The prize for bravest face in the US presidential contest goes to Rick Santorum. The ultra-conservative running for the Republican nominationvisited Iowa this week and only one woman showed up to say hello. But the candidate still called the event a success. Iowa is a state that you win one vote at a time. Just 30,000 more meetings like that and it’s in the bag for Rick.
The Republican and Democrat races supposedly have their primary frontrunners already: Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton respectively. Both are deemed winnably moderate, both wallow in cash. But things are more complicated than they seem. The determination of little guys like Santorum reflects an electoral cycle full of ideological turmoil and possibility.
On the Republican side, we have yet another re-invention of the Bush brand. George H W was a patrician pragmatist, George W was a religious conservative and Jeb has a reputation for moderation. Jeb says he might not have gone to war in Iraq and he would welcome immigrants. The presence of a Mexican wife by his side promises racial reconciliation. Of course, appearances can be deceptive. As governor of Florida, Jeb the “moderate” abolished affirmative action for non-white employees. He also signed the “Stand Your Ground” law that has permitted so many white folks to shoot black folks that they feared might harm their person.
Nevertheless, Bush is perceived to be the moderate with the biggest name – so he draws the biggest cash. Yet nationwide he only polls about 14 per cent. His nearest rival – Scott Walker, Governor of Wisconsin and anti-union Right-wing hero – is just one point behind. And he hasn’t even declared yet.
Beneath Bush and Walker, the race fans out ideologically in a way that suggests a fractured electorate fighting over the very meaning of Republicanism. Some are drawn to Senator Marco Rubio: handsome, Cuban, offering conservatism with a new kind of face. Businesswoman Carly Fiorina pulls off the same trick with gender. Senator Lindsey Graham is there for the neoconservatives. Former Texas governor Rick Perry speaks for the good ol’ boys (he floundered when he last sought the nomination because he couldn’t recall in a debate what he wanted to cut). Religious conservatives are spoilt for choice. There’s Santorum, neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Senator Ted Cruz and former governor Mike Huckabee – a retired preacher with a Ukipper’s sense of humour. He said that he wished “someone told me… when I was at high school” about transgenderism so that he could have showered with the girls after PE classes. Accused of bigotry, he replied that he was just speaking “common sense”. The more liberal Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey would probably disagree – and when he declares, he will have to compete with former governor George Pataki of New York among moderate New Englanders. Finally, there’s Rand Paul – a libertarian senator who would strip government down and get out of foreign wars. I’ll return to him later.
Now, you might imagine Hillary Clinton surveying the Republican mess and chuckling evilly to herself. But she has problems of her own. While she dominates the Democrat field this is mostly because so few have heard of the other people in it. They have, however, heard of Hillary and the longer they think about her, the further her approval rating drops.
Hillary represents the dead hand of establishment power: she stands for nothing and her utter dominance suffocates the spirit of liberalism. In fact, so awful is the consensus that “it must be Hillary” that it contains the seeds of her downfall – just as it did for her in 2008. Already there are signs of dissent. Vice-president Joe Biden watches from the wings. Former governor Martin O’Malley of Maryland is running to stir up the liberal base, but the recent Baltimore riots suggest that he may have been just as much a part of the “law and order” agenda that has oppressed blacks as Bush once was. Former Senator Jim Webb is an anti-war war veteran but otherwise quite moderate. All eyes, then, turn Left. To Senator Bernie Sanders.
Sanders, whose brother is a Green politician in the UK, might be the first openly socialist American to run a serious US presidential campaign since Eugene V Debs in 1920. And Debs did it from a prison cell. Bernie has crashed into this race pledging to raise the highest rate of tax to 90 per cent and socialise health care – yet has jumped to second place in some early primary states and has tons of activist energy behind him. You could dismiss the enthusiasm as an energised fringe. But why is there a fringe to energise at all? Because grassroots Democrats suspect that the Democratic Party has failed by its own progressive standards. Even under Barack Obama – not only black but instinctively liberal – inequality has grown, African-Americans have slipped back and the US government has bombed foreigners and spied on its own people.