Thursday, August 16, 2012

Romney, Ryan And Obama : Diversity In American Politics

The American electorate made history in 2008 with the election of Barack Obama, the nation's first black President. 2012 is set to break further barriers and bring diversity to the forefront of American politics. The GOP has nominated Mitt Romney, a Mormon. Romney has picked Paul Ryan, a Catholic, to be his running mate. Amidst the din of campaigning this positive development has lost attention. America's diversity was rarely ever reflected in its candidates for office especially for the Presidency. The diversity in candidacy is exceeded by the demographic composition of the electorate that in turn is changing the electoral map. A lot of this is for good and some, of course, causes concern.

Hillary Clinton, the first woman to run for the nomination of a major party, faced unique problems. Her standard dress, a pant suit, was mocked. As Clinton ground through a losing nomination she read a supporter's letter at a rally, "it is not over until the lady in pantsuit says so". She did not laugh, critics said, she 'guffawed'. If her makeup was a little off a whisper campaign started "is she going to throw in the hat". If her tops showed some cleavage that was mentioned in an article. Sexist jokes, even sexist toys showed up.  Clinton, as she loves to remind all, put 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling of gender discrimination in Presidential primaries. When Clinton campaigned in New Hampshire two men stood up holding some clothes saying "iron my shirt". Clinton responded "ah- the remnants of sexism - alive and well". A WSJ poll said Americans were more ready to accept an Afro-American than a woman for the Presidency. 

Obama endured barbs, some unintentional, about being Afro-American. Joe Biden, a fellow contender, remarked , in cringe-worthy words, "you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice looking guy".  Biden called Obama to apologize. Obama said it was 'unnecessary and told reporters generously "I have no problem with Joe Biden". At a debate in New Hampshire fresh from his trail blazing victory at Iowa Obama made a gaffe telling Hillary, looking down at his notepad, "you are likable enough Hillary". He lost women vote and New Hampshire by 2 points. 

Race, more than gender, played a very large role in 2008. Panicked after Hillary's humiliating loss in Iowa Bill Clinton jumped into the fray at New Hampshire. Trying to point out that Obama's positions on Iraq war mirrored Hillary's Bill exploded "this is the biggest fairy tale". Bill Clinton was referring to Obama's opposition to the war as 'fairy tale'. Afro-Americans, helped by many a anti-Hillary commentariat, took it as referring to Obama's historic candidacy. Then came S. Carolina. Bill Clinton stung by Hillary's loss in South Carolina after a very racially heated primary shot off "well Jesse Jackson won here". Afro-American leader and preacher Jackson having won S.Carolina went on to lose the nomination. Afro-Americans, until then Clinton's redoubtable supporters, turned on him in fury. Till the end of the election Bill Clinton faced allegations of race baiting. There was no truth in them though. Clinton, as his ardent supporter James Carville said on CNN, "had not a single racist bone in his body".

McCain defied a supporter who ranted that Obama was not born in the US and was a Muslim. McCain cut off that woman saying "no madam. He is an honorable man with a nice family. I only have policy disagreements with him". Sarah Palin, a political unknown until being nominated to the Vice Presidency by a panicking McCain, was the one who really had it tough. Very shameful rumors swirled about her, her daughter's pregnancy, her Down's syndrome afflicted child, her marriage etc. 

Amidst all of the above the silver lining was America was coming to terms with their candidates being diverse. Joe Biden, known for his foot-in-mouth disease, was coached on being gender sensitive during his debate with Sarah Palin. When McCain referred to Obama as 'that one' in their first debate it raised a flutter. Candidates were still learning that their words, every day words, could become transformed when it refers to a person of different background. Obama and McCain's first debate took place in University of Mississippi where James Meredith, the first Afro-American student, had to enter guarded by US Marshals. Meredith's admission resulted in race riots at the university. The University celebrates Meredith, aged 79 today, with a statue in his honor. 

The GOP, notorious for being a white man's party and in thralldom to evangelical Christians nominated a Mormon. To many evangelical Christians Mormonism is a satanic cult. Mitt Romney weathered many a not too subtle attacks on his religion. Washington Post has drawn attention to how Obama, campaigning in Iowa, drank beer with voters and spoke of it in order to bond. A favorite staple question of US Presidential elections is to ask voters 'which candidate would you have beer with'. Romney, as Mormon, is a teetotaler. An MSNBC commentator asked "why should we elect a guy who does not drink beer".

JFK's candidacy was hogged by criticism of his Irish Catholic roots. Would Kennedy, many bigots wondered, take orders from the Vatican. JFK then gave his speech on religious freedom and eventually romped into the Oval office.Al Gore nominated the nation's first Jew, Joe Lieberman, to be the VP in 2000. Paul Ryan, Romney's running mate, is Catholic. Joe Biden is Catholic too. There is no white male protestant on the ticket for 2012.

Madeline Albright became America's first woman Secretary of state in 1993. Since then until today no white male has occupied that office. Clinton and George W brought in a lot of diversity to their cabinets. Bush nominated the nations first Hispanic attorney general, two Afro-Americans successively as secretaries of state. Obama nominated, Eric Holder, the first Afro-American attorney general. Today 3 women, one of them Hispanic, serve in the US Supreme Court. And there was Nancy Pelosi, America's first woman speaker. America has come a long way one could say.

The electorate's demographics too changed. Obama carried Virginia, that bastion of civil war and segregation, a first for a Democrat in 40 years, simply because of a very diverse population in Northern Virginia. Northern Virginia has lot of Asians and Afro-Americans. Likewise Colorado. There are projections that demographic changes might even change Texas as battleground state. 

George Bush carried 40% of the Hispanic vote in 2004 and thus putting together a 'winning coalition'. Alarmed at the shrill rhetoric on immigration during 2012 GOP primaries Jeb Bush cautioned the candidates against such strident positions. Obama is now nakedly pandering to Hispanics. This vote-bank politics focused on ethic minorities, particularly Afro-Americans and Hispanics is cause for concern as much pandering to Evangelicals and gun lobby is of concern. Arizona, home state of John McCain, is within Obama's reach thanks to Hispanic population there and head-in-sand racist GOP administration there. Both Romney and Obama have given prime speaking spots for Hispanics at their conventions.

The GOP is more diverse than what people credit it for. The GOP canduidates includeed an Afro-American, a woman and two Mormons. GOP boasts of the nation's first Hispanic senator, charismatic Marco Rubio. Then there are Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley, both of Indian origin, governors of states in racially sensitive South. Jindal and Rubio are watched with interest and may run for the presidency one day.

America is being reshaped demographically in all spheres beyond just politics. Ivy League University Presidents and CEO's of companies are increasingly ethnically diverse. In short I can happily conclude 'E PLURIBUS UNUM' (out of many, one).

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