very different perspective of how the election could play out here. You guys clearly know your thing but to most Australians how they think the election is going to play out is maybe not how it's going to in America, America is very conservative, it's going to take them quite a step to vote someone like Obama into office.

Dennis:

Can I just say that the United States is probably less conservative in it's voting than we are. In the sense they're more willing to change their administration than we have been. I don't think one can say that the American electorate is more conservative, by conservative you mean reluctant to change, I agree with you that Obama is a candidate who is going to be really hard to sell to large numbers of the Americans who will turn out to vote because the really crucial differences is that we have compulsory voting, they don't, and the turnout in the United States even in a really good year is, what, about 60% of those eligible to vote, depending on how you define that.

Nick:

That's a good year. I mean 96-2000 elections had just over 50%, and 2000 was actually just under 50% of the eligible electorate which was what most people thought a pretty dire state of affairs. It turned around in 2004 of course, in reaction to what occurred in 2000. The other thing I think was interesting is that polling, you know these big global polls, particularly the Pew Poll which goes on looking at what the rest of the world would like to have happen to the U.S. overwhelmingly shows that the voters in Europe, in Asia, in Africa naturally and elsewhere want Obama. And if McCain does win is going to be sorely disappointed. I also happen to think they'll be sadly disappointed if Obama wins as well, because there's too much expectation outside America, that Obama represents this new face of American politics and new face of America in the world. A lot of people who are interested in this election in ways which we haven't really seen before, the amount of foreign attention in the American election is unprecedented, are painting on Obama what they would like to see in American politics. When in fact he is a politician who will be constrained by all the domestic problems and difficulties and the haggling with Congress and all the sort of difficulties with life as a politician. So my sense is that everybody is going to be disappointed no matter who wins.

Matt:

So you don't think he'll live up to the hype if he does win?

Nick:

Absolutely not. He can't possibly live up to the expectations that a lot of people have for him because those expectations are so utterly unrealistic.

Matt:

Dennis, I was reading an opinion piece that you did in the Financial Review and you seem to change who you think over time would win the election.

Dennis:

No actually I haven't. Back in January, and I think there's an earlier piece in the Fin Review I also said I thought McCain had a much better chance than most people. If you remember, and I think you were alluding to that, certainly earlier in the year there was a strong sense that the Democrats, whether it was at that stage Obama or Hilary were the front runners, and I was pretty doubtful about that. Doubtful not because I necessarily think the American electorate is more conservative in an Australian sense, but doubtful because I think that a black or a woman candidate is going to run into a lot of unstated resistance. I think in the end that the undertone of distrust and fear of Obama, because he's an African-American with a strange name, who is being portrayed in a lot of right wing propaganda as a covert Muslim, is just going to hold enough people back from voting for him. I hope very much that I'm wrong, but that is my current feeling.

Matt:

Well with voting being optional over in America, I hear that a lot of the voting is skewed towards the older population, that they're more likely to go out there and vote, while Obama's appeal mostly lies in the younger people, and that would have an effect as well on his likelihood of being elected, wouldn't it?

Dennis:

That's part of the problem, that the people who vote are disproportionally older, whiter, and richer. It's fascinating to speculate what may have happened in past American elections if they had our system of compulsory voting, or indeed if they even had our system of an electoral commission which was national non-partisan and knew how to run elections. The United States runs elections in ways that we in Australia would be totally appalled by. It's a very amateurish localised system, there's a lot of, not direct vote rigging, but certainly a lot of procedures that make it more difficult for people who are more vulnerable, who are poorer, who are less educated, to actually get out and vote. In a close election that becomes really significant. The number of polling places, the difficulties of registering, all those sort of things become real factors in a country where you don't have what we've grown up accustomed to – an official electoral commission who stands above party politics.

Matt:

If it were up to you, if you were one man, one vote, who would you put through?

Dennis:

If I could choose the President of the United States? Well given that I would probably be constitutionally unavailable as I'm old enough but I'm not born in the United States, out of the present mob I would certainly prefer Barack Obama. I agree with Nick, I don't think that Barak Obama will be anywhere near as radical or nearly as big a shift with current American policies as a lot of people hope, but I think he will mark some shift, as I think symbolically, bringing an African American into the White House would be an extraordinary event. It would be an extraordinary event in American history, it would represent I think a symbol to the rest of the world, I think it would be very very powerful. The fact that a country with the history of slavery and racial discrimination of the United States was willing to elect an African American President would I think give the United States leverage and moral authority of a sort that they have not had under this administration and arguably hasn't had since the Kennedy administration.

Nick:

I think Dennis is spot on in the sense that the rest of the world is always going to be somewhat disappointed by an Obama presidency, but the imagery and the symbolism of a black President to the world, particularly in light of what's been going on in the past eight years is really really powerful, and in international politics and foreign affairs, symbols matter. This intangible stuff really carries weight. Whether he's going to be elected or not is another matter. I increasingly think that it's going to be an extraordinarily close race. In fact I think we're quite likely to see a rerun of 2000, not necessarily with all the legal shenanigans that went with it, that is to say a situation where, in effect, you have a statistical dead heat in the election, and we've sort of forgotten that for a long time now the American electorate has been solidly and very evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats and you see this in the closeness of the electoral races in the house of representatives, in the senate, and in the Presidential campaigns, and given how large the electorate is the percentage that separates the two sides is actually really small, and I think as we get closer to November the polls and the other indicators are going to point towards a very very close race. In that case you end up with the sort of problem that Dennis is pointing at, which is exactly what we saw in 2000, where the localised, amateurish and at some times outright corrupt electoral practices actually matter.

Dennis:

There is something I should add to that, I agree with Nick that it will be very close, but since 2000 the Democrats have certainly strengthened and in polls of party preference in the United States the Democrats have regained ground as having much more support than the Republicans, not necessarily a majority, because large numbers of Americans identify as independent, they don't identify with either party. The interesting thing here is that if Barack Obama could actually carry every single voter who identifies as a Democrat he'd be pretty sure of winning the election. The problem is there are considerable number of people who identify as Democrat and may very well vote as Democrat in the house and senate and local races who for one reason or another have huge reservations about Obama, and these are the people who will, and I agree with Nick, make the election very tight. The other thing that we're not mentioning and I think we need to is that it falls down on a state by state basis, and in the end I think as in 2000 and indeed in 2004, the results really will hinge on what happens in half a dozen states, and that some of the large states where you can carry that state by one vote you still get all the votes that that state is entitled to in the American electoral system. McCain is much more of a conventional right-winger.

Nick:

In some things he's not all that right-wing in America, I think part of the reason that Palin has been a reasonable success is it's got on the some of the core Republicans, the hard right Republicans have always been fairly suspicious of McCain because on some issues he's not very Republican in that right wing sense. The most obvious one is migration, the migration reform, and he's on record as supporting as President an amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Matt:

Yeah, that took me by surprise.

Nick:

If you look at his record in the senate, he is, as he's really presented himself in the past, somewhat unpredictable. And to say he's a right winger out of the classic right out of the classic Republican mould really misses the point with McCain.

Dennis:

I think if we want an Australian analogy the politician I think he most resembles might be Barnaby Joyce.

Matt:

For those of us who don't know?

Dennis:

Well you should! Matt, come and do politics, we have very good politics courses at La Trobe, you can come and do Australian politics! Barnaby Joyce is the slightly maverick national senator from Queensland who on occasions has crossed the floor in the senate, which in Australia is very unusual, in the United States it's more common place, and Barnaby Joyce is a man who is deeply socially conservative on most issues, but will occasionally be quite surprising in his positions and is willing to take on the party establishment and essentially vote for what he believes in. When I said McCain was conservative I was thinking more of his economic and foreign policy positions. I mean McCain is a hawk, McCain was a strong supporter of sending more troops to Iraq, he is perceived as having a much tougher line internationally than Obama, and he's also someone who, having told us he knows nothing about economics which is scary in the man who might be President of the United States, consistently has basically supported George Bush's policies which work effectively in favour of the people who are already very well off. So when I refer to him as right wing, Nick's right, on some social issues, a bit like Barnaby Joyce, he's unpredictable, although to be fair or unfair to McCain depending on your own view, he has been consistently against abortion, and he has made it clear that he would appoint to the Supreme Court judges who would take a tougher line on abortion. One of the consequences of this election will be that the new President will almost certainly be in a position to change the composition of the Supreme Court in ways that would have huge implications on a lot of issues that in the U.S. system are settled through the courts rather than through the legislature.

Nick:

Yeah I think the consequences of the election are going to be pretty significant, in that currently the Supreme Court is just one issue. The other thing that we haven't really talked about is the American economy. There are the immediate problems, the crisis and the financial system and how that will play out, and there's also something that we haven't mentioned in a long time, I don't mean we here but also in the media. The American government has been running the most massive deficits, and the Republicans have always presented themselves as the government of fiscal responsibility and running sound fiscal policy and the like, but under the Bush administration these guys have been spending like it's Christmas time. This is just not sustainable, and certainly under current conditions in global financial markets, doubly unsustainable. So the next President is going to have to deal with this, and deal with this in ways that are going to hurt Americans, and hurt the global economy. If one had the ear of Barack Obama, this is the one area that he polls consistently ahead of McCain as being seen more competent economically, and in which he's got some capacity to get traction, but then of course he hasn't been around for that long, so the ability to sell an ‘I'm going to run the economy better' type of message is a tough one when you're a senator who's been in the senate for what, four years?

Dennis:

I thought two.

Nick:

A very short period of time. It's difficult, but I think that whoever gets the next presidency in some respects it's almost the presidency you don't want to win. It's going to be very very difficult time.

Matt:

Like Dennis said, McCain's strong point is hardly economics.

Nick:

No, he's famously ignorant of economic matters, blunders very visibly when confronted with economic matters, and in fact said literally on Monday or Tuesday when Lehman Brothers, the second or third oldest investment bank, one of the world's largest investment banks, was going bankrupt, which is a serious matter, said the fundamentals of America's economy are sound, and then very very quickly backpedalled as you've got this very evident financial crisis going on. So we can expect more financial and economic gaffs from McCain. How this will play out, how people will vote is hard to tell, because do people vote out of this sensible, rational “who's going to run this ship of state best”, or as Dennis pointed out when put in that private booth and asked to put that metaphorical X next to the name, some old but not very well hidden prejudices can come bubbling to the surface in which case McCain is particularly well positioned.

Dennis:

Well the other factor here is that when people are scared, and I think that a lot of the American electorate are scared by what's going on economically, they don't necessarily vote for the person better equipped to deal with the issue, they vote for the person with who they feel more comfortable, and in some ways the older more patrician figure of John McCain might be a more reassuring person at a time of difficulty than the young, radical Barack Obama, who represents to very many voters a great risk. I think the great irony, as Nick pointed out, over the last 20 years it's been Democratic Presidents who have been much more economically responsible and much tougher in spending in some ways than the Republicans, but that's not how most people see it. There is this extraordinary gap, and I keep going back to the debates, the reason I keep going back to the debates, which I suspect a lot of people will watch, 40 million people watch McCain's acceptance speech, you can expect that sort of audience for the Presidential debates, at least one or two of them, and I think that there these really sharp contrasts of age, of race, and of style will be played out. The problem is that people are not going to tell pollsters that that's what's affecting, and when you get asked by a pollster you try and appear more rational and logical than you really are in practice, and that's I think why both Nick and I are pretty sceptical about reading too much into the polls, although I must say, I am affected by what seems to be a slow rise in McCain's support since the conventions, and that seems to be happening across the nation, pretty much in every part of the U.S.

Matt:

Nick Bisley, Dennis Altman, thankyou for your time today.

Nick:

Thankyou.