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Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: American election ain't over till the fat lady sings

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A woman supporting Marco Rubio,  who won the Florida Senate seat, says God is behind him. Photo / AP
A woman supporting Marco Rubio, who won the Florida Senate seat, says God is behind him. Photo / AP

The meaning of the New Hampshire primary is that Americans are in open revolt against the system, a revolt fuelled by a sense of US decline, fear of the future and rage against economic inequality.

Well, so they say. But there were factors at play which encourage the interpretation that Americans are much like everyone else: a bit anxious, a bit disenchanted with the political establishment and wanting to send a message, suckers for the underdog and susceptible to the fantasy of the unsullied outsider who can change the paradigm through pure intentions or sheer force of personality.

Such as:

• We've seen this before. New Hampshire voters are renowned for contrariness so their verdict isn't necessarily predictive. In 1992, for instance, Senator Paul Tsongas (remember him? Didn't think so) won the Democratic primary, supposedly dealing a fatal blow to the aspirations of a young Southern governor named Bill Clinton, whom you probably do remember.

In the Republican ballot, far-right maverick Pat Buchanan, who bore more than a passing resemblance to Donald Trump, won 38 per cent of the vote against sitting President George Bush snr.

• That contrariness partially explains Bernie Sanders' victory, as does the fact that he's practically a local. (He's from the neighbouring state of Vermont.) Let's face facts: the prospect of a 75-year-old self-declared socialist becoming President is as remote as it gets. In a January 2015 poll asking what would turn voters off an otherwise well-qualified candidate, being a socialist came in ahead of being gay, atheist or Muslim. There's an enormous amount at stake in this election: if a Republican becomes President and the party retains control of both Houses of Congress, the GOP will be able to do pretty much whatever it wants. Just for starters, it will repeal Obamacare, repudiate the nuclear deal with Iran and the global agreement on climate change and cut taxes for the mega-rich. Furthermore, the next President will almost certainly get to make several appointments to the Supreme Court. Conservative control of the executive, the legislature and the Supreme Court (currently there's a 5-4 conservative majority but Chief Justice John Roberts has been known to vote with the liberal bloc) is liberal America's worst nightmare. It's therefore critical the Democrats nominate a candidate who can actually win.

• Trump has been flirting with running since the 1980s and his message of American decline has been remarkably consistent. As recently reported on Politico.com, in 1987 he went to New Hampshire and proclaimed the US had become a laughing stock and faced "a catastrophe that you're never going to believe". At that time, Republican icon Ronald Reagan had been President for six and a half years presiding over what his admirers - ie, most conservatives - wistfully regard as a golden era.

• The revolt against the system narrative glosses over the fact that, in a crowded Republican field, the so-called moderate or establishment candidates are cancelling each other out. In New Hampshire Trump won 35 per cent of the vote. Between them Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie and John Kasich got 45 per cent. At some point the anti-maverick (Trump), anti-extremist (Ted Cruz) forces will coalesce around a single candidate.

• The US economy is actually doing okay. It has just racked up a record 71st consecutive month of private sector growth and unemployment is below 5 per cent for the first time since the global recession. (It was 7.8 per cent when Barack Obama took office and peaked at 10 per cent a few months later.) Casting himself as a successful businessman who would get America working again, the 2012 Republican candidate Mitt Romney vowed to get unemployment down to 6 per cent within four years. If he was in the White House, Republicans would be bragging that the US economy is now "the strongest, most durable in the world", as Obama was last month. That they're saying the exact opposite is adversarial politics in its most debased form. The fact that some Americans pay more heed to propaganda than the facts merely reinforces that ideology is bad for the brain and people can be very selective about who and what they believe.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, the process to this point has been largely sound and fury signifying very little. That's about to change. It ain't over till the fat lady sings and she hasn't even warmed up her vocal cords.

- NZ Herald

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