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Category Archives: Hillary Clinton

Cambridge Analytica Scandal – Is Data Privacy A Mirage?

Cambridge Analytica Scandal – Is Data Privacy A Mirage?

The unauthorized “harvesting” of personal data of over fifty million Facebook users by Cambridge Analytica is the latest in a continuing saga of data related scandals. Breaking his long silence, Zuckerberg apologized to his billion plus users worldwide and called it a “breach of trust” and vowed to take steps to protect user data. But the damage has been done.

As many averred, Zuckerberg’s apology inherently assumes Facebook users will continue to trust it and that all will be forgiven and it will be business as usual. That may well turn out to be true. But given the seriousness of this “breach of trust”, this may have serious consequences on its fortunes. One immediate fallout is the #DeleteFacebook campaign that quickly went viral. Also Facebook stock lost almost 9% in value.

Facebook’s supreme success rests on a business model built on profiting from customer data and its priceless derivative – customer insights. Notwithstanding Zuckerberg’s apology and promises to clean up, it is anybody guess if he will really follow up or implement only cosmetic changes.

This brings into focus the importance of consumer data in today’s data driven economy. It is common knowledge that vast amounts of data are being generated every day, particularly by social media users. Using sophisticated analytics, this data can be mined to yield powerful insights about users. In fact it is a common practice for marketing companies to use these insights to create a full behavioral personality profile or characteristics of an individual.

Products and service or even a political ideology could then be effectively tailored or custom fitted for that profile in what is called micro targeting. This data driven super customization has wide applications – in retail marketing, business espionage, political campaigns etc. It is for this reason that today data is seen as the most important resource and companies would do anything to get their hands on it.

Given the multiple use of this cutting edge knowledge resource born out of the confluence of technology and high end quantitative skills, it is indeed awing and worrisome at once. It is like a knife that can be used in the kitchen as well as to kill. The exploits of companies like Cambridge Analytica have justifiably caused disquiet among large sections of society.

Cambridge Analytica, like many other companies, are way ahead of the curve in using these precious insights in seeking to “change audience behavior”, or to generate  favorable outcomes in the targeted populations in a general election. Hence their popularity with political parties worldwide, including India.

As can be seen, there is nothing illegal per se in Cambridge Analytica’s business model. In fact all major corporations worldwide are engaged in exploiting data in one form or other for their bread and butter. But the illegal gathering of profile information of millions of users without their express consent is what is under scrutiny.

But what has been a rude wake up call for many is the fact that companies like Cambridge Analytica can potentially disrupt a democratic process like an election. Undercover videos shared by Britain’s Channel 4 News show how the company actively planted news – typically fake news in the “bloodstream of the internet and let it grow” to achieve desired social and electoral outcomes.

This it very much akin to what the Soviet Union was doing decades ago to brainwash its people. The distinctions between legal and illegal is often blurry and Cambridge Analytica and its ilk appear to have exploited it to the hilt. To confound the issue, in many countries, regulators have still not woken up to combat this malefic use of data.

The problem is indeed acute in countries like India where political parties have shrewdly worked off radar to use the services of Cambridge Analytica and its subsidiaries to “influence social behavior” in the election process. How far the election processes have been subverted is anybody’s guess. But it is equally futile to point fingers at the Congress party or the BJP since all of them have at some point in time used these services.  It is like the Democrats in the US blaming the Republicans because the Trump campaign used them in 2016. But it came back on the Democrats when it was revealed that they too – the Obama campaign in 2012 -had extensively used these services.

The scary part here is that the users whose data is being fought over, have practically no say in the matter because they have already shared their private information on the internet. It has left their hands and there is no way they can get it back. How this will be used and shared or who will use this is being decided by companies like Facebook who are primarily motivated by profits and not overly concerned about user privacy. That such breaches and data hacks occur regularly speak volumes of the gap between current laws and their rigorous enforcement.

And this will definitely not be the last of data breaches or breaches of trust. But the real problem is that we are confronted by an insurmountable issue here that threatens individual liberty and the inalienable right to lead a private, yet social life.

In the end, these social engineers who stole personal information of millions of unsuspecting users in reality turned out to be deadly data terrorists who deployed their stolen assets to disrupt cherished democratic processes and skewed election outcomes in so many countries at the bidding of their paymasters.

The bitter truth is that we live in a world where nothing is private.  Google, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and any number of known and lesser known companies already know more about us than we can imagine. We have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that, however unpalatable it may be, data privacy is just a mirage.

The need for agile, yet draconian laws on data usage together with forensic monitoring of disposal of data has been repeatedly pointed out by experts in the field. Hopefully, the wait may not be long. Social media companies have long taken the naïve user for a ride. It is time they stepped off the roller coaster.

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Anything but fire and fury

Anything but fire and fury

The State of the Union address on 30th January 2018 by President Donald Trump was welcomed by many as a great speech in which he highlighted the achievements of his first year in office. In his speech, Trump called for unity among law makers and urged them to rise above party lines – something which went well with the American public. One would have thought that this would signal an end to political flame throwing which has so far unsettled the administration and kept it on the defensive in a perpetual firefighting mode.

Apparently not so. The book – “Fire and Fury – Inside the Trump White House” by Michael Wolff that came out in early January of this year – has been the latest in a string of distractions for the administration. It has been a hot favorite of major television channels, social media and chatterati. The author has definitely capitalized on the wide publicity on prime-time national television and made it to best seller lists.

Some background on this book will definitely not be out of place.  Firstly, the book is well written and offers an excellent read for the discerning reader. Michael Wolff, the author, has spent a lot of time in cherry picking anecdotes and weaving them into colorful fabric to showcase to the world what he calls “the insider’s view of the Donald Trump White House”.

Michael Wolff seems to be convinced that Trump does not deserve to be the President. He is at loggerheads with Trump’s well-known penchant for undying loyalty from his team and highlights this to underscore his unsuitability for the high office. The detailed depiction of the President, his idiosyncrasies, his disbelief at being elected and the purported disdain of his close advisers may all be true. Regardless, the fact remains that, much to the disdain of media pundits and Beltway lobbyists, it is the American people who fairly and squarely elected Donald Trump and put him in office.

Wolff all along gives the impression that he had unfettered access to the White House. But former Press Secretary Dana Perino and others in the know have asserted that it is impossible for someone to be hanging around in the West Wing of the White House even with proper authorization.

The book contains much of what can be adduced as rumors, unsubstantiated anecdotes and water cooler gossips that seemed to play into the agenda of Trump’s political foes. The glaring inaccuracies, insinuations and innuendos expose the true intentions of the author.

Wolff asserts that the 25th amendment was an issue that was constantly on the mind of the White House. The 25th amendment to the US constitution provides for removal and succession to the office of the US President and Vice President in the event of death or disability of the incumbent. But Wolff admitted on national television (CBS This Morning show) that he never met anyone in the cabinet or the Vice President Mike Pence. If he did not meet or interview any of them nor was he allowed into any of the meetings of the senior leadership of the administration, how could Wolff tell that the issue was on their minds?  No wonder Wolff’s credibility has plunged.

Wolff’s reference to the purported endless discussions on the 25th amendment fueled the media narrative that portrays Trump as mentally unsound and hence unable to discharge his duties as the President. In fact, on the sets of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe”, co-host Mika Brzezinski bluntly declared that she agreed with a North Korean official’s assessment that President Donald Trump is “mentally ill.”

Throughout the book, the discerning reader cannot miss Wolff’s angst and obvious inability to come to terms with the reality of Donald Trump in the highest office. The author does little to screen the obvious impression that he is an obsessive dirt rat on a mission to dig out half-truths, peddle distortions and blatant factual inaccuracies. Many pundits have expressed the view that Michael Wolff in many ways echoes the deepest disappointments of the Hillary campaign and hence it was no surprise that he became the instant darling of the liberal media.

The delectable presentation of anecdotes that appear to be no more than off-the-cuff remarks by administration insiders in unguarded moments or at the height of frustration must not be mistaken as fair impressions of a sincere author that went awry. It boils down to the work of art of someone who, in the words of Democrat Steve Rattner, the former head of President Obama’s Auto Task Force, “turned out to be an unprincipled writer of fiction”.

But what has rankled many are the outrageous insinuations that Trump and Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the UN, were having an affair. Wolff gives no details or proof, except that the two were in private meetings. Even the liberal media which was using Wolff to take potshots at Trump, suddenly dropped him like hot potato. Mika Brzezinski abruptly ended her show with Wolf when he struggled to defend his innuendos at Ambassador Nikki Haley.

By his own admission Wolff used his proximity to Steve Bannon to open doors to the White House. Much of his writings appears to be a view of the West Wing of the White House through the eyes of Bannon. It is no surprise that in hindsight, Bannon had to leave.

But herein lies an enormous threat to the integrity of the highest office as well as the inner circle of power of the ruling dispensation from seemingly innocent book writers. Senior administration officials have exposed their lack of experience in putting in place the right checks and balances in clearing people like Michael Wolff. To that extent this episode is a costly learning process for the Trump administration. The White House must acknowledge its lapses and quickly revamp the process of providing access the highest office.

Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury too has had its two minutes of fame on national television and is now well on its way to being forgotten. The book has proved to be anything but fire and fury.

 

 

 
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Posted by on February 4, 2018 in Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Media, Press, US

 

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Clinton Versus Trump Debate – No Clear Winner

The first 2016 Presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was held on Monday, September 26th at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY. The debate, organized by the commission on presidential debate, a non-partisan non-profit body, had the sports fraternity worried as the Monday night football trump_clinton2viewership took a nosedive as Americans flipped channels to watch it. An estimated 81 million viewers were glued to their television sets making it the most watched debate ever. The debate had also set the social media on fire. With over ten million tweets, it was the most tweeted debate ever. America and many elsewhere in the world were transfixed watching Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump spar at their first debate.

The cable TV networks had spent the entire week speculating and ratcheting up the excitement about the debate. They discussed at length on how the candidates should prepare, what questions to expect and what to wear and so on. This drew sharp comments from some politicians. The indefatigable Bernie Sanders, the Senator from Vermont and failed Democratic candidate, blasted the media and its coverage leading to the debate. He wanted the media to focus on the views of the candidates on burning issues – economy, jobs, living wage, healthcare, college tuition etc. rather than their personal styles and attires.

At the debate, the candidates were on their Sunday best – all dressed up and at their behavioral best and displaying dignified courtesies to each other. Many were indeed impressed to see a pleasant side of Trump.

The moderator – Lester Holt of NBC News – drew attention for different reasons. Holt, as a moderator, was at best, tepid. There was a robot-like quality about him– devoid of enthusiasm and passion in his questions and interventions. Like a strict disciplinarian, he admonished the audience for cheering and clapping but said nothing when they cheered Clinton.

Holt had six follow up questions for Trump, but none for Clinton. He tried to pin him down on the birther issue, but conveniently forgot to ask Clinton about propriety of using private email server or hacking of DNC emails that exposed racism.  Many Trump supporters tweeted later that the moderator deftly steered the debate away from issues, reinforcing an anti-Trump bias. It should be pointed out that the Trump campaign had raised doubts about his neutrality even before the debate.

Back at the debate, Trump had a lot of surprises up his sleeve. His responses were measured and controlled. Judging by the post-debate discussions, the pundits were indeed disappointed that they did not see the real maverick Trump. He seemed to be in full control in early part of the debate when the debate was on trade and Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) in particular. Clearly Clinton was cornered for calling it the “gold standard” and later opposing it. However, she took control in the later half by attacking Trump on his comments on women.

The pre debate polls have given no easy pointer as to who the new President would be. Trump led in Colorado, Nevada and Florida – all key states. He has further consolidated his position in Ohio, a state which Hillary has not visited for a long time. While Trump leads in rural Maine, Clinton holds the rest of Maine. This even fight also played out in many other states. Clinton is way ahead in California, Oregon, and Washington where the lead is substantial. But the respective leads in individual states did not help either of them in the national tally where they are locked even.

The debate itself may not provide any significant bounce for either candidate. While the pundits have had a field day dissecting the performance, they too may not be able to sway the voter’s opinion one way or the other in this rather difficult race. Media analysts who have favored Clinton all along thought that her performance was the best and that she won the debate. But Republican supporters on the other hand were convinced Trump’s performance in the first half cornered Clinton. They were all in admiration for the restraint and statesman-like conduct of Trump. Even many Clinton admirers seem to be in agreement. The next debate may see the return of the true Trump.

But did Clinton win the debate? Clinton’s supporters think she won. But the problem is even if she had won the debate, this may not win her new supporters who will vote for her. The reason is her problems – email scandal, Clinton Foundation, hacked DNC email and other scandals – have weighed her down. Further her personal health issues will continue to dog her in the coming days. Most important, there is no indication that her debate performance has induced a change of heart in Sanders supporters who remain a considerable voting bloc.

Did Trump win the debate then? Most cable television networks don’t seem to think so. But some have pointed out that the Trump we saw at the debate was someone who was clearly exercising self-restraint and reluctant to go after Clinton. Americans have admired this change in him. But the next debate promises to be a no holds barred debate where Trump’s plain speak and absence of political correctness will be evident. This will again play to his supporters and may even influence the fence sitters who do not want to support Clinton.

The debate outcome by itself is a non-issue. Recall how Obama did not do well against Mitt Romney in the debate, but bounced back quickly and the rest is history. It would be political naiveté to rule out Trump at this stage. In fact, the core issues that he stands for – immigration, unemployment and security – continue to resonate very well with most Americans and will be a huge positive for him. Clinton on the other hand continues to be perceived as ‘not trustworthy’ and her truck load of troubles will continue to haunt her.

The big question however is how will the election go. Given that the pre-debate polls have shown that both are almost evenly placed – except that Trump has caught up with Clinton – the answer may be with undecided voters. Supporters of Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein and Johnson may hold the key and may tip the balance in favor of Trump. However, even at this late stage – with just forty days to go for the big day – it may be too early expect this as the contestants have more wooing to do. Clinton and Trump may have, at best, tied at the first debate. But the real winners were the political pundits and armchair experts on cable networks who had a hell of a day and laughed their way to the banks. The 2016 US Presidential election promises to be another close election.

 

Hillary’s Health – Hobson’s Choice for the Democrats

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Hillary Clinton fell ill during a 9/11 commemoration ceremony in New York. Cable TV networks repeatedly showed Clinton being helped by aides to her vehicle. It appeared that she was unable to stand by herself and needed assistance. Law enforcement officers on the scene later told news media that she had ‘fainted” while her campaign said she had a bout of pneumonia. A few days earlier, Clinton’s continuous coughing had made headlines. A few weeks ago a video purportedly showing Clinton falling and being supported by aides while climbing the steps of a building she was entering went viral on social media.

These are some of the known ‘health incidents’ that have been making the rounds on the internet. On Monday, Clinton appeared on CNN and clarified that she had felt ‘dizzy’ and had not fainted. She admitted to ignoring doctors advise to rest. In what seemed to be a desperate firefight, her campaign has said that they should have handled the Sunday episode better and proactively shared her health status. But that seemed like a well thought out afterthought.

There has been lot of questions on Clinton’s health for quite some time now. Americans in general expect the candidates to be in good health so he or she can provide a stable administration after the elections. Hence they expect lot more information than Clinton campaign has shared or is willing to share. This week’s episode has been a public relations disaster for the campaign and has only heightened Americans concern.

In fact, it has given rise to host of rumors on social media and ratcheting up distrust. Many medical professionals have offered their diagnosis of Clinton’s health condition that is far more serious. It is worth noting that doctors unconnected with the Clintons seem to think that she is having a serious neurological or heart related problems and not just pneumonia.

Trump’s campaign, on the other hand, had long called for Clinton’s health records to be published. They claim that Clinton does not have the stamina and strength to be Commander in chief. Clinton has not yet published her medical records. Trump for his part has published a four-para glowing report card on his health. Many doctor have dismissed this since it does not provide enough details for an independent view. Further, it is not from a neutral third party doctor. But the US privacy laws only complicate sharing of medical records and both candidates have taken refuge behind it.

Clinton’s tribulations from this past week’s medical episode raises three important issues. Firstly, it has turned the heat on both the campaigns by raising the bar for transparency. Many Americans do not perceive the Democrats as transparent and cite the hacked DNC emails published by Wikileaks – that revealed lot of behind the scene happenings at the party headquarters – to support their point of view. It has definitely put the Clinton campaign at a disadvantage.

It is time both candidates released detailed medical data that is seen as serious enough for Americans to be satisfied that the candidates are in good health.

Secondly it has her party, allies and support ecosystem worried. From the friendly media to campaign contributors, particularly the super PACS, all are nervous about how this will play out. A former DNC Chairman Don Fowler, has called on the Democrats for a ‘Clinton contingency plan’ or in plain speak a plan B. Influential political analyst Cokie Roberts of the National Public Radio (NPR) has observed that per her sources the Democrats are already considering another candidate.

Thirdly, and most importantly, it has handed a big advantage to Donald Trump. Trump had been trailing Clinton in many states in recent polls. He had failed to take advantage of the series of scandals and Clinton’s unsavory remarks about his supporters. The health episode has come as a godsend to Trump who was desperately looking to reboot his campaign. His response to Clinton’s health episode has been dignified and mature and has drawn positive response from Americans across party lines.

As expected, there is intense speculation on who will replace Clinton in the event she decides to drop out. It must be noted here however, that unless Clinton voluntarily decides to drop out, the party cannot choose a replacement candidate.

Under party rules, “the DNC has the power to fill vacancies in the nominations for the office of the president and vice president” when the national convention is not in session”. The DNC chair – currently Donna Brazile, a close Clinton ally – could call a special meeting, and fill the vacancy by a majority vote of those present. But all this is speculation and an unlikely scenario.

While potentially any Democrat can be the new choice, three potential candidates who can be serious contenders come to mind – Tim Kaine, her running mate, Bernie Sanders and the Vice President Jo Biden. Unfortunately, all three may not find favor with the DNC Chairperson Donna Brazile, even if a situation arises.

My bet is that Bernie Sanders may be reluctant to step in and rescue the party, now that the world knows, thanks to Julian Assange, how he was unfairly treated by the DNC. They probably have to find a dark horse candidate.  Even if they manage to get a candidate, it will be a very short window for the new candidate(s) to convince Americans to vote for them. The odds may not favor the Democrats.

The main stream media in the US has gone out of the way to support Clinton and forgotten its watchdog role. They have been taking the campaign’s word at face value and shown a reluctance to dig deeper into Clinton’s health issues. A major news portal sometime back published a story on Clinton’s health, only to delete it a few hours later for unspecified reasons. Also, CNN abruptly ended Dr. Drew Pinsky’s show fueling a social media buzz that he was allegedly axed because he had expressed deep concerns on Clinton’s health couple of weeks ago. The danger here is that if Clinton’s condition worsens, as many Americans think it will, the media will have egg on its face.

Whichever way you slice and dice it, it seems a disaster for the Democratic Party. It is too late in the game to change the nominee. Even if Clinton bounces back and continues with her campaign after a short recess, it has lost valuable time momentum. It will lack vigor and be exposed to potential attrition of her support base.

Clinton’s health issues – whether it is pneumonia or something far more serious –  has clearly been hidden from Americans for too long. Americans must know the truth if she is fit to lead them over the next four years. Any uncertainty or lack of transparency for whatever reason, will only erode her chances. The Democratic Party really face a Hobson’s choice. Their nervousness is understandable.

 
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Posted by on September 14, 2016 in 2016 Election, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton

 

L’affiare Khizr Khan

The Clinton campaign takes the cake for creative and often ingenious campaign strategies as well as public relations management. The Khizr Khan episode is one such creative genius that the strategists crafted to influence voters decisively in favor of Clinton. Only this time the strategy backfired. khizr

Khizr Khan is the father of Humayun Mauzzam Khan, the 27-year-old US Army Captain and Purple Heart awardee who was killed while deployed in Iraq in 2004. In a dream moment for the Clinton campaign, Khizr Khan pulled out a copy of the US constitution from his breast pocket and taunted Donald Trump to read it – an act that mesmerized viewers into a speechless awe. It will probably be remembered in the annals of election conventions in the US for a long time to come –  for multiple reasons.

As if on a cue, the cable networks, radio and print media went berserk and gushed at the powerful impact Khizr had created. Clinton’s campaign had pulled off a major coup and seemed to have almost stalled Trump’s campaign on its tracks.

If Team Clinton thought it had executed a coup de main, the revelations on Khizr Khan that followed held nasty surprise. It boomeranged and the campaign appeared to nosedive. Clinton quickly lost an 8 percentage point lead over Trump after the convention, to just a 3-point lead per the much respected Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll published on Friday, August 5th 2016. Surprisingly, at this late stage in the campaign cycle, Clinton has failed to establish a clear lead over Trump.

That bore testimony of a highly and evenly polarized electorate. But as the media uncovered more about Khizr Khan’s background, the unease amongst many Americans only grew and escalated the war of words between the two campaigns.

First, Khizr Khan’s past intellectual leanings were discomforting. His published writings showed his strong support for Islamic Law or Sharia, an anathema for Americans. Through his writings, he claimed the supremacy of Sharia and asserted that it was above the constitution or the law of the land since it was God given.

Secondly Khizr Khan seemed to have been inspired by Said Ramadan of the Muslim Brotherhood fame. Many are familiar with the violent past of the brotherhood. There have been calls by the US Congress to designate it as a terrorist organization. Egypt and the United Arab Emirates too have made similar demands. Khizr’s purported connections to the Muslim Brotherhood has not helped Clinton in anyway.

Thirdly, Khizr seemed to have connections to religious extremist elements in Pakistan, specifically to Allah K Brohi. Brohi, who was a former Minister and advisor to Gen Zia ul Haq, the former dictator of Pakistan, had helped create hundreds of madrassas and restore Sharia punishments in that country.

Fourthly, in a subsequent interview with a Pakistani TV network Khan’s praise for the sacrifices of the Pakistani soldiers – who have often been at loggerheads with US forces in Afghanistan- has only reinforced this hardline image of Khan as a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Lastly, came the exposé in some sections of the media that the Clinton campaign had transferred $375,000 – no small amount – to Khan in early August, although the quid pro quo was not a surprise.

The Khan episode had its share of critical and adverse consequences, albeit unintended. Many Americans, particularly veterans, have been angered that the supreme sacrifice of a Purple Heart soldier was being politicized and have protested it.

Khan, in the meantime, had taken full advantage of his new found but short-lived popularity on prime time television. He appeared in almost every major cable network channel to denounce Trump. But sensing the unease his writings on Sharia had generated among Americans, he quickly made a ‘U’ turn. In the AC 360 show on CNN when asked about his writings on Sharia he said there was ‘no such thing as Sharia’.

Khan went on further to say that the Sharia was nothing but a hodge-podge of British, French and Portuguese laws and could never be implemented in the US. His about turn was complete. But the damage had already been done and there was no winning back the confidence of many Americans – particularly the baby-boomers and large sections of the veterans.

Notwithstanding his denials, Khan’s resume had all the career highlights of a Muslim with strong and yet secret ties to radical Islam. In fact, his denials had only accentuated the problem for Clinton. It is true that none of the intelligence agencies have publicly come out with a possible connection between Khan and the brotherhood or radical Islam. But the Trump campaign has exploited this to the full. Khizr Khan has since refused to meet with the television networks or the media.

The ground reality is that the campaigns face a nervous and a highly polarized America. This nervousness has spawned irrational fears all over. The Clinton campaign is obviously nervous about its inability to prevail over Trump as elections get closer. Hence we are witness to a serving President – a first ever – who is actively on the campaign circuit. While many may see this as inappropriate and a minor breach of ‘Presidential’ conduct at best, it has largely been ignored it in the distractions of a vituperative drama of a highly spirited election.

The Trump campaign on the other hand has been unable to fully exploit Clinton’s gaffes and missteps to its advantage. Americans have been equally appalled by some of his blunt and uninformed remarks – ranging from nukes to NATO.

The Khizr Khan fiasco has some important lessons for both the campaigns. Europe, smarting under repeated terror attacks from radical Islam, has created a society that is ultra-allergic and ultra-sensitive to anything Islam.

Europeans in general and France in particular have been known for the liberal traditions and until recently, had preached to the world the virtues of immigrants – specially Muslims immigrant in creating a diverse society. For decades they have counseled third world countries like India and others about the wisdom and the need to absorb and coexist with Muslim immigrants.

But almost overnight, this allergen of Islamic terror, has drained Europe of any pretense to this liberal embrace of immigrants, especially Muslims. It has resulted in multiple optics –“Brexit”, “Nationalism” and rise of “Right wing” in Germany etc. But the transformation has been quick and complete and there will be no going back. Europe ain’t liberal anymore and the Americans aren’t far behind.

The US has joined the party late and is now fermenting. Clinton’s cynical deploy of Khizr Khan to gain votes oblivious of this fermenting undercurrent has backfired on her and will continue to hurt.  A nervous America can be unpredictable and the even polarization will only make the race to the White House all the more difficult.

 

Donald Trump versus GOP?

trump1What a week this has been for the 2016 US Presidential election primaries! The primaries brought to fore some truly unprecedented developments. Senator Bernie Sanders, who many think would not be able to win the Democratic party nomination, continued his strong performance against Hillary Clinton. The size and demography of Bernie’s supporter base – particularly young Americans – is a continued source of worry for Clinton. She may not be able to convince Bernie’s supporters to vote for her instead. Worse, some pollsters have opined that they may vote for Donald Trump.

Speaking of Donald Trump, as expected, he continued to dominate the headlines and spotlight on national TV. He swept Indiana primaries and took home 57 delegates – bringing his overall tally to 1068,  just 199 short of the magic number of 1267 delegates required to be declared the party nominee.  Trump’s closest rival, Ted Cruz who has the pledged support of 564 delegates, decided to suspend his campaign after Indiana results were out. Governor Kasich, who had played spoiler all along, followed suit and pulled out the next day.  Much to the consternation of many entrenched lobbies and groups, Indiana primary results made Donald Trump the presumptive nominee of the Republican party.

But the sweeping wins and massive public support did not seem to impress the GOP or Trump’s detractors. In fact, this saw the start of series of new confrontations and obstacles in his path to nomination.  His victory in Indiana seemed to have set off a series of events that only befuddled Americans.

Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House of Representatives, told CNN that Trump, the presumptive nominee, would not have his support. Two living former Republican Presidents – George Bush and George W Bush declared that they will not attend the Republican convention in Cleveland. President Obama, in a very unusual move, openly attacked Trump. On the other hand, Obama appeared to openly support Clinton. For a sitting President to comment on the election, let alone attack a presumptive nominee, is almost bizarre. But how all these will impact the Trump campaign is to be seen.

The electronic and print media lapped this all up and just cheered on. The media has all along been negative to Trump and at every stage had analytically explained the impossibility of Trump’s nomination. That all the pundits have been proved wrong again and again has been quietly buried in the dust and din of the unprecedented developments of the past week.

Abandoning neutrality, the networks seemed to join the bandwagon to highlight the fallout of Trump’s rise. For instance, former President of Mexico, Vicente Fox’s comments on Trump were repeatedly aired. One Cable network even asked Mr. Fox if he would address the Democratic and Republican conventions. Mr. Fox graciously accepted the invite. But none of the media pundits found it cause for concern that the comments of a former head of a sovereign nation amounted to interference in what is seen as a purely internal and domestic affair of the Americans.  But anything remotely antagonistic to Trump seemed to be enough to get air time.

Trump’s victory has created deep furrows within the GOP, prompting the New York Times to call it a “hostile takeover” of the Republican Party. Sure, he has angered the Republican establishment with his cavalier attitude and open scorn for its leadership. He has denounced political lobbies and refused their funds. His vocal stand on campaign fund reforms also has earned him powerful enemies in the party.

Trump’s remarks on a host of politically sensitive issues have not helped him either. His comments on Muslim immigrants, immigration reforms may have been thoughtless. But for a majority of Republicans like Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan to take umbrage under these offensive comments smacked of hypocrisy.

But surprisingly, the electorate seems to love Donald Trump for the very same reason the establishment loathes him. The more offensive comments he unloads, the more he seems to be cheered as evidenced by his continued sweep of the primaries. But more importantly, Trump’s stand on bringing back jobs to America has resonated with middle America. Case in point was his open condemnation of air conditioner manufacturer Carrier’s move to close shop in US and move to Mexico has been cheered by millions.

Trump has been ridiculed as a dilettante on policy issues– especially foreign and economic policy. For example, he has advocated cut in US expenditure on NATO. His stand has been roundly condemned but not critically analyzed by pundits on cable TV. The fact remains that since the fall of the Soviet Union, this alliance has been searching for a raison d’etre. Many defense experts and retired Army Generals have in fact privately and publicly aired similar views since long.

Also his pronouncements on Middle East policy – specifically relations with Saudi Arabia – has invited rile of policy honchos. Truth is that many privately agree it is time to revamp America’s policy in the Gulf. In fact, President Obama’s initiatives of opening up with Iran, are set to achieve a “rebalancing” of the power equation in the region that will have implications for that region for years to come.

On economic policy, Trump has been critical of the proposed Trans-Atlantic Partnership treaty as unhelpful to America since it may take away domestic jobs.  To be fair, many economists and writers from across the globe have raised fears of such a trade construct that would only benefit MNCs. It is interesting to note that even Hillary Clinton, who was neutral to these issues has now adopted Trump’s views on new trade agreements.

It is of course anybody’s guess as to what would be a correct policy stand on these issues. But what is glaringly obvious to lay Americans this election season is the lack of objectivity and a balanced critique of each of the candidate’s stand on these issues.  Watching the election cycle play out over the course of the year, a neutral observer cannot miss the partisan punditry out at play to denounce whatever Donald Trump stands for. It is, probably, for these reasons that he seems to have endeared himself to middle America, who also feel equally estranged by politicians, big business and the shenanigans of Wall Street. The more the media ridicules Trump, the more support he seems to garner and win more primaries.

That Donald Trump is now the presumptive nominee has galled many a section of the established power centers. The unprecedented events recalled above are symptomatic of this irritation.

Trump’s rise has serious implications for the electoral fortunes of Hillary Clinton. On the one hand, Senator Bernie Sanders performance has been unprecedented in that he has a very strong and loyal following. He has repeatedly refused to quit till the end and vowed to continue to fight Clinton till the Democratic convention. But more important is Clinton’s response to Trump. Will she be able to handle his bag of tricks and offensive campaign?  Will the millennials who are with Sanders now, swing to Trump’s side?

Confronted by all-round animosity – from high visibility media to high profile politicians – Trump faces an unparalleled confrontational setting. His inflammatory campaign style and often thoughtless repartees have only helped his antagonists who are ever ready to pluck at his words inflame the situation. However, this does not make candidate Trump a disaster for America. As a rookie politician, he has a long and steep learning curve before he can emerge “Presidential”.  But the road is not exactly a bed of roses for the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton either.

While the GOP is all set to hit the reset button, Trump’s emergence has created a defining moment in contemporary American politics. Even President Ronald Reagan was dubbed as a disaster by the very same Republicans who now swear by him. Dismissing Trump as a flash in the pan will be a serious mistake for the GOP as well as the Clinton campaign. Clearly the disconnect of politicians with public mood is larger and deeper than many would have imagined. Bottom line is, Americans are thinking differently this election cycle. They are desperately seeking to be heard this time around.

 

US Presidential Election – An armchair pundit’s view

The 2016 US Presidential election campaign is chugging along with the fortunes of the hopefuls being tossed around like a roller coaster ride. Four GOP debates and two Democratic debates later, Americans are nowhere near knowing who the two nominees would be. While there is still a lot of campaigning and debating to come, the fluctuating fortunes of the hopefuls is certainly a pointer to the overall mood of the electorate.DemDebate1

The just concluded second Democratic debate (November 14th 2015) hosted by CBS had historically low viewership than any other primary debate this cycle. At 8.5 million viewers – almost half of the October Democratic debate viewership of little over 15 million – the prime time Saturday night event should ring alarm bells in the Democratic camp.

It is true that the public focus was elsewhere – the tragedy in Paris certainly overshadowed the debate; but the low appeal of the Democratic debate to viewers requires deeper analysis. It probably has more to do with poor debating skills, scripted responses and the tendency to duck real issues with political correctness than the Paris tragedy.Debate Viewrship 2016

The two debates have been almost predictable and dull affairs. This is in stark contrast to the GOP debates where the floor is full – eight candidates – and sparks fly at the debates. GOP candidates, when they lack substance, certainly make up with interruptions and impassioned remarks that makes for an excellent entertainment and enjoyable viewing.

The Democrats have only three hopefuls in the fray – Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley. While the debate was held in dignity and refinement, it gave the impression of a conversation at the country club rather than a hotly contested election debate. For example, Sanders and O’Malley while refuting Clinton on many issues, made sure they did not cross the invisible line to really harm her chances. Earlier, at the first debate in October, instead of attacking her, Sanders went to the extent of publicly supporting Clinton in the email issue.

The refusal of the candidates to go after Clinton has led many to think that they are resigned to her winning the nomination and are content to just fight to be her vice presidential candidate. Many Americans know already that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee and one of the remaining two – most probably Senator Sanders of Vermont will be the running mate and Vice Presidential candidate. So the element of suspense is lacking and hence viewership at the debates has been a casualty.

The Democrats missed a great opportunity to use the Paris tragedy to their advantage. Clinton’s responses on the Paris tragedy and Islamic terrorism in general, were politically correct statements that failed to appeal to the broader anger in Americans’ minds. Obama’s lack of a firm and forceful response in Syria and by extension to Paris and terrorism is something the Republicans have fully exploited and have gained momentum.

Bernie Sanders has seen very good response to his town hall meetings and he did stir the pot. At one time he even beat Clinton in the opinion polls. But he appears to be unable to sustain and keep his support base. Is this because he has mentally lost the battle to Clinton or succumbed to the Republican campaign to project him as a diehard socialist?

Joe Biden surprised many by announcing his decision not to run. Biden definitely would have injected life into the Democratic narrative and swung viewership favorably. But his last minute decision not to run has only strengthened Clinton’s nomination.

But the biggest grouse against the Democrats has been the visible lack of oratorical skills of the three contestants. They conspicuously avoid taking clear and unequivocal positions on contentious issues – Keystone project, Iran deal or Islamic terrorism. Political correctness appears to have led to the melting of the grass root support base. The Democrats have lot of work to do to a provide a credible fight to stop the Republicans.

The Republican field, on the other hand is an altogether different cup of tea. The viewership for the four GOP debate stood at 24 million (FOX), 23 million (CNN), 14.5 million (CNBC), 14 million (FOX Biz) respectively. So far, the GOP has definitely managed to capture the attention of the American voters.

Donald Trump and Ben Carson – both non-politicians and Washington ‘outsiders’ continue to dominate the top two spots. However, this may change in the coming weeks.

Carson has his own set of problems to deal with –from factual inaccuracies in his biography to his alleged violent childhood. In any case, many do not think he will be the final Republican nominee to contest Clinton.

Jeb Bush’s performance has surprised many observers. A seasoned politician – from the famed Bush family and a former Governor of Florida – Bush brings a lot of administrative experience that many others lack. He is also seen as a moderate Republican, not known to take extreme right wing views. Normally one would have expected him to do lot better in the Republican primary. But Donald Trump’s constant attack for his ‘low energy’ has impacted his popularity with the voters. However, Bush has the backing of powerful super PACs (Political Action Committee) and they are certain to continue to bank roll him. Bush has also changed his political strategy and worked hard at portraying himself as an energetic politician. Time will tell if this will help him in his resurgence.

Rand Paul is the other Republican hopeful who has been grossly underestimated. He has stayed away from extreme right views and is more of centrist views. He has performed well in all the four debates but continues to suffer poor poll numbers.

The surprise candidate in the GOP could be Marco Rubio. The young Senator from Florida and the erstwhile protégé of Jeb Bush has performed well at the debates. He has a natural charm and has a strong Latin American following. He has been challenged on his poor senate attendance record as well as credit card problems. He could be a serious contender to Donald Trump. He could even settle for the Vice Presidential running mate of Donald Trump.

It is true that it is too early to call the winner in the 2016 Presidential election primaries – but the consistent trend over the last 4 months has shown Republicans stealing the heart of the Americans – at least in viewership. For the moment, only one thing is clear – Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic choice.

 
 
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