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How Indian Americans in Virginia may have derailed a second term for US President Joe Biden

Indian Americans constitute only one percent of the US electorate, but Virginia is a state where they have influenced state politics far in excess of their numerical strength or political fund-raising clout.

November 05, 2021 / 03:33 PM IST
US President Joe Biden (Image: AP)

US President Joe Biden (Image: AP)

The stunning state election setbacks which greeted United States President Joe Biden as he returned home from his high profile attendance at the climate conference (COPS 26) in Glasgow constitute many turning points in US politics with Biden only two-and-a-half months shy of completing his first year as President in the White House.

The results — especially in Virginia and New Jersey for Governors — take Biden one more step closer to becoming a one-term President: if this week’s setbacks for the Democratic Party are repeated a year from now in mid-term polls for the US House of Representatives, and the Senate, Biden may well opt out of his re-election race in 2024. He will be 82-years-old by then. He hinted last year itself that he may not seek re-election to the presidency.

The November 2 poll reverses will reinforce the belief that Biden may follow in the footsteps of Lyndon B Johnson, who opted out of the 1968 presidential election when he realised that he had no chance of winning. The alternative for Biden would be to be in the ill-fitting shoes of Gerald Ford, who retired in defeat as one-term President in the 1976 election and was succeeded by Jimmy Carter.

The resounding failure of Terry McAuliffe’s attempt to return to the gubernatorial mansion in Virginia captured headlines the world over because his defeat marks the end of the Bill and Hillary Clinton era in US politics. McAuliffe has been the alter ego of the Clintons since 1996 when they made him Co-Chair of the 42nd US President’s successful re-election campaign. McAuliffe has since been Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and Chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. Later, the Clintons were instrumental in making him Governor of Virginia.

Every other Clinton acolyte has fallen by the wayside, retired, or has been enmeshed in scandal. With McAuliffe’s defeat, the only Clinton-era public figure with nationwide name recognition remains Rahm Emanuel, but he has been nominated by Biden for a non-elected office. If confirmed by the Senate, Emanuel, who was once the White House Chief of Staff, and Mayor of Chicago, will be the next US Ambassador to Japan.

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For now, Bill Clinton retains some of his famous charisma, and personal appeal: two months ago, he raised $425,000 for McAuliffe during a mere six-hour visit to an obscure, upstate New York town of Skaneateles. People turned out in large numbers to greet the former President who was visiting Skaneateles after a gap of 21 years. But devoid of a countrywide network of active public figures as cheerleaders, Clinton’s is a waning legacy; a trend in which the catalyst was the defeat of McAuliffe.

Had McAuliffe succeeded in his attempt to return as Virginia’s Governor, he may well have used the position to challenge Vice President Kamala Harris in the Democratic presidential primaries three years from now, in the eventuality that Biden chooses not to seek re-election. Virginia has produced more presidents than any other state in US history. The more famous among them are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Woodrow Wilson. McAuliffe could have been the ninth US President from Virginia: he was born in New York State but is considered a Virginian.

Indian Americans constitute only one percent of the US electorate, but Virginia is a state where they have influenced state politics far in excess of their numerical strength or political fund-raising clout. This has been by accident rather than design. In 2006, it was widely expected that George W Bush would be succeeded in the White House three years later by Virginia's George Allen, a charismatic and dynamic Republican. Allen had already been Virginia’s Governor. In 2006, he was seeking re-election for a second term as US Senator from that state. He would have been a fitting rival to Barack Obama if he had won the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 2008.

Allen’s nemesis was a 20-year-old US student of Indian origin, who destroyed his presidential aspirations. Call it bad judgement on the part of Allen, his ill luck, or fate, SR Sidarth buried Allen’s political future itself in the course of that Senate campaign. Sidarth, then a student at the University of Virginia, was a volunteer working with Allen's Democratic rival James Webb. His assignment was to shadow Allen with a video camera on the campaign trail, which is common practice in the US.

Although Sidarth had met Allen, and explained his volunteer assignment to him, the Indian American’s constant presence at his campaign events irritated Allen. One day he called Sidarth a “macaca” in public. Macaca is a strain of monkey that is found in the eastern hemisphere, and the term is also used as a racial slur. Within hours all hell broke loose. The national media and civil rights supporters seized on Allen's remarks, and accused him of racism. The incident set in motion a train of events that ended in Allen’s defeat.

In McAuliffe’s loss too, Indian Americans had a role, although this time it was not accidental. In the last two decades, Indian Americans have moved to Virginia’s northern suburbs — NOVA for short — bordering Washington, in large numbers, mainly because of NOVA’s schools and opportunities in technology. They were incensed by McAuliffe’s school education policies. Democratic voters by tradition, Indian Americans voted en masse against McAuliffe and helped Republicans win.

New Jersey is another state where election results for Governor rang alarm bells for Biden. Incumbent Governor Phil Murphy won re-election in this Democratic Party stronghold, but the narrowness of his victory does not bode well for the Democrats in next year’s mid-term polls. Or for Biden.
KP Nayar has extensively covered West Asia and reported from Washington as a foreign correspondent for 15 years. Views are personal.
first published: Nov 5, 2021 03:33 pm

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