Thursday, October 9, 2008

Letter from Washington - First Week Here as a Visiting Fellow, Cato Institute

Five days is a lifetime in Washington DC, a city that is as much a metaphor as it is the capital of the world’s only, but fast declining, hyper-power.

I had barely shaken the jetlag out of my eyes last Thursday night, when I forced myself to stay awake for the much-hyped debate between the nation’s two Vice Presidential candidates. The expectations were both huge and diminished: would Republican Governor Sarah Palin manage to stutter out a few comprehensible sentences? Would she fall off the stage? In the event, the nation’s now most famous “hockey mom” managed a performance, which exceeded the expectations of this Samuel Johnson sort (“She does it exceedingly badly, but the wonder is that she does it at all”).

Palin’s shtick was a bazooka assault on the city which is to be my home for the next three months. She vowed throughout the debate insistently to “change”, “clean up”, “fix”, “reform” and “shake everything up” in Washington.

The following evening I attended a swanky party in the toniest DC neighbourhood. Our hostess, Katharine Weymouth, is both the granddaughter of Washington grandee, the late Katharine Graham, and currently publisher of the Washington Post – which happens to be the family newspaper and one of the very elite symbols that Palin so disparages.

My interest in the event is both political and anthropological: the party is the launch event of a searing book on the dark but hugely consequential vice presidency of Dick Cheney (“The Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency” by Barton Gellman). Having had a dozen or more book launches of my own recently in South Africa, I can only commend Mrs. Graham-Weymouth’s event: the Chardonnay was superior and the canapés spectacular – no doubt confirming every prejudice of Governor Palin and her constituency. Although I couldn’t sight a single Republican at the party, most of the marquee democrats were strangely subdued despite the extraordinary news just in that Senator John McCain had pulled out of campaigning in the State of Michigan which he had previously described as a “must-win”. The cause of the sombre tones was Congress’s decision to eventually nod through the $700 billion rescue plan. Few thought that despite its size it would soothe the global financial system and provide the “stick of dynamite” which Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson claimed would unfreeze the stuck credit markets. As it happened, the sceptics were proved right by Monday morning: the credit contagion continued to rage like wild fire and on Wall Street the Dow dropped a frightening 800 points, while stock prices collapsed around the world.

Sometime Democratic Presidential candidate (back in 1992) and Bill Clinton’s Interior Secretary, Bruce Babbit advised me that the only thing which could save McCain at this late stage was “a Hail Mary pass”. I could not confess to this suave Washington fixture that I was utterly ignorant of American football argot, but on subsequent inquiry I discovered that the term relates to a forward pass made in utter desperation, with only a small chance of success, at the end of a game.

The very next day Sarah Palin threw such a long shot at Barack Obama by reminding a fired-up audience in Florida of his links to William “Bill” Ayers, a founder of the 1960’s radical terrorist group “The Weatherman Underground”. In Palin’s folksy vitriol this amounted to the Democratic frontrunner “palling around with terrorists”.

But this is one “Hail Mary” that doesn’t seem to connect. Because while the Republicans are desperate to change the subject from the economy (which the voting public holds them, and especially the toxic presidency of George W. Bush responsible for) most American voters cite the collapse of Wall Street, and the collateral damage to main street America as the seminal issue. Indeed, this is arguably the biggest economic event in world history for the past eighty years. Just put this crisis in perspective: Americans (who largely acquire stocks and shares for the purpose of retirement) have lost a combined $1 trillion dollars in net worth in just the last four weeks. More than one million people have lost their homes in the last two years and one million more are expected to lose their homes in the next year or so. All this makes it a hard, if not impossible, sale for the Republican belief in deregulation, unfettered free markets and its associations with some of the “villains” of Wall Street.

So is the race for the American presidency over? Based on the polls it would appear as though McCain’s candidacy is “as much a casualty of Wall Street as Lehman or Merrill” to quote democrat strategist Howard Wolfson. And while McCain’s campaign has come back from the dead more than once before in this electoral season, his appearance in Tuesday night Presidential debate with Barack Obama was certainly no game changer. Sadly, he almost looked half-dead: waxen and wooden, desperately trying to churn out some lines stuffed into his head by his campaign operatives including the, extraordinary suggestion (from a Republican, at least) that his administration would buy up all the bad home loans in America and renegotiate mortgage repayments.
Ronald Reagan must have spun in his grave.

In fact, some of McCain’s solutions were more substantive than Obama’s light fare. But the Democrat projected a fluency and ease which cast him, ironically, as the more seasoned and reliable hand on the tiller. Given the perfect economic storm now raging, such reassuring poise is probably the game winner.

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