Random thoughts about the Democratic primaries

The US primary season is over, but for the final shouting. Senator Clinton has lost. She deserved to lose. She ran an ugly campaign. Just one vignette. When asked (again) on the CBS show 60 Minutes whether she believes Obama is a Muslim (a ludicrous rumour spread by right-wing bloggers and media in the US), she replies: “No, no why would I — there’s nothing to base that on — as far as I know”. She said this with a strong emphasis on the last ‘I’.

It’s sad that being an adherent of the one of the world’s great religions would, apparently, disqualify you from being an effective candidate for the US presidential nomination. I would much rather have a liberal Muslim than a fundamentalist Christian as president of the USA. But it’s truly distasteful to spread electoral poison by insinuation.

To watch Senator Clinton bang the anti-elitist drum was also pretty sickening, although it probably brought her some votes. Much populist handwringing followed this statement by Senator Obama: “You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” This statement is so unacceptable because it is so right.

It’s clear that anyone who seeks the US presidency must be slightly mad and have a masochist streak. No completely sane person would inflict so much punishment on himself/herself. It’s brutal, demeaning – rather like mud wrestling. Even so, it’s possible to want it too much and to be seen to want it too much.

Senator Clinton during her primary campaign reminds me of Gordon Brown, the current UK prime minister. Here is a man who for ten years brooded, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, about the main prize that had escaped him – in Brown’s view had been stolen from him by Tony Blair. Fury and resentment festered and occasionally erupted to the surface. Then – hallelujah! – he finally gets what he wants. He is prime minister. And he does not know what to do with the office and the power. The trappings of the top job he has wanted for so long were wanted for their own sake, rather than for what he wanted to and would be able to do with them. Senator Clinton is bereft of ideas and of values other than the desire for the highest office in the land. Wanting it that desperately ought to be a sufficient condition for not getting it.

Senator Clinton has acted for almost a year as if the Democratic nomination was hers – an entitlement. Most Americans, fortunately, are uncomfortable with the dynastic principle as the key to high office. Playing the gender card to explain her failure to gain the nomination, as some of her most vocal supporters have done, is unconvincing. Her successful opponent is male but mixed-race. Both sexism and racism continue to be potent electoral influences, but it’s unlike that sexism costs more votes than racism.

The attempt by the Clinton campaign to ‘count’ the disqualified primaries in Florida and Michigan was pathetic. The compromise – splitting the difference by seating the delegates from both states but with half the voting weights – was even more pathetic. The Democratic Party has rules about the primaries. Michigan and Florida knowingly broke these rules when they held their primaries too early. So their primaries are null and void. Bleating about the democratic rights of 600,000 Florida primary voters is hypocritical. There never was a valid primary. There never was a primary. 600,000 Floridians engaged in an interesting ritual that had no connection with the legitimate process for chosing the Democratic party candidate for the US presidency. I hope they had a good time. Rules are rules – the key building block of any civilised society – and of democracy.

I doubt where Senator Clinton will be silly enough to launch a formal appeal requesting the full illegimate delegations from Michigan and Florida to be seated at the convention. It would torpedo (1) her chances of getting the vice-presidential slot on the Obama ticket; and (2) her chances of getting another crack at the presidency itself, four or eight years from now.

Senator Obama, who today ended his affiliation with Trinity Church, comes out of this primary season looking stonger than I had anticipated. The break with Trinity Church must have been hard. Just because the former pastor of the church, the Revered Jeremiah Wright Jr., now in his dotage, is spewing garbage, does not mean that community of faith there is no longer a sustaining, positive force. The one truly harmful thing the Reverend has said, as far as I can tell, is that Aids was created and spread by the US government to commit genocide against people of color. That’s a demented, stupid, vicious conspiracy theory canard.

The origins of this paranoid delusion can probably be found in the Tuskegee experiments, conducted by the United States Public Health Service, in cooperation with the Tuskegee Institute, in Macon County, Alabama, between 1932 and 1970. Its aim was to determine the effects of untreated syphilis. 399 black men diagnosed with syphilis were given placebos even after the widespread adoption of penicillin in the US by 1943, following its invention in 1928.

Tout comprendre n’est pas tout pardonner – this Rev. Wright lie could cost lives. But so did the lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and about links between Sadam Hussain’s regime and Al -Qaeda. Even Dick Cheney has gone quiet on the WMD front, but he still trots out the Saddam H.-Al-Qaeda lie.

Breaking off ties was probably unavoidable following the insane rantings of the Rev. Michael Pfleger, a Roman Catholic priest – soon to be de-frocked, I hope – who acted as a guest preacher recently. Pfleger clearly should keep taking the tablets. He also really ought to read Volumes 1 and 2 of the God Chronicles his church is founded on. He managed to be both racist and sexist in a sermon whose style was close to my own imitation of a Southern holy roller and whose substance was dreck. Fear of guilt by association forced a break by Obama with his church. I hope he will find another spiritual home soon.

Maverecon: Willem Buiter

Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

Willem Buiter's website