Friday, February 1, 2008

Primary Sources: Two African journalists assess U.S. presidential primaries

This is the first installment of a new regular feature that investigates how Africans view the U.S. presidential elections. Here is the second installment and here is the third.

Want a thorough assessment on the state of your country’s democracy? Send two Africans.

Through a grant handed out by the U.S. Dept. of State, two African journalists have the chance to cover up-close-and-personal the Democratic and Republic primary contests in the United States. Louis Oulon, from Burkina Faso and Davison Maruziva, from Zimbabwe, arrived in the United States in time to witness live the final televised debates for each political party before voters in 24 states, including California, will take part in party primaries. The outcomes of these races, known as Super Tuesday, will go a long way in deciding which candidates will represent his or her respective political party for America’s Presidential Election in November. (For a primer on U.S. Presidential primary system, check this.)

Viewing the Republican debate featuring Mike Huckabee, John McCain, Ron Paul and Mitt Romney, Davison, an editor of an independent weekly in Harare, Zimbabwe, noticed the candidates “were very long on rhetoric and very short on specifics.”

McCain and Romney monopolized the discussion, he said; With McCain painting himself as very strong on national security while Romney generally demonstrating his economic experience. However, prospective voters were not given specifics on how each candidate would handle a Republican agenda of creating jobs, fixing the issue of housing foreclosures and health care.

“How do you reduce these issues to [answer] how they benefit ordinary Americans?” Davison asked. “I think they were a bit fuzzy on that.”

Louis was most taken by how each Republican candidate ran away from the issue of the Iraq war. “For five years now, America has been involved in this war and the prospects are not good,” he said. “The [Republican] candidates are trying to defend this wrong war, a war that was not necessary to fight because nobody has found weapons of mass destruction. Nobody is talking about how to leave [Iraq].”

The two remaining Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, enjoy the luxury of not being part of the ruling party and thus are free to criticize the administration’s Iraq policy. However, both are missing the boat, Louis argues. “They are talking about leaving Iraq,” he said. “But we are going to leave Iraq with who? Are they going to leave the Iraqis to die?”

He says the war – which he guesses is the primary issue for 40 percent of voters – is an issue deeply felt around the world. “Ever since that war, we in Burkina Faso have been paying higher gas prices. Much higher than in the United States.”

The Reagan umbrella
Neither journalist missed the fact that Republicans tried to rally around former President Ronald Reagan. Louis talked about how each candidate shook hands with the president’s widow, Nancy Reagan, before the debate got underway. In fact, due to the unpopularity of the Bush presidency, Louis thinks the Republicans were trying to make people forget the current president by invoking Reagan’s name. “Reagan is a kind of umbrella for them,” he says. “It’s better than sitting under the umbrella of George Bush.”

Hearing such adoration for the former President was a strange moment for Louis, whose country was very closely allied to Libya when the United States in 1986 sent planes to bomb Tripoli and its outskirts. “It was like the Americans were fighting BurkinabĂ©,” he said. However, the Republicans weren’t emphasizing Reagan’s warrior-like stature; rather, candidates invoked Reagan’s handling of the U.S. economy and development of the country.

Davison saw the Republican appeal to the Reagan Revolution as a somewhat cynical attempt to tap into the vein of American politics that is attracted to laissez faire leaders. Unlike more technocratic presidents or leaders who attempt to be very hands-on, Reagan governed with a business-as-usual approach. “[Reagan] did very well to Americans by not meddling,” Davison said.

Davison would have liked to hear the candidates talk more about how they would deal with dictators, an issue he found intriguing in the Democratic debate. “American policies with pushing African democracy have not really bore any fruit,” he said. “In the example of Kenya, they have tended to cozy up to guys like [President Mwai] Kibaki. If they were really trying to help the majority of African people, they would not do such things.”

He continues: “Look at [the U.S.] policy in Zimbabwe. What specific results are they trying to achieve with their disengagement? The boycott has helped [President Robert] Mugabe. Oh, he cannot fly to Europe or to the United States. But he is still in control. The question they must ask: How does their policy affect regular African people?”

This is what we talk about when we talk about the economy
For both reporters, the differences in Thursday night’s Democratic debate were immediately apparent. Where perhaps 30 supporters stood outside the Reagan Library on Wednesday, scores of supporters of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton animatedly demonstrated outside the Kodak Theatre, waving signs and posters. “What was most impressive to me,” Davison said. “Was these were very young people and a lot of women. If the Democrats can galvanize all these people and if it can translate to voter support, they have something going.”

With the Democratic primary is down to two candidates, Davison admitted, perhaps it is easier to energize their base of supporters.

With fewer candidates at the debate, the Democrats could talk about more substantive issues that the next administration, from whatever party, will have to confront. At a few points, the candidates sparred over quite intricate pieces of health care policy and how best to stimulate the economy.

“What impressed me,” Louis said, “was they were saying ‘We are together, yet we are different from Republicans. But at the same time I am Clinton and I am Obama.’”

Like the Republicans the night before, the Democrat debate primarily featured discussion on domestic issues. To Louis, when candidate’s talk of the economy, they are really debating the war in Iraq and Bush’s record. “The economy is broken because the Bush administration has spent most of its time fighting in Iraq and he doesn’t have time to focus on how to develop the economy.”

Where is Africa?
Another similarity with the Republican debate was the fact that neither candidate mentioned Africa. Both journalists understand their continent is an issue that doesn’t gain a lot of attention with most American voters. However, Davison did hear echoes of an African policy when Clinton criticized Obama by saying: “I don’t think the President should put the prestige of the Presidency on the line in the first year, to have meetings without preconditions with five of the worst dictators in the world.”

“Who are those five worst dictators,” Davison asked. “I would have wanted specifics.”

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