Here is what happened one month ago:
“I am delighted to be the Senator from Punjab as well as from New York” said Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and the former first lady of the United States of America. She received a standing ovation and thunderous applause from the Sikh Americans who had gathered in the Senate side of the Capitol Hill on May 17th for the Sikh American Heritage Dinner Event in Washington, DC. The Sikh Council on Religion and Education (SCORE), based in the nation’s capital organized this event.
Then over the weekend, the big news was the following memo circulated (off the record) by rival Presidential candidate Barrack Obama’s campaign:
HILLARY CLINTON (D-PUNJAB)’S
PERSONAL FINANCIAL AND POLITICAL TIES TO INDIA
The Clintons have reaped significant financial rewards from their relationship with the Indian community, both in their personal finances and Hillary’s campaign fundraising. Hillary Clinton, who is the co-chair of the Senate India Caucus, has drawn criticism from anti-offshoring groups for her vocal support of Indian business and unwillingness to protect American jobs. Bill Clinton has invested tens of thousands of dollars in an Indian bill payment company, while Hillary Clinton has taken tens of thousands from companies that outsource jobs to India. Workers who have been laid off in upstate New York might not think that her recent joke that she could be elected to the Senate seat in Punjab is that funny.
(Read full document here)
The above, incidentally, was circulated by the Clinton campaign after it fell into their hands. In case you didn’t know Obama has been gunning for a “better” kind of campaign, the kind that eschews personal attacks. Given that, the memo struck many people as pretty hypocritical – exactly the impression the Clinton campaign wished to foster.
Secondly, the memo has definitely touched a chord with Indian Americans and Indians alike, a number of whom could be seen in flames all over the net. A fact that Obama realized and released the following apology, first to the Associated Press and then to the site South Asians for Obama ’08:
I believe that your concerns with the memo are justified. To begin with, the memo did not reflect my own views on the importance of America’s relationship with India. I have long believed that the best way to promote U.S. economic growth and opportunity for American workers is to continually improve the skills of our own workforce and invest in our own scientific research, technological capacity and infrastructure, rather than to try to insulate ourselves from the global economy.
More importantly, the memo’s caustic tone, and its focus on contributions by Indian-Americans to the Clinton campaign, was potentially hurtful, and as such, unacceptable. The memo also ignored my own long-standing relationship to – and support from – the Indian-American community.
In sum, our campaign made a mistake. Although I was not aware of the contents of the memo prior to its distribution, I consider the entire campaign – and in particular myself – responsible for the mistake.
That’s a pretty categorical reply to the issue even if some commentators, not necessarily of Indian origin, have since raised doubts about what kind of a ship Obama runs. However, it’s pretty clear that this was the fallout of a fairly common practice between reporters on the election trail and campaign staff – the “not for attribution” or “off the record” memo. This is a road filled with pitfalls as Ann Marie Cox points out:
“[O]ff the record” and “not for attribution” are agreements journalists make with their sources, not declarations the sources make whenever they feel like it. If you say, “I want this off the record,” and then the reporter says, “I want it on the record,” and then you keep talking, well, by most standards, you’ve no one but yourself to blame. Sending out an email with that declaration attached is the same mistake, made virtually…
[However, these] emails continue because campaigns have the upper hand. Or at least journalists and campaigns both imagine they do. In theory, reporters could refuse to recognize a contract they didn’t agree to… but they have to weigh that strict interpretation of the source-reporter relationship against some other factors: the need for access and the simple truth that presidential campaigns have bigger research budgets, and more time, than most news organizations. Though most of the material campaigns send is both publicly available and trivial, getting it from a campaign – the rationalization goes – is a part of an ongoing dialog that might, at some point, bear true news-like fruit. Burn someone over an email and you risk losing access to everything. Reporters, as you might guess, tend to err on the side of access and thus “off the record” emails continue to fly.
The Clintons, meanwhile had already begun the process to liquidate all their “conflict of interest” stocks and bonds, of which Indian firms form only a part. The New York Times reports:
Concerned that their personal finances might become a political liability once again, Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton in April sold the millions of dollars of stocks held by their blind trust after learning that those investments included oil and pharmaceutical companies, military contractors and Wal-Mart, their aides said Thursday.
Mrs. Clinton automatically became aware of her investments because of a government directive this spring that she, as a presidential candidate, had to dissolve her blind trust and disclose all of her assets to the public.
In 1993, Mr. Clinton complied with federal ethics rules and created a qualified blind trust to hold and invest the family’s assets. Under the rules, public officials must disclose their assets at the time of the creation of the trust, and then hand off day-to-day management of the trust and its investments to an independent trustee. Officials who set up blind trusts are not aware of, nor do they have influence over, the investments chosen.
Full Disclosure: I can’t vote in America but if I could, my vote would go to Barrack Obama. I haven’t felt this enthusiastic over a political candidate since – well, forever. And yes, it’s a fairly irrational reaction given the man has very little experience. I’m neither oblivious nor delusional, I’m just terribly attracted so it’s probably a good thing that I don’t have a vote.
So much for background details. Now, keeping all of the above in mind, I think the Obama campaign slip-up is one that the others ought to keep in mind in the coming weeks and months as we get closer and closer to the election:
From what I have seen and read of him, Obama does not fall into that category of political demagogues who favor sweeping statements for the sake of a quotable soundbyte. Throughout his campaign, he has consistently asked his audience to rise up instead of catering to the lowest common denominator. This is why the furore surrounding the memo is so interesting – it perfectly portrays how sensitive the issue of outsourcing has become.
India is obviously in the eye of the storm where outsourcing is concerned but a lot of the heat stems from mistaken impressions. First of all, India is hardly the only country in the world to benefit from outsourcing nor does it take away millions of blue collar jobs. And the knee jerk solution to outsourcing i.e. “let’s build some walls here” is hardly beneficial to American interests who’re still trying to break down the last few walls around the Indian market.
Also Indian companies are not the only ones or even the first to bring in qualified professionals from their home country to work in America. That is a trend that is followed all around the world – any number of European/American/Middle Eastern multinational firms currently operating in India have imported staff from elsewhere to carry out operations.
Moreover, one of the loudest voices raised in support of relaxation of the professional visa regime is Bill Gates who’s about as American as you can get and who, presumably, gets his billions upon billions taxed by the United States government. And as long as we’re on the issue of taxation, let’s not forget that these Indian professionals are not illegal migrants – they pay exactly the same amount of tax as their American counterparts.
But political attacks over investment portfolios have another drawback – because the India market is such a hot commodity, any politician with an investment portfolio is bound to have some India stock in there. And let me remind you that American politicians aren’t exactly drawn from the poorest of the poor.
Obama is also quite right to be worried about the “caustic” tone of the memo. Indian Americans might be a tiny percentage of the population but they hold some of the biggest fundraisers in town and nobody, Republican or Democrat puts their nose up at cash. Obama himself has benefited from Indian American campaign money.
The Democrats should also keep an eye out on what happens after the primaries. Reports in the Indian press around the time of the last elections, which coincided with the Indo-US nuclear deal, were full of quotes from Bush officials warning the Indians that the Democrats were likely to be suspicious of/unfriendly to them. Given that Indians are part of a dwindling stock of brownies-in-favor-of-America, that’s not exactly the best foreign policy impression they want to create right out of the starting gate.