Time for Palin to deliver

The eyes of a nation will focus on Washington University in St Louis this Thursday for what could be a decisive night in the US presidential election. Despite briefly reinvigorating the Republican campaign, the selection of Sarah Palin as vice presidential running mate has looked an increasingly perilous decision in recent weeks following a flatfooted interview on CBS, an email scandal and several potentially damaging revelations about her faith and family.

The Republican ticket is also being hampered by its association with the incumbent regime, currently presiding over the worst economic downturn since the 1929 Wall Street crash. So much rides on Palin’s performance this week that last Friday’s bout between Obama and McCain in Mississippi, the first of three debates for the presidential candidates, felt like an undercard.

No knockout blows were landed in Ole Miss; however the live TV showdown between the vastly experienced Joe Biden and his increasingly shaky opposite number could be a more brutal affair. Should Palin stumble on Thursday, McCain, already behind in the polls, will find it hard to rally. Should she turn in a performance, the gap between McCain and Obama will suddenly seem very small. The White House has been won and lost at such events.

Honours were declared even after last week’s banal encounter between Obama and McCain, an event that was watched by 52 million American, 16 per cent fewer viewers than watched the Bush-Kerry contest four years earlier. Despite talking for 90 minutes, neither side drew blood, leaving the spin doctors behind the scenes to declare victory for their respective candidates.

The debate focused on foreign policy and security, and the growing economic crisis engulfing America. On the former, McCain played on his experience, painting his opponent as too green and untested for the role of Commander-in-Chief. Indeed, the senator’s war record is one of the few points of leverage for the GOP advisors masterminding the Republican campaign.

On the latter, Obama allied McCain with the policies of George W Bush, and the Republican commitment to free market fundamentals, both seen as culpable for America’s current financial predicament. Obama looked relaxed and urbane, almost detached at times. McCain looked jittery, ill at ease with the format, occasionally angry, despite a fixed grin.

Obama addressed his opponent as “John”, turning towards the senator to speak. McCain’s glare remained fixed on the adjudicator, referring only to his rival as Senator Obama. This wasn’t just Republicans versus Democrats; it was generation versus generation, as the young media-savvy lawyer took on the ageing war veteran in a battle of quips, badinage and sound bites.

Earlier in the day the debate looked in jeopardy when McCain proposed he remain in Washington to help construct a bailout bill for Wall Street. It proved political gamesmanship, as both took to the stage. McCain was quick to go on the offensive offering strong rhetoric on Vladimir Putin and a resurgent Russia: “I looked into his eyes and I saw three letters – KGB”. It was a sturdy stuff from the Arizona senator, sentiments that will sit well with vast swathes of the American electorate. It was also instructive. McCain is, after all, a product of the Cold War, a man with an almost absolute view of right and wrong forged in the POW camps of the Vietnam War. That experience now informs the framework of the 72-year-olds world view.

“We are winning in Iraq and we will come home with victory and with honour,” argued McCain. Obama countered suggesting that a bad war was not worth fighting.

“Senator Obama won’t admit that the Surge is working,” continued McCain.

“John seems to think the war started in 2007, not 2003,” countered Obama. The Iraq debate proved the highlight of the night.

Events on Wall Street have overshadowed security issues in recent weeks, yet most Americans agree that electing a strong and security-minded leader is paramount. It’s not hard to see why – an aggressive Russia, China’s dramatic growth, an Iraqi conflict into its fifth year, a prolonged conflict in Afghanistan, problems on the Pakistani border, sabre rattling from Iran, North Korea threatening to restart its nuclear programme and the ongoing issue of Islamic fanaticism, the followers of which see America as the architect-in-chief of an unholy world.

Such fears should play into the hands of the military veteran, yet Obama remains ahead in the polls, suggesting that doubts about his foreign policy credentials may have been assuaged. Yesterday’s collapse of the legislative package on Capitol Hill, shot down by a Republican majority, may also benefit the Democrats over the coming weeks, though Obama failed to capitalise on the current economic distress during the debate, embroiling himself instead in an argument about tax cuts.

“Senator Obama simply doesn’t get it,” was McCain’s oft repeated response to his opponent’s practical, even prosaic assessments during the contest.

It’s unlikely that Palin will adopt similar tactics when she faces Joe Biden on Thursday. The Democratic running-mate must tread carefully, though. Should he browbeat his inexperienced opponent too heavily he may come across as sexist and a bully. Yet the pressure remains markedly on Palin. Political commentators are already suggesting the Republicans need a “game-changer”, an event that shifts support in their favour before November 4th.

Sarah Palin was appointed to ostensibly provide just that. Should she fall on Thursday, the hockey mom’s selection may well have handed the game to the other side.

This first appeared in The Sunday Express. The original article can be found here.

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Ahmadinejad invades the election

The arrival of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in New York on Sunday evoked statements of condemnation from former Democratic presidential candidate Hilary Clinton and Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

The Iranian leader is in the city to address the United Nations General Assembly today. Jewish and pro-Israel groups held a planned demonstration, protesting remarks made by the Iranian President in 2005 in which he said “Israel should be wiped off the map”.

Senator Clinton had planned to go to the rally but pulled out last week when she was made aware that Palin was also due to attend. Bizarrely, the organisers then banned Palin from attending citing unwanted media attention. Malcolm Hoenlein, one of the organisers of the demonstration, told FOX News “Regrettably the focus of the rally has been obfuscated by media feeding frenzy in recent days.”

It was an odd statement. Surely the organisers wanted the protest to make front page news – guaranteed were Palin to attend – leading some to suggest that the Democrats had applied pressure on the organisers, threatening IRS action if they allowed the Republican running mate to speak.

Despite their absence, both women offered comment on the ever-deteriorating relationship between the US and Persian state, with Clinton maintaining her stance that that Iran “cannot be allowed to build or acquire nuclear weapons”.

When Senator McCain was asked in April about a second military invasion in the region, he replied by singing “Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran,” to the tune of the Beach Boys Barbara Ann. Palin’s statement was a little more measured: “We must start with restrictions on Iran’s refined petroleum imports. We must reduce our dependency on foreign oil to weaken Iran’s economic influence.”

Neither Clinton nor Palin emerged from the mess with any great credit. In fact, the only winner on show was Ahmadinejad who, aware of the storm around his visit, lapped up the media attention, revelling in the role of international bête noir.

Outside the UN, the demonstration, attended by thousands, boasted several international speakers, with Hoenlein delivering an impassioned condemnation:

“This (Iran) is the leading sponsor of state terrorism in the world. This is the leading executioner of women and children. This is a man (Ahmadinejad) who persecutes his own people, even Muslims who don’t agree with him. It’s time to end the terror by stopping Iran now.”

There is no question that Iran is a major threat to the Middle East and consequently world security. Ahmadinejad too is rightly regarded as a pariah for his comments on the destruction of Israel and his denial of the holocaust.

However, is Iran really the leading sponsor of State terrorism? Iran doesn’t use use money from oil production to export of virulent form of Wahhabi extremism, sanctioning the murder of non-believers. That’s Saudi Arabia.

It is also notable that not one of the 9/11 hijackers came from within Iranian borders. Nine of them did come from Saudi Arabia. And when it comes to persecuting their own people, Saudi Arabia is far more repressive than Iran (women aren’t even allowed to drive in the Saudi state).

That’s not to say that Iran pales in comparison; the Iranian Revolutionary Guard regularly carry out public beheadings and reportedly rape women accused of adultery. And, unlike Iran, Saudi Arabia does not have the technology or presently the desire to create a thermo-nuclear arsenal. Still, the difference in US attitudes towards the two states is instructive.

Ahmadinejad’s visit to the US is scheduled to last a week, with more protests planned when he attends a dinner with Christian groups on Thursday.

Simply by turning up the Iranian leader has woven himself into the tapestry of the forthcoming election. Before the week is out, you wouldn’t bet against him adding a few more threads.

This first appeared in The Sunday Express. The original article can be found here.

God will win the US election

There have been plenty of subplots to the 2008 American election, the two most obvious being gender and race. Women, it seems, have finally arrived at the sharp end of US politics, while the Democratic nomination of an African American could be prove a watershed in US history.

Should Obama lose on November 4th, the election will be viewed in hindsight as entirely about race. However, beneath gender and race is another even larger undercurrent, a river of division soaked into the soul of American society – that of religion. God, it seems, has the casting vote. In a country founded on Puritanism, religion has provided a backdrop to every US election in history, even more so in recent times thanks to the political mobilisation of the evangelical Right.

There’s a widely held belief in the States that a non-believer could never be elected to the White House. This is not necessarily true. A non-believer could easily get elected to the White House… as long as they pretended to be a Christian. Bill Clinton is the most recent example. It is probably no coincidence that his wife, Hilary, looked most insincere when discussing matters of God. As long as you profess to be Christian, whether that requires cognitive dissonance or not, you’ve got a chance at the top job.

Not that it needs to be a specific Christian belief – McCain is a Southern Baptist brought up Episcopalian; Barak Obama is a mainline protestant (if you dismiss rumours of a clandestine allegiance to Islam). Even candidate Republican nominee Mitt Romney, a member of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, which until 1978 was officially a racist organisation, managed to secure plenty of support during his campaign. Christian ecumenism is the key. As long as you have faith, the flavour is up to you.

It is a paradox that a country in which a separation of church and state is written into the constitution requires its politicians to fawn so desperately over the bible and those who purport to speak with its authority. Earlier in the campaign we witnessed Obama and McCain paying due reverence at a faith forum hosted by Rick Warren, a pastor and self-styled leader of the evangelicals whose influence stretches out to the thousands of Megachurches scattered from coast to coast.

Billed by Fox News as the Saddleback Showdown, the candidates went separately to answer questions of leadership, stewardship, world view and international concerns. Playing to the audience, Warren was quick to set the discussion with a Christian framework, swaddling the conversation with religious motifs.

He stopped short of asking who Jesus would vote for, but not by much. It was all good knock-about stuff, as both candidates fell over themselves to kow-tow to the conservative throng. McCain seemed more at home, but neither appeared entirely comfortable opposite such overt religious posturing. Even the selection of Joe Biden as Democratic running mate had a religious slant. Although added to the ticket to add international experience, the Obama camp also hope to appeal to Roman Catholics, as well as the blue collar vote – two areas of weakness for the Illinois senator.

Yet the election took a more sinister turn this week with revelations on CNN about the religious affiliation of the Republican running mate Sarah Palin. The Alaskan Governor, brought in by McCain to help convert some of the disillusioned Hilary voters has enjoyed a mixed start to her Vice Presidential campaign. Several strong speeches early on were tempered by an obvious naivety when it came to international relations (she only recently acquired a passport).

News of her 17-year-old daughter being pregnant out of wedlock also sullied the sheen, though the impact this will have on the core social conservatives of the GOP come November 4th is probably negligible. Far more worrying is Palin’s long-time membership of a Pentecostal church in her home town of Wasilla in which the congregation speak in Tongues, the practise of making unintelligible sounds as if being relayed a message from God (or as some practitioners believe speaking in the language of angels).

The church is also known to practise faith healing and, most troubling of all, believe in End of Days, a cataclysmic event that precedes the return of the Messiah and an ushering of believers to up to heaven. Palin left the church six years ago, yet most Republicans remain quiet on her faith. Whatever her current belief, it doesn’t take a savvy political operator to spot that a person who thinks they can speak directly to the Almighty might unease potential voters.

And the prospect having the second in line to the presidency delighting in a forthcoming Doomsday and a subsequent rapture to heaven should leave more than US residents shifting uneasily in their seats. Palin has gone on record describing US soldiers in Iraq as “on a task from God”. It’s a dangerous sentiment, the kind often peddled by Osama Bin Laden or the mullahs of Iran.

Such comparisons may seem severe, particularly as religious fanaticism manifests itself in different ways. Yet there is no doubting the real danger to the world is fanaticism itself, whether that originates in America, Afghanistan or the Middle East.

“What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a bulldog?” Palin quipped at the recent Republican convention. The answer? “Lipstick”.

So what separates a hockey mom from the other crackpot leaders with a direct ear to God? Let’s hope in this instance it’s a little more than lip gloss.

This first appeared in The Sunday Express. The original article can be found here.