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Why is Obama Wary of Dilma Rousseff and Brazil?

My big piece about up and coming power Brazil and what's behind the story in terms of big power rivalry with the U.S. To read the article, click here.

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Obama's Big Stick Diplomacy in Honduras

Liberals who have idealized Obama don’t want to believe that their President is capable of bullish behavior towards Latin America. It was Bush, they say, who epitomized arrogant U.S.-style imperialism and not the new resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Recent events in Central America however force us to look at the Obama administration in a sobering new light. While it’s unclear whether Obama had advance warning of an imminent military coup d’etat in Honduras the White House has not emerged from the Zelaya affair unsullied.

In December, 2008, even before his inauguration, Obama received an irate letter from Honduran president Manuel Zelaya demanding an end to arrogant and interventionist U.S. ambassadors in Tegucigalpa. Just eight months earlier American ambassador Hugo Llorens had taken on the government by making inflammatory remarks. During a press conference the diplomat declared that Zelaya’s move to rewrite the constitution was “a Honduran matter and it’s a delicate matter to comment on as a foreign diplomat.” But then, contradicting himself and inserting himself into the volatile political milieu, Llorens remarked that “one can’t violate the constitution to create a constitution, because if you don’t have a constitution the law of the jungle reigns.”

If Obama was serious about restoring U.S. moral credibility world-wide he might have cleaned house by removing Bush appointees such as Llorens. An émigré from Castro’s Cuba, Llorens worked as an Assistant Treasurer at Chase Manhattan Bank before entering the Foreign Service. As Deputy Director of the Office of Economic Policy and Summit Coordination in the State Department during Clinton-time, he played an important role in spearheading the corporately-friendly Free Trade Area of the Americas or FTAA. But it was chiefly during the Bush years that Llorens distinguished himself, serving as the Director of Andean Affairs at the National Security Council. At the NSC, Llorens was the most important advisor to Bush and Condoleezza Rice on matters pertaining to Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador.

While Zelaya’s move to rewrite the Honduran constitution antagonized Llorens it also inflamed the local business elite and no doubt the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Perhaps these groups feared a Honduran repeat of the South American “Pink Tide”: across the region leftist leaders from Hugo Chávez to Rafael Correa have mobilized civil society in an effort to rewrite their respective nations’ constitutions.

Chávez’s 1999 constitution provides for some of the most comprehensive human rights provisions of any constitution in the world while also including special protection for women, indigenous peoples and the environment. The constitution moreover allows for broad citizen participation in national life. The preamble states that one of the Constitution’s goals is to establish a participatory democracy achieved through elected representatives, popular votes by referendum and, perhaps most importantly, popular mobilization. In Venezuela, it was Chávez’s constitution which helped to solidify his alliance with traditionally marginalized sectors of the population.

In Ecuador, traditional political parties and wealthy elites labeled Correa “dictatorial” after the president called for the drafting of a new constitution. In the end however a large plurality of voters approved the new 2008 constitution which provides for free universal health care, a universal right to water and prohibition of its privatization and the redistribution of large unused landholdings. Even more dramatically, the constitution declares that Ecuador is a “pacifist state” and outlaws foreign military bases on Ecuadoran soil.

As I explain in my recent book Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave, 2008), there’s been a potent alliance as of late between leftist Latin leaders on the one hand and dynamic social movements on the other. In Ecuador, the main indigenous federation supported the new constitution as did organized labor. Indeed, Correa’s move to draft a new constitution could help to establish tighter links between the president and progressive social forces as per Chávez’s Venezuela.

In the media, the Honduran imbroglio has been depicted as a struggle over presidential power and term limits. But while any new constitution might have extended presidential term limits, such a reform could have also led to new progressive amendments to the law and further radicalization on the ground. In recent years Honduras has seen the emergence of a vibrant social and political scene including labor, Garifuna (Afro-Honduran people) and Indians. If Zelaya had been successful at pushing through his constitutional reform he would have been able to mobilize such groups.

What is the connection between U.S. interests and constitutional reform? If you had any doubt about Washington’s true intentions in Honduras consider the following AP Report for July 8 about diplomatic negotiations between the coup regime and ousted president Zelaya: “Clinton would not discuss specifics of the mediation process, which she said would begin soon, but a senior U.S. official said one option being considered would be to forge a compromise under which Zelaya would be allowed to return and serve out his remaining six months in office with limited powers [italics added]. Zelaya, in return, would pledge to drop his aspirations for a constitutional change.”

It’s the State Department then under Hillary Clinton, allied in spirit to figures from the old Bush establishment, which is seeking to cut off constitutional reform in Honduras — reform which could lead to popular mobilization as we’ve seen in Ecuador and Venezuela. Obama meanwhile has condemned the coup but his failure to rein in either Llorens or Clinton suggests that he too believes that Zelaya’s proposal for a constitutional reform is dangerous and needs to be halted.

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Senhor da Silva Comes to Washington

When you can’t stamp out progressive social change, the next step is to try to desperately derail it or otherwise water it down. That’s exactly the kind of strategy pursued by the likes of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who concluded a South American tour a year ago designed to ostracize the bad countries, namely Venezuela, Bolivia, and increasingly Argentina, and to cultivate ties with the good countries such as Brazil and Chile. Having woken up to the fact that its free trade and neo-liberal agenda for the region lay in tatters, and that wielding a Big Stick to defang its enemies could not work politically, the Bush White House pursued stealthy diplomacy. Rice’s strategy was to divide and rule, to contain radical social change and to steer it within acceptable boundaries. Because South America was headed on a new trajectory which was more independent of Washington, Rice hoped that the "responsible" left as exemplified by Brazil’s Lula and Chile’s Bachelet would steer the region away from the likes of Venezuela’s Chávez and Bolivian President Morales.

One year later with a fresh Democratic administration in Washington, what is the U.S. attitude towards different left leaning regimes in South America? That is the question posed by a recent article in Time magazine, provocatively headlined "Brazil’s Lula: A Bridge to Latin American Left?" The article implies that Bush did not dutifully look out for U.S. interests in South America, and this created "a problem" because it allowed for the expansion of the anti-U.S. left throughout the region.

Thankfully for Time magazine, it now looks as if Brazil will act as a broker between the United States and Venezuela, paving the way for a possible diplomatic rapprochement. In his first meeting with a Latin leader, Obama sat down with Brazilian President Lula da Silva in Washington on Saturday. During the encounter, Lula told his U.S. counterpart that America should do its utmost to improve ties with Venezuela and Bolivia and to build a relationship based on trust and not interference.

Publicly, Lula and Chávez have been political allies for the past several years. Nevertheless, it needs to be said that the Brazilian leader has adopted a more conservative approach towards politics and economics than his Venezuelan counterpart. Both Venezuela and Brazil are energy giants and see themselves as natural political leaders in the wider region. Behind the façade therefore, there may be a slight geopolitical rivalry between the two South American nations. Lula surely does not want a return to the Big Stick of the Bush years, but he would probably like to supplant Venezuela as a regional power so that Brazil can assume its natural place in the South America sun.

Lula may get his wish. The economic picture has shifted dramatically recently and Brazil stands to benefit most in the new geopolitical equation. A year ago the U.S. was not in the midst of a frightening economic mess and Venezuela was getting a much better financial yield on its oil exports. Despite Chávez’s recent victory in his country’s constitutional referendum — which allowed the Venezuelan leader to run indefinitely for reelection — Venezuela is no position to assume a greater regional role right now. Formerly, Chávez was wont to throw around development aid to Bolivia and other nations with reckless abandon, but within the new economic milieu he will be severely constrained in his wider ambitions because of the lower price of oil.

A year ago, Brazil was certainly an important diplomatic player but it has now emerged as perhaps the dominant strategic force in the region. Though Brazil has suffered as a result of the world economic slowdown, the country is still in a better position than many other nations. Indeed, as noted by a recent report by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, "while most of the developed world is undergoing a financial crisis, Brazil still retains some positive strength, with the country still recording significant economic and social achievements at home. For this and other reasons arising from the Brazil’s impressive statistics, Lula is emerging as the de facto spokesman for Latin America."

Brazil, the report goes on, is "far better off than the European and American economies. Its banks are solvent, credit, though increasingly viscous, is still flowing from BNDES, Brazil’s national development bank, to favored companies such as Petrobras [the Brazilian state oil firm] and consumers remain more confident than their North American counterparts. The absence of these negative factors that are primarily propelling the crisis abroad is helping to shield Brazil from the worst of the downturn." Interestingly, the report concludes, Brazil may be the only one of 34 major economies to avoid recession in 2009.

With its newfound clout, what does Brazil seek on the international stage? Lula has long coveted a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and may want to become a world energy powerhouse. Indeed, Brazil might seek to supplant Venezuela as the main South American oil supplier to the United States. "Such observations that Obama would welcome Lula as an alternative energy supplier," notes the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, "seem to run counter to Lula’s putative pledge to Hugo Chávez, in which he promised to act as an advocate for Venezuela during his meeting with Obama. Is Lula positioning himself as Latin America’s Otto Von Bismarck?"

Within this new "Bismarckian" game of chess Lula may wish to appear as Venezuela’s paternalistic protector while simultaneously looking out for wider Brazilian interests. If Lula could ever bring off a meeting or summit with Chávez and Obama, it would constitute a huge political coup and Brazil’s diplomatic prestige would be enormously enhanced.
There is some indication that Obama might be somewhat amenable to Lula’s entreaties.
Back during the U.S. presidential campaign, Obama was vague about what U.S. foreign policy towards Venezuela ought to be. Reluctant to tackle this hot potato, Obama issued rather contradictory statements about his attitude towards the Andean nation. Now that he has been swept into office, what is Obama’s policy? Judging from the contradictory statements put out by the State Department, the administration is conflicted.

At first, the State Department praised Venezuela’s recent constitutional referendum as free and fair. But then, diplomats reversed course. According to the Wall Street Journal, the positive remarks "set off a furor among Venezuelan opposition activists and some commentators because the description of Venezuela’s referendum seemed markedly different from the tone set by the Bush administration, which repeatedly voiced worry that Mr. Chávez was undermining Venezuela’s democracy."

As the right laid into Obama, the State Department quickly backpedaled. As noted in the Wall Street Journal, "U.S. officials are scrambling to assert that the Obama administration hasn’t softened U.S. policy toward Venezuela, where President Hugo Chávez recently won a controversial referendum allowing him to run for office as many times as he wants." The reports suggest that there may be disagreement within the State Department about how to handle Chavez; different factions may not see eye to eye. Like the Carter administration, which had somewhat contradictory policies at different times towards left wing movements in Latin America, Obama has not quite figured out what course he wants to chart.

This lack of coherence in official U.S. policy towards Venezuela suggests that Lula might be able to at least nudge the U.S. in another direction. Given Brazil’s new economic and political clout, and the U.S.’s reduced position world-wide, Lula is in an ideal position to reform regional politics in a dramatic way. Within the new diplomatic triangle between Venezuela, Brazil and the United States, Lula wants his country to be paramount. In the new arrangement, the United States will cease its political interference in South American affairs while Venezuela will become a junior partner to Brazil. If Lula can achieve these ends, he will indeed emerge as a very important figure on the world stage.

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Obama: The Audacity of Vagueness

Back during the presidential campaign, Barack Obama was pretty vague about what U.S. foreign policy towards Venezuela ought to be. Reluctant to tackle this hot potato, Obama issued rather contradictory statements about his attitude towards the Andean nation. For a subtle analysis of this issue, see my report in the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (scroll down to "The Audacity of Vagueness: Barack Obama and Latin America."

Now that he has been swept into office, what is Obama's policy now? Judging from the contradictory statements put out by the State Department, the administration is conflicted. At first, the State Department praised Venezuela's recent constitutional referendum as free and fair.

But then, diplomats reversed course. According to the Wall Street Journal, the positive remarks "set off a furor among Venezuelan opposition activists and some commentators because the description of Venezuela's referendum seemed markedly different from the tone set by the Bush administration, which repeatedly voiced worry that Mr. Chávez was undermining Venezuela's democracy."

As the right laid into Obama, the State Department quickly backpedaled: "U.S. officials are scrambling to assert that the Obama administration hasn't softened U.S. policy toward Venezuela, where President Hugo Chávez recently won a controversial referendum allowing him to run for office as many times as he wants."

The reports suggest that there may be disagreement within the State Department about how to handle Chavez; different factions may not see eye to eye. The incident is reminescent of the Carter administration, which had contradictory policies towards left wing movements in Latin America some thirty years ago.

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The Stimulus Imbroglio: What Obama Might Have Learned From Chávez and Populist-Style Mobilization

When historians look back, they will point to Obama’s inauguration as a missed opportunity. At the zenith of his popularity, the new President might have used his bully pulpit to declare the need for a good economic stimulus, one which would have aided people who were strapped for cash. Instead of delivering a cliché-ridden, mundane and thoroughly unmemorable speech, Obama should have talked forcefully about the need to expand programs such as unemployment insurance and food stamps. He might have made a poignant plea for providing relief to state and local government which had been pummeled by the ever deepening recession. If he had gone back to campaign mode, eloquently rallying the crowd on the Washington mall for an equitable stimulus to reverse worsening inequality brought on by the GOP, he would have really gotten his presidency off to a bang.

Obama had the country in his hands and the Republicans at his mercy. But now, it looks like the GOP has the upper hand. What happened? In an effort to attract House Republican support for the stimulus, Obama fashioned about one third of the package out of tax cuts, which the GOP loves. For all his gracious overtures, Obama was rewarded with a complete and total rebuke: not a sole Republican Representative voted for the $819 billion bill, which passed 244-189.

Having been snubbed in the House, Obama now got clobbered in the Senate. For a week at least the GOP went on the offensive on the cable news shows, talking about the need to rein in wasteful spending. The momentum started to shift, and Obama found that he had to beg for every last vote. At the end of the day he managed to attract three moderate Republicans and the Senate reached a tentative deal, but only at a tremendous political price: the final bill amounting to $780 billion shaved off more spending, “much of it among the most effective and most needed parts of the plan” according to New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. The deal was particularly damaging, Krugman adds, because it cut out $40 billion in aid to desperate, cash-strapped state governments.

What went wrong and how could Obama’s political clout have gone down so dramatically in just two or three weeks? In a sense, the young President’s failure to rally public opinion is perplexing. During the presidential campaign, the Illinois Senator demonstrated exceptional ability to organize, inspire and mobilize millions of supporters. But Obama failed to successfully capitalize on his mass base to help pass the stimulus, choosing instead to concentrate much of his effort on courting Republican lawmakers. Not only did he fail to sway the GOP to his side, but the President probably discouraged many within his old base which was ready to take on entrenched interests.

At long last Obama seems to have realized the gravity of his situation and has turned up his rhetoric somewhat by attacking the Republicans and Wall Street. This coming week, he will embark on a PR blitz by traveling to Elkhart, Indiana, and Fort Myers, Florida, where he will conduct town hall meetings to whip up support for the recovery package. Imagine for a moment however if Obama had hit the ground running and carried out a poverty tour immediately following his inauguration. He could have staged a number of high profile rallies in public parks or stadiums across the country, talking about the need for a good stimulus. Imagine the psychological impact had Obama held a couple of mass marches through poor neighborhoods where people faced housing foreclosures. The President would have dominated the cable news cycle for a week or more through this type of strategy, making the GOP’s messaging campaign that much more difficult.

He could have rammed a better stimulus bill through the House, perhaps even amounting to more than a trillion dollars, and then dared the GOP to filibuster in the Senate. At this point, with the country tilting in his direction, it would have proved problematic to say the least for the Republicans to be obstructionist. Best of all, if Obama had gotten a good stimulus he would have been better positioned to take on future political battles such as health care. Instead, however, he finds that he must defend a very lukewarm bill that will probably not succeed in getting the country out of recession.

Hugo Chávez: The Master Populist

Though it might seem strange to say so, Obama might have learned a trick or two from Latin American populists like President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela during his recent scuffle with Republican lawmakers. Unlike Obama, who has distanced himself from his core base since winning the election, Chávez has understood the importance of mobilizing people before, during and after electoral campaigns. Indeed, if Chávez had not mobilized the poor and disenfranchised it is doubtful whether he would have had such a long and enduring presidency [Chávez has been in power for ten years; his term expires in 2012 unless the President succeeds in passing a constitutional referendum which would allow him to run again for another six year term].

Like Obama, Chávez came to power at a time of acute economic and political crisis. Instead of resting on his laurels however, the President set about encouraging so-called participatory democracy through such mechanisms as the new 1999 constitution which declared the need for popular mobilization. Civil society participated in the drafting of the constitution through a variety of forums, workshops and committees.

Chávez followed that up by creating the Bolivarian Circles in 2000 which had originally functioned as community groups studying the Venezuelan Constitution. Later, the Circles began to address larger concerns such as health and education. During the 2002 coup which briefly dislodged Chávez from power, the Circles played a pivotal role in mobilizing people in the streets in defense of the President. Chávez later created the so-called Electoral Battle Units which got out the vote for government candidates.

After winning reelection in 2006, Chávez experimented with other forms of popular democracy. Under the guidance of the Ministry of Popular Participation and Social Participation, the authorities spurred the creation of the Communal Councils, local groups concentrating on public works projects. At the neighborhood level, council members were elected and each oversaw a separate issue such as youth services or health care.

On a psychological level, Chávez has proved to be a master of communication. A skillful orator speaking in a colloquial style, Chávez quickly bonded with the masses. The President routinely derided vaguely-worded enemies such as “the oligarchy.” Chávez also created his own TV call in show, Aló, Presidente!, which drew him closer to ordinary people.

For Latin American populists, it’s extremely important to create a sense of accessibility. If the people do not believe they have access, the populist will be unsuccessful at creating vertical ties between leader and the masses. In addition to his media strategy, Chávez has cultivated ties to his supporters by holding mass marches and rallies. He has even fashioned an official color for his supporters: red. Indeed, as I explain in my recent book, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008), color has served as an important badge of belonging and party identification for the Chavistas.

Obama’s Failure to Mobilize

Obviously Obama is not going to mobilize people to write a new constitution, create communal councils or give his followers an official color. Venezuela and the United States have a vastly different political culture and Chávez and Obama are totally dissimilar in terms of their temperament and style. Nevertheless, the idea of popular mobilization is hardly a foreign one to the United States, and there have been plenty of instances in the twentieth century when popular presidents have pushed their agenda by unconventional means.

During the Depression for example, Franklin Roosevelt relied on civil society groups to implement and carry out government policies. Rather than impose wage and price regulations to stabilize the economy, the government’s own National Recovery Administration allowed business associations to establish standards and actually empowered unions to enforce the rules. By supporting the Wagner Act and labor’s right to organize, Roosevelt got much needed union support and was able to mobilize new blocs of voters. The mobilization of civil society and the growth of the industrial union movement proved essential in Roosevelt’s re-election in 1936 and deepened the President’s commitment to social democratic reform in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

We haven’t seen mobilization on that kind of scale for a long time though there are some more recent examples. In 1981, Ronald Reagan delivered multiple televised addresses and urged his supporters to call their members of Congress and demand tax cuts and reduced government spending on social programs. The President’s strategy paid off when people called Capitol Hill and Reagan’s legislation was passed over the objections of the Democratically-led House.

Obama is uniquely positioned to remake politics through the internet and to spur more popular engagement. Unlike Reagan or FDR, or recent Latin American populists for that matter, Obama has an amazing thirteen-million name contact list with 2 million volunteers. No president has ever entered office with this much information, which could truly revolutionize progressive politics. “It is a mechanism that could truly morph the power structure in Washington,” notes a recent article in Esquire magazine, “waking up the unused, overslept public…and making an end run around lobbyists and interest groups.”

Recently, Obama launched the formation of a new group known as “Organizing for America” which seeks to continue the grassroots advocacy of the presidential campaign and capitalize on the e-mail list. But up to now, “Obama 2.0” has failed to live up to its full potential. Belatedly, Organizing for America sent out an e-mail on January 30th, urging supporters to hold “house parties” designed to discuss the economic collapse and back Obama’s stimulus. By that point however, the GOP had already taken to the airwaves, effectively blunting the President’s message. What’s more, house parties are hardly the most effective method of grassroots organizing.

Could Obama be America’s first “techno-populist”? He has certainly squandered his first opportunity, begging the question of what the President has in store for Organizing for America. Perhaps, Obama has been listening too closely to party hacks such as White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel who has disdain for the netroots. Or, perhaps Obama simply saw web organizing as a cynical tool to get elected and later abandoned. Either way, ignoring Web activism is hardly a positive blueprint for political success. While Obama is only in his third week at the Oval Office, his failure to achieve a meaningful stimulus will have far reaching consequences for his presidency.

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Palin, Hunting and the American Psyche

Most Americans don’t make a habit of waking up in the morning, heading straight outside to shoot wild game and then frying up moose burgers. Nevertheless, in this electoral season it has become obligatory for politicians to defend hunters and their so-called “way of life.” Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, John McCain’s vice presidential pick, is but the latest example of this most barbaric and retrograde of American political traditions.

A woman from an exceedingly macho state, Palin takes pride in her hunting skills. She has even gone as far as taking her daughter out with her on caribou shooting expeditions. In passing on the hunting lifestyle to her daughter, Palin is merely following in the footsteps of her father who in turn took her as a child to hunt moose. What is the governor’s favorite food? That would be moose stew, of course! A longtime member of the National Rifle Association, Palin once proudly announced that her freezer was full of wild game.

No friend to wild animals, Palin has offered incentives for people who kill wolves in an effort to boost Alaska’s predator control program which so far has failed to meet expected numbers. The incentives include offering 180 volunteer pilots and aerial gunners $150 in cash for turning in gruesome legs of freshly killed wolves. Outraged by Palin’s predator control program, environmentalists have argued that bounties have no place in modern wildlife management.

By picking Palin as his running mate, John McCain helps to shore up the macho, frontiersman constituency. The Arizona Senator is hardly an avid hunter and has had a rocky relationship with the National Rifle Association. During a speech before the group in May, McCain sought to soothe sore feelings by portraying the Democrats as a common enemy. “They claim to support hunters and gun owners,” he said. “If… Sen. Obama is elected president, the rights of law-abiding gun owners will be at risk.”

Mitt Romney: Seeking to Prove Varmint Credentials

It’s not the first time that the issue of hunting has come up in the presidential campaign. During the primaries Mitt Romney was keen to emphasize his hunting credentials and erase the perception that he was some kind of effeminate easterner. “I purchased a gun when I was a young man. I’ve been a hunter pretty much all my life,” he remarked in New Hampshire. “I’ve never really shot anything terribly big,” Romney said. “I used to hunt rabbits. Shooting a rabbit with a single-shot .22 is pretty hard, and after watching me try for a couple of weeks, (my cousins) said, `We’ll slip you the semiautomatic. You’ll do better with that.’ And I sure did.”

The next day however, the Romney campaign said the former Massachusetts governor had gone hunting just twice — once as a teenager in Idaho and in 2007 with GOP donors in Georgia.

But then Romney explained that it was his staff that had gotten it wrong and that he had indeed hunted rabbits and other small animals for many years, mainly in Utah. Taking a “second shot” at the issue, Romney said “I’m not a big-game hunter. I’ve made that very clear. I’ve always been a rodent and rabbit hunter. Small varmints, if you will. I began when I was 15 or so and I have hunted those kinds of varmints since then. More than two times.”

Huckabee Hunts For Votes in Iowa

By waffling, Romney fell right into Mike Huckabee’s trap. Speaking on Face the Nation, the former Arkansas governor said Romney was wrong to suggest he was a lifelong hunter and that his opponent’s comments strained credibility. “I think it was a major mistake,” Huckabee said. An avid outdoorsman, Huckabee had hunted for twelve years, mostly ducks, deer and turkeys.

“It would be like me saying I’ve been a lifelong golfer because I played putt-putt when I was 9 years old and I rode in a golf cart a couple of times. I think American people are looking for authenticity. Match their record with their rhetoric.”

Hoping to cultivate that “authentic” image, Huckabee took an hour and a half to hunt pheasant eight days before the Iowa caucus. Flanked by about a dozen reporters, the former Arkansas governor wore a microphone from CNN as he went shooting with Dude, his 3-year-old bird dog, and Chip Saltzman, his campaign manager, at his side.

In the first half hour, Huckabee, Saltzman and a friend shot three birds. Their last shot flew over the heads of reporters, one of whom cried out: “Oh my God! Oh my God! Don’t shoot. This is traumatizing.” Moments later when Huckabee took a break, a reporter yelled out: “Who are those birds? Romney? Thompson?” “Well,” Huckabee responded, “these three birds all said they would not vote for me on caucus day. You see what happened?”

Connecticut Indoorsman and Lone Vegan

Traditionally the Democrats have not gone as out of the way to court the gun-toting, hunter crowd. During an interview with grist.com, an environmental Web site, Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd was asked “Are you an outdoorsy fellow? When you’re not in the halls of Congress or on the campaign trail, do you like to escape to the natural world?”

Dodd responded, “No. I don’t try to pretend I’m something that I’m not. But I live right on the Connecticut River, I have for 26 years, and the lower Connecticut River Valley is one of the most wonderful environmentally sensitive areas in the world. It’s stunningly beautiful. We do a lot of fishing in that lower valley area. But I don’t pretend to be a great hunter.”

Needless to say, Dodd went on to drop out of the presidential race after the Iowa caucus when he placed seventh.

Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich hardly did much better than Dodd during his own quixotic campaign for the White House. Kucinich has pressed for stronger regulation of pain and distress in animal research, has worked to help protect whales from harmful navy sonar and supports rural sanctuaries to protect farm animals. As early as 1995 he became a vegan and is currently the only vegan member of Congress.

Such progressive stances notwithstanding, Kucinich did not do well in the primaries and withdrew from the race in early 2008.

Hunting Exotic Prey in New Mexico

New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, a good shot who had the prey to prove it, did slightly better than Dodd and Kucinich. Ever since 2004 Richardson had taken up hunting and fellow outdoorsmen praised the governor’s skills.

Relaxed in his Capitol office and dressed in blue jeans, cowboy boots and a silver bolo tie with turquoise — Richardson told the Associated Press that he began hunting because he “wanted to go one step beyond” the skeet shooting he’d done in the past. With skeet, clay targets are flung into the air at different angles.

The politician had bagged traditional game such as elk and turkey but also stalked the exotic: he shot an oryx, a long-horned antelope native to Africa, during a guided outing in 2005 on a New Mexico ranch owned by media mogul Ted Turner. Richardson said it was his most memorable hunt.

The governor downed the oryx with one shot from at least 100 yards. He had the oryx head mounted and kept it in a downstairs room at the governor’s mansion. Richardson’s other hunting trophies are displayed in the building: a set of bull elk antlers and a stuffed wild turkey.

And what happened to the elk meat? “We ate it — at the mansion,” said Richardson.

Richardson owns a 12-gauge Browning over-and-under shotgun, which he uses for hunting birds including quail and dove. He borrows rifles to hunt big game such as elk, deer and the oryx. During campaign appearances, Richardson proudly mentioned how he had been endorsed by the National Rifle Association.

Early during the primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire, Richardson aired a TV commercial filled with western images. The ad opened with New Mexico landscapes and included scenes of Richardson hunting with two other people and riding horses with his wife, Barbara.

Being Macho in a Man’s World

Once Richardson exited the race three contenders were left in the race: John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Edwards hunted when he was young and grew up in rural areas where owning a gun was part of a way of life. In an interview with the Associated Press Edwards said he grew up hunting deer, rabbits and birds but didn’t hunt any longer. “I think it’s important for us to respect the right to own firearms and to use them for protection,” he said. “I don’t think, though, that it means anybody needs an AK-47 to hunt.”

Edwards didn’t seem to connect as well culturally with poor whites as hunter Mike Huckabee. Once the former North Carolina Senator was out of the race, Clinton sought to court hunters by playing on her own personal history. By February, having already been roundly defeated by Obama in a slew of primaries, she told a crowd pleasing tale about shooting a duck when she was Arkansas First Lady.

“I’ve hunted. My father taught me how to shoot,” she told a crowd at the Labor Temple in rural northern Wisconsin. “I remember standing in the cold water. It was so cold, you know, at first light. I was with a bunch of my friends, all men. And they all were playing a trick on me, and said, ‘We’re not going to shoot, you shoot,’ cause you know what they wanted to do. They wanted to embarrass me. So the pressure was on. So I shot, and I shot a banded duck.”

Clinton lost the Wisconsin primary but continued to hark on the hunting issue.

“I disagree with Senator Obama’s assertion that people in our country cling to guns and have certain attitudes about trade and immigration simply out of frustration,” she began, referring to the Obama comments on small-town Americans that set off a political tumult.

She then introduced a fond memory from her youth.

“You know, my dad took me out behind the cottage that my grandfather built on a little lake called Lake Winola outside of Scranton and taught be how to shoot when I was a little girl,” she said. “You know, some people now continue to teach their children and their grandchildren. It’s part of culture. It’s part of a way of life. People enjoy hunting and shooting because it’s an important part of who they are. Not because they are bitter.”

Obama on Animal Rights

Unlike much of the Republican field and some of the Democratic contenders, Obama has shown a bit more compassion towards animals. During a candidate’s town hall meeting outside Las Vegas, a woman shouted out at Obama, “What about animal rights?” Obama responded that he cared about animal rights very much, “not only because I have a 9-year-old and 6-year-old who want a dog.”

Obama added that he sponsored a bill to prevent horse slaughter in the Illinois state Senate and had been repeatedly endorsed by the Humane Society. “I think how we treat our animals reflects how we treat each other,” he said. “And it’s very important that we have a president who is mindful of the cruelty that is perpetrated on animals.”

To his credit Obama has not gunned down animals with television crews in tow, as in the case of Mike Huckabee. Nevertheless the Illinois Senator supports the right to hunt wild game.

In April 2007 he said: “I don’t hunt myself, but I respect hunters and sportsmen.”

Hunting and the American Psyche

Needless to say hunting in American politics is hardly a new phenomenon. In Rough Rider in the White House: Theodore Roosevelt and the Politics of Desire, Sarah Watts writes:

“In 1885, returning East after a bighorn hunting trip to Montana, Roosevelt had another studio photo made. This time he appeared as a self-consciously overdressed yet recognizable Western cowboy posed as bold and determined, armed and ready for action. ‘I heartily enjoy this life, with its perfect freedom,’ Roosevelt wrote, ‘for I am very fond of hunting, and there are few sensations I prefer to that of galloping over these rolling, limitless prairies, rifle in hand.’ Though himself a New Yorker, Roosevelt enjoyed demeaning the tame outdoor pastimes of Easterners. He preferred his Western life of wild horses, wild terrain, and wild game to Eastern foxhunting, he wrote in 1884 to Lodge, an Eastern patrician and foxhunter. Western hunting required natural buckskin shirts, rifles, and rugged cow ponies, Roosevelt said, rather than tailored red coats worn during scripted jumps over fences chasing a ground-dragged scent. ‘A buffalo is nobler game than an anise seed bag,’ and one could kill buffalo only in the West. In 1883, when he had killed his first buffalo, Roosevelt spontaneously danced a ‘war dance’ that he repeated thereafter in a lifetime of famous hunting. In the aristocratic gentility of the hunt club, no member would ever have allowed himself such freedom.”

It’s remarkable to consider that more than a hundred years after Teddy Roosevelt donned his cowboy outfit politicians are still falling all over themselves to prove their backward and retrograde hunting credentials. On the other hand, with the entrance of Sarah Palin into the presidential race the country has the opportunity of holding a long overdue debate about hunting and animal rights in wider U.S. society. Unfortunately, the media seems more intent on talking about the Alaska Governor’s pregnant daughter.

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