By Uche Oyebadi
Americans have a variety of political traditions. Each presidential election cycle, as is happening now, some of these traditions are replayed as the system makes its way towards meeting a crucial part of its democratic destiny and objective.
One of the traditions that have withstood time and history is that of running a two-party system: the Democratic and Republican Parties that are perpetually in competition to outdo each other in occupying the seat of state power and politics.
But, you might have thought that as democratic as the country presents itself, more political party voices would have been let into the electoral system. Well, nothing prevents a political party from sprouting up. However, the political culture and tradition in the U.S. have a way of killing off any planned attempt to destabilize the two-party structure.
Two fairly strong and recent attempts to break the two-party mold came in the form of presidential candidates Ross Perot and Ralph Nader. Twice in 1992 and 1996 Texas billionaire Perot tried hard to de-couple the two-party engine of U.S. politics.
He failed on both occasions, having spent millions of his wealth in the process and despite making media waves with his decision to run for the highest office in the land.
In 2000, maverick Ralph Nader of the Green Party emerged on the scene and ran for the presidency. He failed, but garnered about 2.8 million votes which the Democrats felt should have legitimately gone to Al Gore who campaigned against George Bush.
Democrats never forgave Nader for spoiling the political soup for them. By the time Nader ran again in 2004, the system had so taken care of him that he was a highly marginalized and ineffective man.
Historian Richard Hofstadter aptly summed up the “third party” phenomenon as follows: “Third parties are like bees. Once they have stung, they die.” Perot and Nader fully understand this truism about American politics.
Another piece of tradition is that of candidates going through the excruciating primaries to determine the flag-bearer of each of the political parties. No candidate skips the primaries and caucuses, whether a challenger or an incumbent. The Iowa caucus is the first crucial and real test of political popularity. In 2008, Hillary Clinton who thought she was the front-runner was humbled to the third position in Iowa.
She never fully recovered until she bowed out of the race. In that test of strength, Obama won 38 percent, John Edwards came second with 29.8 percent and a surprised Hillary landed on the third position with 29.5 percent. Today, Hillary is not taking Iowa for granted. She is very busy campaigning in Iowa with all arsenal in her political armoury.
Doing the television debate is another strong tradition. 1960 marked the beginning of the debates and it showed even then that the power of such debates cannot be underestimated in the electoral process. It is about intelligence, knowledge of the subjects, poise, eloquence and all the razzmatazz of television screen appearance, especially appearance.
Several studies have been conducted about the first of such televised debates which took place on September 26, 1960, between the young and handsome looking Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy and vice president Richard Milhous Nixon. Nixon who appeared on stage looking ruffled was a contrast to Kennedy with good looks and dashing mien. People who heard the debate on radio thought that the normally erudite Nixon won; but people who watched it on television had no doubt that Kennedy trounced Nixon.
Today, a gaffe on such debates is a one-way ticket out of the presidential race.
Other interesting traditions include the expectation that candidates for the presidency should declared their assets as well as let people know the state of their personal health.
The tradition I’m paying more attention to in this column is that of the 1st 100 days in office. This tradition was introduced in July 1933 by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt who, in fact, had meant it to be used to judge the efficiency level of the Congress. Today, it is a tradition that is applied to practically all levels of governance.
Here is what Kenneth T. Walsh wrote about the idea of the 1st 100 Days in a 2009 article: It’s not a perfect measure, but it’s a useful one—the 100-day standard for gauging presidential effectiveness. The underlying truth is that presidents tend to be most effective when they first take office, when their leadership style seems fresh and new, when the aura of victory is still powerful, and when their impact on Congress is usually at its height. There is nothing magic about the number, and many presidential aides over the years have complained that it is an artificial yardstick. But it has been used by the public, the media, and scholars as a gauge of presidential success and activism since Franklin D. Roosevelt pioneered the 100-day concept when he took office in 1933.
I have no philosophical opposition to assessing any president after 100 days in office. True, I do not expect tangible results. Neither is it a realistic expectation. But, I believe any one running for office should arm himself or herself with a blueprint for governance and start reeling off pages of that book once the person sits on the saddle. The 100-day landmark is about an examination of what is being done or implemented; not what has been achieved.
This idea of winning a presidential election and turning around to tell people who elected you in good conscience that you did not know the extent of the rot left behind by your predecessor, is as laughable as it is lamentable. It is the equivalent of driving a car at night without headlamps, only to exclaim surprise upon running into a ditch.
Americans also have another politically traditional expectation that is tied to the 1st 100 days in office: leaders are supposed to hit the ground running; work begins on day one! Put in soccer analogy, hitting the ground running is the equivalent of a good striker like Ronaldo already knowing what to do with the ball as it is in flight to him. The unintelligent striker gets the ball, and begins to think of what to do with it.
Let me simply say that with Buhari battling to name his cabinet as his 1st 100 Days in office approaches, it appears he might reverse the American (and indeed a reasonable) expectation by running to hit the ground, not hitting the ground, running.