The US presidential election: Only 368 days to go!

Pity the poor editorial page editor who has to predict who will win the US presidential election a year ahead of the ballot.
I was thinking that the other night as I listened to Fred Hiatt, the editorial page editor of The Washington Post, who’s in Australia under the auspices of the US Studies Centre (USSC) at Sydney University. In his lecture at the Radisson Plaza Hotel in Sydney (photo above of Hiatt at the lectern), Fred had to explain the slings and arrows of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy, the pivot or rebalancing of American policy from closer to home to the Pacific, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement, as well as Bernie Sanders/Paul Ryan crying crisis in the country.
When Tom Switzer, former editor of Spectator Australia, now a USSC research associate, in a post-lecture chat with Fred, suggested the US was headed in the wrong direction, Hiatt said Bernie Sanders has described the present situation in America as “a crisis, the biggest since World War Two,” and Paul Ryan, who will be taking over from John Boehner as Speaker of the House tomorrow, says: “The Republic is in danger,” and that’s the only reason he’s accepted the job. Fred Hiatt claims the US is in much better shape than other pundits say it is, and Switzer challenged him by asking how can that be when Trump and Sanders are attracting a lot of support and talking the language of reordering American priorities in favour of domestic affairs? For the past decade starting with Hurricane Katrina in 2005, it spelled the end of American exceptionalism, as journalist Paul Kelly put it at the time. Given the debt crisis, budget showdowns, congressional paralysis, all taken together, how can we be optimistic that American will have the confidence, the leadership to bring peace and stability to the world. Switzer’s question was a long one, and well-directed. Hiatt paused and said: “Okay, now I’m depressed.” It drew a big laugh among the 60-strong audience, including journalists Colin Chapman, the ABC’s Andrew West and Paul Kelly, The Australian’s editor-at-large.
The long-time foreign correspondent, columnist and editorial page editor said he didn’t know the answer, but the obituary about the death of American leadership has been written before. But Hiatt admitted Congress ain’t what it used to be: “It’s very disturbing to see people in Congress who are willing to entertain the possibility of default.”
Fred Hiatt had a busy day on Monday, doing quite a few interviews, starting with a media breakfast also sponsored by the USSC, and a pre-record with Janine Perrett on The Perrett Report on Sky News. A former foreign correspondent, Perrett asked Hiatt about the impact on the new Speaker Paul Ryan of dysfunctional politics, the threat of shutdowns, “the rabble that is the far right of the Republicans that (former Speaker) John Boehner found it so hard to corral?”
Hiatt responded: “You know Ryan sort of made the condition for taking the job people would behave better and all those various factions of the Republican Party would come together behind him. And he’s certainly a popular and a very respected figure. At the same time, I don’t think he has healed the fractures of the party. I don’t think it’s possible to do that. I think he still has 30 or 40 or 50, depending on how you count it, members of Congress, who, on the Republican side, really don’t believe in compromise, and have a different attitude toward government from a lot of their colleagues. Is Paul Ryan going to be able to paper that over? I think it’s still going to be difficult.”
In another pre-recorded interview on Monday on ABC’s Lateline“, Emma Alberici asked Hiatt how big a threat Bernie Sanders was to Hillary Clinton. “Well in this election year I think anybody would be crazy to make a flat prediction,” he wisely replied. “Certainly nobody would’ve predicted a year ago that Bernie Sanders would be at 40 per cent, this socialist from Vermont. But I think you’d still have to bet that he’s not likely to win the nomination. And, you know, early enthusiasm doesn’t always translate into winning primaries.”
And on the Republican side, she asked what it said about the state of American politics that a real estate tycoon, Donald Trump, and a retired neurosurgeon, Ben Carson (Reuters photo above showing Carson campaigning in Iowa), are the party’s leading presidential candidates. Hiatt said: “I think it’s amazing to both Donald Trump and Ben Carson that they find themselves where they are. It’s certainly amazing to the Republican establishment such as it still is. You know, I think it says a lot of people are frustrated with gridlock in Washington. I think some people are angry about demographic changes in the country and believe the United States is changing in ways that makes them uncomfortable or that they disapprove of. So I think it’s a combination of things and I think a lot of people are just kind of sick of politicians who talk like politicians and sound like politicians and neither of those two fit that bill.” Overnight, the latest New York Times/CBS News poll showed Dr Carson took the lead over Donald Trump by 26 per cent to 22 per cent. Trump was not happy with being second and had a go at Carson’s denomination, the Seventh-Day Adventist Church: “I am a great Christian. I’m a believer, and I believe in the Bible.”
Back at the Radisson Plaza, we’ll let Paul Kelly take the last question (edited, of course) about the dichotomy between capacity and political will. “You argue US has the capacity and the ability to lead and lead effectively, despite the lack of political will … How we will see President Obama at the end of the day, an aberration, a one-off responding to George Bush pushing the system an alternative way or as the inaugurator of a New Norm … a president who is more cautious, reluctant to get involved in the world? ” Hiatt’s answer was a good one: “The brokenness of our politics means that it’s not safe to assume entirely that what’s happening represents the will of the people … that’s a big problem, but … these 40 House Republicans who are preventing Congress from governing, do not represent the majority opinion in the US.” And on the caution question, Hiatt said: “It’s striking that you see even Obama doing a lot of self-correcting in his last year, the Afghanistan change of mind is one, committing troops to Iraq is another, his UN General Assembly speech where he acknowledged it was a mistake to pull out of Libya so quickly. I think there is already a bit of a swing back. If I had to bet, I do not think the likeliest outcome is a permanent retreat and a sort of fundamental change.”
So there we have it: Barack Obama is an honest president, not a weak one. The United States is not retreating into isolationism. Hillary Clinton is leading the Democratic candidates but don’t bet against Bernie Sanders … yet. And two non-politicians, an African-American Evangelist neurosurgeon and a billionaire developer, are on top of the Republican nominee poll … at this stage.
It has to be said: Aside from Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side, and possibly Carly Fiorina, former Hewlett-Packard chief executive on the Republican side (and who would believe the Grand Old Party would ever nominate a woman to be president), this gaggle of candidates is not very impressive. If you are able to access it, tune in to CNBC on Foxtel to watch the main Republican debate this morning (at 9am Australian ET, the business channel showed brief excerpts on The Rundown program). The early debate featured the lowest-polling candidates, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and former New York Governor George Pataki. The main debate has just begun on CNBC with Carson, Trump, Fiorina, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee and Rand Paul at the University of Colorado. Ten candidates are too many for a debate, especially when you’re up against the second game of the World Series between the New York Mets and the Kansas City Royals.
Only 368 days to go until the next president of the United States is elected. Pity the poor editorial page editor and the American people.

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