This leap year, 2016, like other leap years, is unravelling once again the complex and tortuous path that characterises any US presidential election. It has continued to bring forth different actors in both the leading political parties, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. This includes many leading personalities and also some relatively unknown national figures.
They have dominated the US political landscape for the past few months. However, as weeks have passed, most of them have slowly withdrawn their candidature due to lack of financial or political support at the grassroots level.
The two leading candidates left in the Democratic arena are Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. To obtain the final nomination from their party, they will need the recognised support of 2,383 delegates. Till the end of March, Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of State and wife of former President Clinton, has received the support of 1,712 delegates (including 469 super delegates) and Sanders the support of 1004 delegates (including 29 super delegates).
In the Republican arena, as it stands, Trump has secured the support of 739 delegates. Ted Cruz, the other leading candidate, has obtained the support of 465 delegates and John Kasich, the support of 143 delegates. To obtain the final nomination from their party, they will need the recognised support of 1,237 delegates.
The list of Republican candidates was quite long and varied this year. It included many who have since dropped out of the race - Carly Florina, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, Scott Walker, Rand Paul, Rick Perrs, Bobby Jindal, Lindsay Graham, Jim Gilmore and George Pitaki.
It would appear from the current electoral evolution that Clinton and Trump are on their way towards the nomination unless something changes significantly.
Within this equation, Donald Trump, the brash New York-based billionaire (whose political attempts failed in October, 1999 and later during March 2014), has grabbed the most attention in the media - both for his refusal to lobby others for financial support as well as the manner in which he has been dealing with sensitive issues. Trump takes every occasion to remind voters that he is not using lobbyists or donors. In fact, the perception that Trump cannot be bought is becoming an important factor in his appeal.
This has however also made him controversial and led his probable principal opponent, Hillary Clinton, to draw attention to his relative inexperience in foreign affairs. She has questioned his ability to deal with "a complex and dangerous world," and stated that "we need a commander-in-chief that can provide leadership that is strong" and not one "who incites more fear."
Eric Margolis, an analyst, has remarked that after Trump's smashing primary victories till the end of the fourth week of March, there is a growing sense that he is headed for victory while his legions of bitter opponents are left wringing their hands. As the Trump revolution spreads, his enemies are desperately seeking ways to stop the 'Donald Juggernaut' and appealing to everyone, who believes in the Republican spirit, to come forward and "save the Republican Party before Trump wrecks it."
In response to criticism regarding his inexperience in international affairs, Donald Trump recently revealed to the Washington Post the first list of members of his foreign policy team. The advisers include academics and former military officers with expertise on the Middle East and energy issues. Several of these advisers have served as experts for other Republican presidential candidates such as Mitt Romney and Ben Carson. They include retired Lt Gen Keith Kellogg, Carter Page, George Papadopoulos, Walid Phares and retired Gen Joseph Schmitz. The team is led by Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama. BBC has however noted that "the names are hardly a who's who in the Republican foreign policy firmament - which could be good or bad news depending on one's perspective." It is also being mentioned that "Trump's positions on trade deals and military intervention have put him decidedly outside the Republican Party establishment", and this list of advisers will do little to change that perception.
I intend to touch now briefly on some of the aspects that has drawn the attention of world policy-makers to Trump's campaign.
In the context of international affairs, attention of analysts has been drawn to the fact that Trump, who has a lot of investments in the UK, believes that UK may leave the European Union when a referendum is held in June. He has also indicated to the CNN that as part of his effort to reduce the US$ 19 trillion deficit faced currently by the United States, the US should spend less money on the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). "We are paying disproportionately. It's too much and frankly it's a different world than it was when we originally conceived of the idea," he maintains. Most interesting, indeed!
Trump was right on target when he called for an "even-handed approach" to resolving the Arab-Israeli struggle. This sent the US Israel lobby into a fury and they were quick to mention that this was quite different from the Mideast position of Clinton who has refrained from taking any position that might be interpreted as being critical of Israel. Trump realised very quickly that he might have over-stepped. Consequently in his address on March 21 to AIPAC, the powerful American Israeli Political Actions Committee, he reiterated that as a friend of democracy and freedom, he pledges to veto any UN-imposed Middle East peace agreement, not acceptable to Israel.
In another big shock, Trump has reportedly called for the deeply flawed investigation on the 9/11 attacks to be reopened leading several Republican foreign policy 'experts' to blast Trump as being 'unfit' to be president.
These persons had championed the 2003 invasion of Iraq for wrong reasons and are still not prepared to acknowledge that their action was a foreign policy disaster for which the then British Prime Minister Blair has already sought an apology.
Like President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Trump is also saying that he intends to end the current spirit of confrontation with Russia (that was supposedly engineered by the arms industry) and deal with Russia as an equal. Such an approach has quite understandingly already gained him the indirect support of Russian President Putin. The US military-industrial complex has predictably rejected such a dynamics.
Another target for Trump has been the Wall Street, and what it stands for. He is alleging that New York's bankers and financiers have bought Congress and "the shameful tax break for Wall Street". He, in this regard, is referring to the controversial law that provides a tax extender called the Active Financing Exception. This allows companies to avoid paying taxes on the huge profits made by their offshore subsidiaries unless that money is brought back into the US.
Trump is also threatening to undo trade deals and manufacturing displacement that have marked Obama's administration over the last few years. He has complained that China, Japan, Mexico, Vietnam and India are affecting US trade prospects by devaluing their currencies. He has pledged that, if elected, he would not sign the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact and would renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico and Canada. This approach has been like music to the working classes' ears.
Those involved with manufacturing have been pointing out in particular that currently, manufacturing in the US has fallen to only 12 per cent of economic activity while finance has risen to 20 per cent which, according to them, is unacceptable. This, they believe, is affecting employment opportunities.
Trump has also said that if he is elected, he will repeal the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, modify it and replace it with a system of health savings accounts where the insurance industry will have to play a bigger role. This would then reduce government expenditure.
In the meantime, the possibility of Trump emerging as the Republican candidate and also the eventual winner in the forthcoming US presidential election has led to an interesting dynamics. People from different religious communities have tentatively started to root for the billionaire. Brajesh Upadhyay has pointed out that after his victory in the Nevada caucuses, Trump was able to flaunt the support that he received from some Hispanic voters. Now he can add groups like 'Hindus for Trump', 'American Sikhs for Trump' and even 'American Muslims for Trump' to his list. The decision of a section of the 2.5-million Hindu community in the United States to come out in support of Trump was explained by Mr Parikh, a publisher from New York, in the following manner: "part of our community does support Hillary Clinton, but we have to support the other side too, so that our interests are protected and we have access to the Washington power."
This seems to have also been the reason for a section of the Muslim community to express their support for Trump after his negative comment about "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on". The comment, it may be recalled, drew worldwide criticism. This group has expressed support for finding a strong vetting mechanism for refugees coming from countries like Syria. Similar sentiments have been echoed by Jesse Singh, founder of the group 'American Sikhs for Trump'. He has mentioned that Trump has never opposed legal migration and has businesses all over the world, including India. Nevertheless, these groups appear to have failed to understand that the larger Sikh, Hindu and Muslim communities in the USA do not agree with their views.
Many analysts are stating that Trump has a reasonable chance of success in the presidential race if he is eventually chosen as the Republican candidate. They are pointing out that Republican strength today, on Capitol Hill and in state offices, is at levels unseen since the days of Calvin Coolidge. Turnout in the GOP primaries has also been running at levels unseen in American history, while turnout in the Democratic primaries has been below what it was in the Obama-Clinton race of 2008.
Nevertheless, many think otherwise. According to a new poll carried out by CNN/ORC in the third week of March, voters nationwide think Clinton would most likely win in the November election. Overall, 56 per cent say they think Clinton would win a match-up between the two leading candidates in November while 42 per cent say Trump would take it.
It may be recalled that an earlier release from the same survey found Clinton ahead of Trump in a hypothetical general election match-up, 53 per cent to 41 per cent among registered voters.
The poll also indicates that there are steep divides when judged on the basis of gender, race and education, with women, non-whites and those with college degrees more apt to choose Clinton.
The writer, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance (e-mail address: [email protected])