Power, Democracy, and associated matters

Had a most enjoyable lunch at the Wellesley Club with the Victoria University of Wellington Research Centre.
Three presentations, all of which were quite good, but the most thought provoking was from Pol Sci lecturer Jon Johansson on the US presidential race.

Johansson suggested it might be better for US democracy if John McCain wins this year. His reasoning (and I may be oversimplifying here) is that the Democrats will win both houses of Congress. Bush has beefed up the powers of the presidency to such levels that having one party in control of the legislative and executive branch is probably asking for trouble, in the short term anyway. The imperial powers are such they can only lead to further overstretch, albeit probably in different directions.

He had been discussing this with an American academic colleague on a recent visit and had wondered about, conversely, the effect of having a black candidate lose.
His colleague’s response was intriguing: that particular battle was already won, he suggested. One of the main parties had put up a black candidate in Obama, and – this is the important bit – race isn’t an issue in the battle.

All of which is quite thought-provoking. Personally, I’m enjoying watching this US presidential race more than any one I can remember, except perhaps the first one I followed – the Reagan-Carter 1980 battle.
The main reason I’m enjoying it is the race is between two people who, thus far anyway, seem to be basically fairly admirable characters.

I can’t remember a US election where I could look at the candidates and think that, basically, although with the flaws which are part of being human, they had qualities which fitted them for their job.

The worst example was 2000, where both candidates were so utterly hollow it was real bury your head in your hands stuff. Other races, though, have not been much better (2004 and 1996 being perhaps the best examples)

The Obama-mania worries me, not for any ideological reasons (I’d be equally concerned if he was a Republican getting the same reception).

It’s bad having any political leader get the sort of over-the-topl adulation he has received. It is bad for democracy and bad for the politician themselves.

Power, and the exercise of it, should not be an occasion of exaltation by anyone – governors or the governed. It is a duty, a trust, and a perilous one – again, equally perilous, although in different ways, for the governors and the governed.

Local parallels? Not a lot, except the perennial ones about power and its excesses.
It used to be said that National had a born to rule attitude but although you get that with the odd member its not endemic any more. The electorate has slammed them upside the head a few too many times.

The last time I saw anything like it, and I’m sure it was a trace of what it once had been, was in mid-2000 when Shipley was still leader. There was a presentation of some sort at the Beehive Theatrette. Labour had nosedived in the polls, and there was a definite attitude of ‘voters are realising their mistake and will put us back at the next election’.

Of course, the next election saw their worst result ever. There are few MPs still around who were in that 2000 caucus: those that are have either learned quite a bit since, or are now on the outer.
Its Labour that has the born to rule attitude now. Worse, they have a Born to Preach attitude which goes with it.
Despite the bad run in the polls for over a year, the sense of entitlement which comes through from senior government levels is almost tangible. It’s an ugly thing, born of a conviction of one’s own moral superiority and being in power for too long. (And I stress, not all of their MPs, or even all their ministers, have it.)

And yet, and yet…despite the polls, despite everything, I keep having a gut feeling they’re going to hang on, or at least have only one term out of office.

That, though, is the subject for another day. For now, I just hope New Zealanders have a sufficient concern for restraining the powers of government as the Americans – usually – do.

Primary thoughts

All right, silly season’s over.

Just one last bit though – Scarlett Johansen endorsed Obama. Must be worth a second look.
Mind you, so did Ted Kennedy. Anyone endorsed by the Kennedy’s has to be dodgy.

Now some serious thoughts on the US election: its turned into an interesting tussle – not so much the tussle between candidates, but the tussle between electing a set of policies and attitudes and electing a person.

In theory, the Republicans shouldn’t have a hope in November. an unpopular war and a looming recession should make it just one of those years it should be a shoo-in for the opposition party.

The only hope they have is someone with major cross-over appeal. My pick would have been Guiliani but that’s now a gonner.

But it does look as though the Republicans, pretty much despite themselves, are about to nominate someone who actually has a good chance of being elected.

And if – as I suspect – McCain picks Huckabee as his running mate, that will appease a lot of Republicans who believe McCain isn’t a true conservative. (I’ve got more reservations about Huckabee than I do about McCain, because I believe in the separation of church and state.)
As each day goes by the Democrats look to be in more trouble. A lot of the internal scrap now seems to be about which ancestral sin needs to be atoned for more: racism or sexism. This is not the way to win over undecided voters.

They’re still very caught up in the identity politics battles of the past half century. I suspect most voters have now moved on from all that. The ones who haven’t are going to vote Democrat anyway.

The thing is, when you elect anyone to office, its not just about picking someone who has ticked off the right policy boxes. When it comes down to it, we elect human beings.

Here’s a wee thought experiment: how many people do you know whose political views are pretty close to your own but who you would not put in charge of anything more complicated than the wine list?

It comes down to judgement and strength of character, in the end. McCain – who sort of reminds me of a stroppier version of Uncle Charlie in My Three Sons – has it in spades. The Vietnam prisoner of war thing, yeah, but more importantly also the willingness to defy his party when he thought his party was making a big mistake. He’s got guts.

Having said all that, I’ve got an atrocious record at picking US presidential candidates…by that, I mean, my own preference as opposed to who will win. My favourites usually,…well, this year it was Guiliani, and he did what most of my picks have done.

Lets see now, Anderson in 1980; can’t recall who in ’84; Kemp in ’88 Tsongas in 1992 (an economically conservative Democrat was an intriguing anomaly) ; Dole – somewhat reluctantly – in ’96…None of the Above in 2000 and 2004…you get the idea.

I stress though these were picks I wanted to win, not who I thought would win. I’ve got a much better track record on that one.

Turn Off

Turned on the radio at 9.05am to hear Linda Clark announcing the first hour would involve Episode 5382 in the ongoing story of how George Bush is both extremely stupid and a mastermind of an evil conspiracy to wage genocidal war (I’m paraphrasing here).

Turned off the radio at 9.06am.

Change the record Linda. Please.