Sunday 23 October 2016

For all the hoopla, US election result won't change much

Published 13/08/2015 | 02:30

Having to endure Donald Trump in the US presidential race is going to make the circus even harder to take this year.
Having to endure Donald Trump in the US presidential race is going to make the circus even harder to take this year.

It has started even earlier than usual. Even though the vote will not take place until the end of next year, huge attention is already being paid to the 2016 US presidential election.

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Over the next 15 months, many people will become experts on the primary votes in individual states, which decide the candidates of the two leading parties, and on the voting college system, which decides who ultimately wins the White House. Column inches stretching to the moon and back will cover the backgrounds of the runners and riders in the race.

Having to endure the egomaniacal Donald Trump - America's answer to the great narcissist of European politics, Yannis Varoufakis - makes the circus even harder to take this time around.

Strange though it may seem to say it, but the coverage of American presidential is utterly disproportionate to its importance. That is because the president of the US, who is often described as the most powerful person in the world, is actually much less powerful than most people assume. We on this side of the Atlantic overstate the clout of the US president more even than Americans because our leaders are - domestically at least - much more powerful than American presidents.

There are many reasons for this. One is the role of America's states.

Unlike the vast majority of European countries, the US is a federation.

In every capital of the union's 50 states there is a governor and a parliament. They jealously guard their right to decide matters for their citizens where the constitution says that states, not Washington DC, wield power.

One only need consider the differences between how things are done in different states to see how much is decided at state level, and thus has nothing to do with the president. Texas and Florida, for example, have no state income tax, whereas the states in New England are more European in how they tax citizens and how much they spend on publicly provided services.

The life and death matter of the death penalty also starkly illustrates how much freedom states have in how they govern themselves. As with tax and spending, a north/south divide is again evident, with southern states far more likely to put offenders to death than those at loftier latitudes.

The incumbent in the White House is powerless when it comes to deciding which states execute their criminals.

A second reason US presidents are weaker than European leaders is the power of congress. No European country has a parliament that is so independent of the government (or, in constitutional parlance, the "executive").

That is nowhere truer than when it comes to spending taxpayers' money.

While we in Ireland are used to finance ministers pulling rabbits out of hats on budget day, the notion that the US president or his appointed finance minister/treasury secretary could do something similar is utterly alien to Americans. That is because no decisions on federal tax and spending can be made without the agreement of elected representatives in Congress.

Unlike in Ireland, where TDs have almost no influence over budgets, congressmen and senators alone and collectively wield huge influence over the drafting of budgets (something which has its own downsides - billions of dollars in "earmarks" for the constituencies of law makers amount to a giant system of patronage-cum-corruption).

Yet another factor that circumscribes the power of US presidents is the power of judges. America's supreme court is one of the most powerful in the world, as its decisions to legalise gay marriage this year and abortion four decades ago illustrate. But it is not only the "quasi-legislative" role of American judges that shows how much power they wield, their capacity to strike down laws and policies, most famously those of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s, is also at least as great as any in Europe, and much greater than the average.

All presidents know that they need to tread carefully lest the judges embarrass them by declaring a policy or a law they have supported unconstitutional. And the risk of that happening has increased in recent decades as the gulf between conservatives and liberals in American has widened, leading to a growing politicisation of the Supreme court.

That is to be seen in the repeated challenges to Obamacare - a huge expansion of publicly provided healthcare - that the current president has initiated.

But what about the US president's role as commander in chief of the mightiest army in the world? It is true that in international affairs the US president is very powerful, but even here there tends to be an over-estimation of the White House's clout.

One reason for this is the aforementioned widening of political differences between Democrats and Republicans. Whereas once matters of national security were dealt with on a largely bi-partisan basis in congress, now there are more likely to be made a political football.

This is currently to be seen on the deal cut with Iran over its nuclear programme.

Along with the US, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia negotiated the agreement with the Islamic state.

While there is no possibility that parliaments in any of these countries would reject the deal done by their governments, there is a real possibility that Republicans will lure enough Democrats to support them in scuppering the deal next month.

Add to this factor the rise of China as a global factor and a litany of failed wars - from Vietnam to Afghanistan to Iraq - and it is clear that US presidents cannot order the world as their sometimes omnipotent image would suggest.

If you find the human drama of presidential elections fascinating, then you are in for an exciting 15 months. But if you have tended to pay attention to US presidential election cycles only because you believed them to be genuine and world-changingly important, you now have an excuse to ignore the antics of Hillary, Donald and all of the others - at least until this time next year.

Irish Independent

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