*The author is a former Ambassador of Pakistan.
Tuesday, 8th November, 2016: Come rain or sunshine, the US voters are expected to reach their polling stations to elect a new president for the next four years. The Constitution does not allow the president to seek a third term. If it did, Barack Obama would stand a good chance of being re-elected. All he can do now is to call upon the electorate to vote for fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton so as to defeat her rival Donald Trump whom Obama has declared unfit to become president of the United States.
As the premier global power and a source of envy for over a century, it is natural for the rest of the world to follow the US presidential campaign with keenness. It is also true that people living in countries from Japan to South Africa and from Russia to Chile are influenced in their perceptions of the US by the media. The outside world is not in contact with certain ground realities and undercurrents in the US society or with what ails America that can swing the voters to different candidates on election day.
Looking at the strong points, the US remains the world’s leading economy with a GDP of $18,558 billion. In comparison, India ranks at the 7th place with a nominal GDP of $2,228 billion and Pakistan at 38th with $ 270 billion (Wikipedia). The US is by far the world’s number one military power, well ahead of Russia and China, the second and third largest military powers. In comparison, Pakistan is ranked as 11th and India as 5th military powers of the globe. (Business Insider)
America dominates the world in mass media as well as a cultural power, being the greatest producer of mass entertainment and consumer products. In general, brand US reigns supreme even in rival countries like Russia and China and the emerging economic hubs like India and Brazil.
On the negative side, the US has the dubious distinction of having the highest prison population in the world. With an imprisoned population of 2.2 million, the US has by far the highest percentage of its people behind bars. Its citizens are ten times more likely to be killed by guns than people in other developed countries. The US also has the most firearms per capita in the world. According to a study published in the American Journal of Medical Science in February 2016 the author, Erin Grinshteyn, pointed out that the statistics of gun crime “are consistent with the hypothesis that our firearms are killing us rather than protecting us.”
The US ranks third in the incidence of rape globally with one out of every three women falling victim to sexual assault. It is surpassed by Sweden and South Africa in rape rate and followed by England and India. Other countries listed in ten showing big victims of rape crime in descending order are: New Zealand, Canada, Australia, Zimbabwe, Denmark and Finland.
These negatives and vulnerabilities notwithstanding, the worldwide interest in the US campaign is normal considering that the sole super power has an overwhelming military, economic and cultural presence across the globe. Decisions made by the US presidents have far reaching consequences. Most American voters assess the candidates on their socio-economic agenda. Foreign policy is not their primary concern. However, pronouncements made by the contenders are closely followed by international opinion and foreign governments.
Global mass media, led by America’s corporate media focus largely on the news worthy aspects of the campaign without taking the trouble of explaining the intricacies of the US constitution and electoral system. It should be noted, for instance, that voting for the House of Representatives and one third of the Senate takes place alongside the presidential poll. The overall outcome is not only about who will occupy the White House but also about whether the incumbent will have a sympathetic or hostile majority in one or both houses of Congress.
In this context, the peculiar US concept of checks and balances should be grasped. The division of executive, legislative and judicial writ was based on good intentions but has proved time and again that the US system is prone to clashes and gridlocks; notably between the White House and Congress. The most recent example is the Congressional passage of legislation overriding the presidential veto on the question of US citizens suing Saudi Arabia for compensation to victims of September 2001 terror attacks in the US.
The checks and balances amount to considerably diluting the president’s power when Congress is controlled by the rival party as is the case in the passage of law concerning Saudi Arabia. Pakistan has repeatedly suffered from Congressional resolutions to limit or reject military assistance as witnessed most recently in rejection of the financial package to finance the acquisition of F-16 aircraft by Islamabad.
Keeping the peculiarities of the US model in view, the 2016 election must answer some fundamental questions. First, is the US ready to elect its first woman president and commander-in-chief? Secondly, what economic direction would the next presidency assume and to what extent could it count on Congressional support. Thirdly, what would be Washington’s role and profile in regional and global affairs as the world’s premier military and economic power?
Although the election campaign is excessively influenced by questions of style over substance, the voter choice would hinge on positions taken by the two principal contenders, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump on key issues, which are summarized here.
According to a comparative study done by the BBC, Hillary Clinton’s taxation proposals aim to address income inequality through increased taxes on the wealthy. Citing an analysis by the Tax Policy Centre, the study reported that top 1% would pay for nearly three quarters of her tax increases which include a 4% surtax on incomes over $5 million, higher estate tax and a boost in the capital gains tax.
Donald Trump’s tax plan on the other hand, aims to cut corporate taxes, eliminate the estate tax and increase the standard tax deduction by individual filers. These measures will largely benefit the top 1% earners, increasing their income by double-digits while the bottom quarter gets a boost of up to 1.9%.
Hillary Clinton wants to create jobs by investing in advanced manufacturing, technology, renewable energy and small businesses. She also plans to increase employment training, funded in part by tax revenues from wealthier Americans. She says that independent experts have estimated that her plans will create 10 million new jobs.
Donald Trump claims he will create 25 million new jobs over 10 years, saying too many jobs are being lost to other countries. He plans to reduce the corporate tax rate to 15% from the current rate of 35%, and suggests that investing in infrastructure, cutting the trade deficit, lowering taxes and removing regulations will boost job creation.
Trump wants to curb immigration to the US; his early demands included the forced deportation of 11 million undocumented migrants on US soil and temporarily closing the US border to all Muslims. He has backed away from both but not fully dropped those calls. Trump called for building an impenetrable wall along the 2000-plus-mile US-Mexico border. He has also called for reductions in legal immigration, and ending President Obama’s executive actions deferring deportation proceedings for undocumented migrants.
Clinton supports Obama’s unilateral executive actions normalizing the immigration status of long-term undocumented residents of the US and their families. She has called for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a means for undocumented immigrants to obtain permanent legal residency and, eventually, US citizenship. She has criticized Trump’s idea of building a wall along the border with Mexico as a “dumb way” to ensure border security.
On foreign policy, both the candidates are committed to America’s global primacy. Mrs. Clinton is used to flexing muscle on the international stage, first as a senator and then as secretary of state from 2009-12. She supported the US war in Iraq during the Bush presidency though regretting it later. She also backed the US air campaign in Libya. She has called on the US to take on an expanded role in fighting the Islamic State in Syria, including the imposition of a no fly-zone and arming Syrian rebels. Though opposed to the commitment of ground troops she is inclined to using the special forces. She supports a continued US military presence in Afghanistan.
Mrs. Clinton firmly backs the US’s role in Nato, as a means of strengthening European allies and countering Russia’s power.
Trump, in contrast, has praised President Putin and wants closer ties with Russia. He says that the US should make allies in Europe and Asia pay a greater share of the defence expenses. He wants a greater role of Nato in combating terrorism in the Middle East, but wants other members to contribute more to the Alliance’s costs.
Like his Democrat rival, Trump has taken a hard-line stance towards combating the IS, asserting at times that the US should commit tens of thousands of ground troops to the fight. Trump has claimed that he has been against the Iraq war and other US military actions in the Middle
East, criticizing at the same time Obama’s precipitated withdrawal of forces from Iraq. The vacuum thus created allowed the emergence of the Islamic State.
Trump has bashed China throughout his campaign describing it as one of the US’s top adversaries. He has claimed that China’s entrance into the World Trade Organization has enabled the greatest jobs theft in history, conveniently overlooking the fact that it was the western brand manufacturers which shifted manufacturing abroad to multiply their profit margins.
Trump wants to label China as a currency manipulator, crack down on hacking, and would threaten the Chinese government with steep tariffs if it does not agree to rewrite trade agreements. Trump would also expand the US’s military presence in South China Sea as a deterrent to China’s territorial claims to artificial islands there.
Clinton’s stance on China and Russia is more nuanced. She has stated that Russia and China often work against the US. She said that “ Beijing dumps cheap steel in our markets…so I know we have to be able to both stand our ground when we must, and find common ground when we can.” Clinton has been a constant critic of China’s human rights record. She has called the China-US dynamic as one of the most challenging relationships but she has also said that the two countries share a “positive, cooperative, and comprehensive relationship.” It was during her tenure as secretary of state that a regular dialogue with China on strategic and economic issues was launched.
Pakistan, Afghanistan, India
Donald Trump’s views on Pakistan are no different from his general attitude towards the Muslims. He affirmed that despite massive aid, Pakistan does not care much for the US. He supports maintaining ten thousand US troops in Afghanistan mainly because of “Pakistan’s
nuclear weapons…which we have to protect.” He has suggested that if Pakistan loses control of its nuclear weapons, the US should work with India to deal with the situation.
Trump also claimed that if he were the president, he would ask Pakistan to free Dr Afridi who helped the US track Osama Bin Laden, and “they would do it in two minutes” because “we give a lot of aid to Pakistan.” Trump has expressed admiration for Indians in the US as hard working, intelligent and innovative.
Hillary Clinton who has a wide experience of international relations and of dealing with Pakistan’s leaders for years usually takes a tough stance on Pakistan. She has said that senior Pakistani leaders knew of Osama’s hideout in Abbottabad. She is prone to conjuring scary scenarios such as the possibility of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into the hands of jihadists who could become nuclear suicide bombers.
According to The New York Times, Hillary made this comment in a closed door Democratic fund raiser in February, 2016. In a hacked audio of the meeting, Clinton said, “ we live in fear that they are going to have a coup, that jihadists are going to take over the government, they are going to get access to nuclear weapons, and you will have suicide nuclear bombers. So this could not be a more threatening scenario.”
Clinton has repeatedly urged Pakistan to curb the activities of groups based in Pakistan involved in attacks against India and Afghanistan. Speaking at the Asean Regional Forum, she gave a tough message to Pakistan. “You cannot nurture Vipers in your backyard and expect that they will bite only your neighbour”.
Pro-India pronouncements by both Trump and Clinton prompted G Parthasarathy, a former India diplomat to conclude that “India can expect a more mutually beneficial relationship with the US, after the coming Presidential elections.”
Trump has abandoned the traditional Republican stance of unfettered free trade, giving greater priority to protecting jobs in the US industry. He is firmly against the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership. He wants to re-negotiate North America Free Trade Area – NAFTA arrangement.
As the US public sentiment turns against free trade deals, Mrs. Clinton has backed away from her earlier support to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Central American Free Trade Agreement as they are currently formulated. She feels now that the US has failed to provide the basic safety net support that American workers need to compete and win in the global economy.
Trump has warned that the US policy of admitting refugees from certain regions like the Middle East and generally the Muslim nations, presents a threat to US national security. He has called for the US to suspend resettling refugees until extreme vetting procedures are in place to screen out extremists.
Clinton has called for an increase in the number of Syrian refugees from the current 10,000 annual level to 65,000. She says that the current vetting procedures require a multi-year application process. She wants the US to continue with its tradition of welcoming those fleeing oppression and violence.
Clinton acknowledges that climate change is a threat, supports stringent regulation of energy industry, and opposes extended drilling in Alaska. She has, however, refused to back a moratorium on the extraction of oil from shale deposits through the process known as fracking.
Trump lays greater emphasis on economic gains than protecting the environment. He is for clean water and air but wants to slash funding for the Environmental Protection Agency. He has criticized economically damaging regulations backed by “political activists with extreme agendas”. Further, he calls the man-made climate change a “hoax” and vows to “cancel” the Paris Agreement and other efforts to address the issue.
With frequent shooting incidents across the US, gun laws have become an important issue in the campaign. Clinton supports tighter background checks and a ban on assault weapons. Trump, on the other hand, blames some shootings on lax gun laws but claims that armed people could have intervened and saved lives. He accuses Hillary of wanting to eliminate gun rights and promises his supporters that the Second Amendment would be safe. In defence, Hillary denied that the Second Amendment giving the right to carry arms would be in peril if she were elected.
In line with the US traditions of open and direct democracy, televised debates between the main candidates are held before each presidential election. These allow the each contender to present his/her viewpoint on the important issues while criticizing the rival. Style can be as important as substance in impressing the undecided voters.
The First presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump took place at New York’s Hofstra University, moderated by Lester Holt of NBC on 26 September, 2016. The post debate reviews largely pointed out Hillary’s prowess as a seasoned politician and public speaker. A review by NBC News said that Trump stumbled over his words and began repeatedly interrupting Clinton. The latter criticized Trump for racist behaviour, avoiding taxes, and misogynistic attitudes towards women. His replies particularly on not releasing his tax returns damaged his credentials as a trustworthy presidential aspirant.
Clinton forcefully rapped him for not paying any federal income tax. Trump was also unconvincing in his defence of the claim that he opposed the Iraq war from the start. Opinion polls after the first debate showed greater support for Clinton. A poll for CNN found 62% of viewers thought Clinton won the debate compared to 27% for Trump. The debate, watched by about 100 million people could be a defining moment in the build-up to election day on 8 November. (The Independent)
Trump asked Clinton in return to release her 33,000 e-mails that have been deleted. Her use of a private email server has been an undermining factor throughout the campaign. In another poll by Huffington Post, 56% said that Clinton displayed a presidential temperament during the debate while 34% said the same of Trump.
The second debate held in Saint Louis(Missouri) on 9 October turned more personal and nasty with Hillary attacking Trump for his vulgar behaviour towards women and for being prejudiced against the immigrants, Muslims, African-Americans, Latinos and handicapped persons. Trump renewed attacks against Bill Clinton for abusing women and against Hillary of threatening women who had been molested by her husband. Trump chastised Hillary for handling official material on her personal server and then deleting thousands of emails, adding that if he was the chief executive, Hillary would be in jail over the e-mails scandal.
The two candidates also clashed over foreign policy particularly on combating the IS in Iraq and Syria. Clinton criticized Trump for his pro-Russian remarks and praise for President Putin. She also warned that Trump’s plans for tax cuts for the rich would drive more people to hardship.
The opinion polls conducted immediately after the debate revealed that 57% thought Clinton had won the debate against 34% for Trump.
The first two of the three scheduled debates demonstrated that Clinton would be a safer choice to lead the world’s number one power.
Trump’s inexperience of running public office, however, does not diminish his core support among conservative Republicans and the rural population where 70% of white Americans live. In the final analysis, the voters on the right and ‘old’ America will stand by Trump despite his handicaps. Besides, staunch Republicans cannot give in to four more years of Democratic rule without putting up a stiff fight.
Hillary Clinton represents the aspirations of a liberal, multi-ethnic, and multi-cultural America. In so many ways, the 2016 election is a contest between old and new America. Trump’s talk of making America great again has a whiff of nostalgia for white rule in the United States. His supporters want to live in nostalgic times, at least for the duration of this campaign.