Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Examining the Democratic Candidates for US President

Written by johnleemk on 4:34:58 am Jan 21, 2007.
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In less than two years, we will be seeing another US Presidential election - perhaps the most important election in the world these days. Although the content of my writings may not betray it, I closely follow the American political scene, mainly because I find it interesting and intriguing. From my reading of things, this election is basically the Democrats' to lose. Unless the Republicans can come up with a credible candidate who can undo the damage George W. Bush has done to their reputation, the Democrats should be able to romp home to victory.

It is thus understandable that there is considerably more jockeying for the Democratic nomination than the Republican one, with near-complete unknowns like Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd throwing their hat into the ring. Still, despite all the competition, for all intents and purposes only three people currently stand a chance of winning the Democratic Presidential nomination: Senator Hillary Clinton, Senator Barack Obama, and former Senator John Edwards (the Demoratic 2004 Vice-Presidential nominee). There are possible dark horse candidates like former Vice-President Al Gore and former Supreme Commander of NATO's Armed Forces, Wesley Clark, but it would take a major upset for any of them to actually win.

Now, I think of myself as a citizen of the world, but the fact is that my passport is Malaysian, so my allegiance lies first with Malaysia - unless it does something stupid, of course, like planning to blow up the world (in which case, loyalty to my six-and-a-half billion fellow men overrides loyalty to my 26 million fellow Malaysians). As a result, when examining candidates for the leadership of another country (in this case the United States of America), it makes sense to look at them in terms of what would be best for Malaysia, best for the world, and then only best for America itself.

Fortunately, after a cursory look at the positions these candidates have staked out, it seems to me that the interests of all three - Malaysia, the world, and America - converge. At this point in time, I feel that the best candidate for the Presidency is Hillary Clinton, followed closely by Obama.

I think it's safe to say that in this situation, the interests of the world and Malaysia coincide perfectly. We both want to see a President with a less destructive foreign policy. We both want to see a President who will not unduly favour American business interests while promoting fair and free trade between America and the rest of the world. We want a President who will seek to build closer relations between the United States and the global community, instead of retreating into the devil-may-care attitude exemplified by Bush's appointment of John Bolton - a man who once said the world would be better off if the top ten floors of the United Nations building were blown up - to the post of US Ambassador to the UN. We want a President who will fight terror by bringing development and education instead of destruction and ignorance to the poorer parts of the world.

American interests are harder to pin down. From my subjective point of view, Americans would be best served by a President who would repeal laws infringing on their liberties, such as the infamous PATRIOT Act. Americans would be best served by a President who favoured an open trade policy while also creating retraining and education programmes for workers who lose their jobs to globalisation. Americans would be best served by a President who looked to improve their woefully inadequate and inefficient healthcare system. Americans would be best served by a President with a plan to get them out of the Iraq quagmire. If I were American, these would be my top three factors when choosing a candidate to vote for. Unfortunately, I do not get to control the views or votes of American citizens, and as a result, I am sure many would disagree with my choices - some think the PATRIOT Act is necessary to fight terror, while others want to close America's ports by erecting stiff tariffs and other barriers to trade. Yet others have completely different priorities, choosing their President based on his (or her) religion or stand on (in my opinion) irrelevant issues such as abortion, homosexuality, etc.

In any case, these are the assumptions I have chosen to make about the interests of the world, Malaysia, and America. Now, let's apply them to the three front-runners. How well do their positions act to serve these interests?

Some may think this an unfair presumption, but I think it's somewhat safe to say that Hillary Clinton's policies will be quite close to those of her husband, Bill Clinton. After all, during his term as President, the male Clinton went as far as to tout the couple as a "co-Presidency", saying Americans would be getting "two for the price of one". Clinton's eight years as President saw a measured - and often too cautious - approach to foreign policy, erring on the side of no intervention (even when this led to a genocide, as in Rwanda). Clinton sought to limit the impact of globalisation on middle-class Americans by providing greater retraining programmes, while supporting free trade treaties such as NAFTA. Clinton's Presidency saw a rather low-key approach to foreign policy, actually - perhaps just what might be needed after eight years of an overactive Bush doctrine.

But what does Senator Hillary Clinton think? She voted for the war in Iraq - but back then, nobody could tell how terribly Bush would prosecute the war, so I think that can hardly be held against her. Her current stance is that Bush is too committed to Iraq, causing complacency in the leadership there, but that pulling out immediately would hurt American and Iraqi interests - something I agree with. The problem, though, is that it might be too late to save Iraq, and that it might simply be better to cut America's losses and run. This is an issue Clinton will have to deal with. Clinton also says she regrets her husband's failure to intervene in Rwanda and the early Bosnian war - presumably she's learnt her lesson there. Clinton also supports the UN - another mark in her favour.

For civil liberties, Clinton voted against confirming John G. Roberts as Chief Justice of the United States, and against confirming Samuel Alito as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. I personally agreed with both votes, because I think Roberts and Alito have, in the past, taken far too restrictive stands on civil liberties. Clinton, unfortunately, voted for the PATRIOT Act - and just as unfortunately, opposed its renewal solely on the grounds that it didn't do enough to protect New York from terrorism. In my opinion, the PATRIOT Act is not the right way to fight terror - terrorists are bred by poverty and ignorance. Fortunately, Clinton seems to agree: "I believe so strongly that we are all more secure when children and adults around the world are taught math and science instead of hate."

Clinton's trade policy appears more ambiguous. She has supported a tariff on dumping - something I find reprehensible, considering that dumping is the sign that foreign producers are far, far more efficient at producing the good than local ones. Anti-dumping measures run counter to the free market and make the market more inefficient. That issue aside, Clinton is one of the more pro-trade Democrats. On other economic issues, such as establishing a healthcare system and repealing Bush's insane tax cuts, Clinton does much better.

To sum up, Clinton has her weaknesses - who doesn't? - but she's a strong and solid candidate. Her policies will, in all likelihood, serve the interests of America and the world. Can the same be said for Barack Obama, currently trailing Clinton in most polls?

I think it is on economic policies that Obama has been most clear, so let's look at those first. While serving as an Illinois state legislator, he pushed for an Earned Income Tax Credit - basically a negative income tax - which is a more efficient form of welfare than some complex systems. Obama says "we should be asking ourselves what mix of policies will lead to a dynamic free market and widespread economic security, entrepreneurial innovation and upward mobility" - hitting all the right keywords.

Unfortunately, as many have noted, Obama is considerably more ambiguous on his stances in other areas. With foreign policy, at least, he has explicitly called for a phased withdrawal from Iraq and for Bush to "finish the fight with Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, through effective, coordinated intelligence, and a shutting down of the financial networks that support terrorism, and a homeland security program that involves more than color-coded warnings." Aside from this, Obama has been quite fuzzy about his policies.

Indeed, the main reason Obama is doing so well in American polls right now is simply because of his charisma. Simply put, the man can speak. He knows how to appeal to people. While this makes good politics, it makes evaluating him as a statesman much harder. As a result, I will simply assume he largely agrees with the policies of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) - the same group that backed Bill Clinton and backs Hillary Clinton. (In other words, it's probable that Obama and Hillary Clinton share the same political views.) Pretty much all of Obama's stated policy stands to date agree with those of the DLC, and one thinks that if he had any beef with the DLC's opinions, he would have made it clear already - like John Edwards has.

Edwards, in my opinion, is a fine candidate for the Presidency. He shares the same concerns that Clinton and Obama have about fixing the American economy and uplifting the American lower classes. I don't see anything terribly wrong with his foreign policy views either. However, like many members of the new Democratic Congress, he is a bit of a protectionist - something that worries me. I respect the motivations of those who agree with the position that free trade agreements should provide for better environmental and labour standards, as long as they are "achievable", but this "free trade but" stance is almost the same as protectionism. As has been said, "Essentially, the 'level playing field' concept forbids poor countries to take advantage of their poverty. When poverty is their main asset, this is no favor." Edwards seems to understand this - after all this, is why he equivocated when asked if he is a protectionist - but until we can get some clarification from him, I'm not quite ready to support him.

One thing that might strike you is how apparently similar all three front-runners are. This is not surprising if you consider the economic theory that all candidates will converge to the median stand on a particular issue, in order to broaden the base of their support. As a result, Clinton, Obama and Edwards have all been fairly consistent with each other in laying out their positions. The tie-breaking factor, then, comes down to more qualitative issues such as personality and experience.

In this case, I believe Clinton has the clear edge. Her experience is unrivalled - she already has eight years worth of experiencing in the White House, and her husband will be bringing more experience as well. She is a known quantity, unlike Obama and Edwards who are relatively newcomers.

Obama and Edwards, on the other hand, seem somewhat underwhelming in terms of experience. Obama will have only four years of experience in the Senate when he runs for the Presidency, while Edwards will only have completed one term in the Senate. That's the bulk of their experience in national-level politics. Nevertheless, I foresee a bright future for both men, provided they can parlay their existing experience into new opportunities.

Ideally, I think, the Democrats should nominate a Clinton-Obama ticket. Obama can run in 2016, when he will have had eight years worth of experience as Vice-President. The Democrats will also be running one of the most diverse tickets ever - the first female Presidential candidate from a major party, and the first Black Vice-Presidential candidate from a major party. This combination will bring a highly interesting mix to the White House, and certainly one that is well-equipped to handle problems of American policy in the coming years. I may yet change my mind - after all, the primary elections are still one whole year away (to get an idea of what this means, one year before the 1992 Democratic primaries, Bill Clinton was 11th in the polls). But till then, I'll be backing...

Clinton-Obama 2008


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