American Politics: All Campaigning, No Governing

With just a little over a month to go until Election Day, and with the first in a series of Presidential Debates looming, the focus of the American electorate should be upon the issues at stake in the 2012 election. However, instead it finds itself thinking of events 4 years from now and more specifically, on the figure of Hillary Clinton. This week, and not for the first time, former President Bill Clinton has, in his own unique manner, revealed a singular truth about American politics. Either deliberately or otherwise, Clinton has in a stroke raised the spectre of a Hillary Clinton presidency and revealed an intrinsic flaw in the American electoral psyche: The political system is focused on campaigning, not governing.

By admitting that he had no idea whether his wife would seek the presidency in 4 years, Bill Clinton effective fired the starting pistol for the Democratic primary season of 2016, 2 months before the result of the 2012 election has even been announced. This has been exacerbated by a growing sense that this race is over; that Romney has blown whatever chance he had in a series of ill-advised statements, a lack-lustre convention and by failing to run a policy-driven campaign. Currently trailing by anything up to 7% in key, must-win, swing states, his success now rests on matters out of his control.

It has long been the case that a second term American president becomes a lame duck in some respects, almost as soon as he has been returned to office. It is in the nature in politics that power abhors a vacuum, and as soon as one election is over, eyes turn to the next. The knowledge that a second term president is constitutionally prohibited from seeking another term inevitable leads to questions being asked in regard to his successor, and accordingly, a diminution of his stature as advisers begin to think of their own futures and initiate a process of seeking to ally themselves with the next potential president.

This could be seen as being the $2 billion problem at the heart of American politics.  It is too focused on campaigning and not on governing. Vast sums are being spent to sway a tiny number of undecided, Independent voters to vote on, or before, November 6. Despite the sums involved, turnout is unlikely to exceed 55%. As politics becomes more and more about gaining power and les and less about holding and using power, the electorate are becoming less and less interested.

This endless process ensures that rather than thinking about what is best for the nation or its citizens, politicians constantly have to focus upon their bid for re-election. This is bad enough in the presidency, but it is endemic within the House of Representatives, with its two-year term in office, which ensures that candidates have to fundraise for re-election from their first hours in post. This is simply no way to run a 21st century superpower. All too often in recent years, the flaws in the 17th century basis of American democracy have been exposed, be it in electoral processes, voting regulations or terms in office. The American Constitution was designed to frustrate, and in this, it is certainly succeeding, but not necessarily in the ways intended.

These inherent problems are compounded by the lack of an obvious incumbent for the Democrats in 2016 (assuming an Obama victory in November). By retaining the services of Vice President Joe Biden, Barack Obama has effectively made him the presumptive candidate in 2016. Is that really what the Democratic Party wants? By Election Day 2016, Biden will be 73 and no more ready to be president than he was in 2008. One of the great successes of this Administration to date has been securing Obama’s safety and thereby keeping Biden from the Oval Office.

Retaining Biden may have been viewed as an act of political loyalty by Obama, but it lacked any strategic vision.  An opportunity existed to bring on board a strong and credible candidate for the presidency in 2016 and give them the all-important incumbency and presumptive nomination status that would go with the position.  Instead, Obama has saddled himself and his party with a Vice President who brings nothing positive to the ticket and actually hurts the party in the lead up to the next election. Rather than being able to coalesce around an incumbent and obvious front runner, the party machine will need to endure another anxious primary season and endless speculation over the potential nominee, a process that Bill Clinton kick started this week.

If the Democrats prevail on November 6, then the Republican posturing will also begin in earnest, with serious questions to be asked as to how they managed to blow an election that was there for the taking. Issues of personality and policy need to be addressed head-on if the party is to return to the White House in 2016. Its best bet for doing so, it would appear is via Florida’s Senator Marco Rubio, a young talent who appears to epitomise much of what the American Dream has come to mean in the 21st Century. Oh, and did I mention he was from Florida? One need not still have nightmares about Election 2000 to be aware of this significance. Oh, and did I mention he was from Cuba? With America’s rapidly changing demographic the importance of this should not be underestimated.

After the fireworks of 2008, 2012 has proven to be a rather uneventful election (so far). With the personalities and politics that will doubtless dominate the next four years, it appears likely that 2016 will prove to be far more interesting and dynamic. I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to it already, which is, of course, exactly the problem in American’s campaign focused political system…

Romney: Falling at the Final Hurdle?

National polling has Romney and Obama neck and neck, but is the Republican candidate in danger of faltering when he should be sprinting?

So here we are with 50 days to go until Election Day and what is the topic of conversation amongst the American chattering classes? The economy? The future direction of healthcare? The correct manner in which to enforce American foreign policy in a volatile era? The viability of the Ryan budget proposals?

No.

With the three scheduled presidential debates looming the attention is once again on Mitt Romney’s inability to remain gaffe-free for very long. The Republican candidate is developing a Dan Quayle-like quality for opening his mouth just long enough to take one foot out and replace it with another.

It could rightly be argued that Romney’s foes in the ‘mainstream media’ are paying undue attention to these faux pas, but in the absence of serious policy debates, there is relatively little else to focus upon.

Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats are fighting this presidential election on the issues, despite the very clear distinctions that exist between them this time around. Instead it is being waged, once more, on who is the more likeable candidate and Mitt Romney is losing that battle every time he speaks.

At a time when the United States faces serious challenges overseas, with its deficit the wrong side of an eye-watering $16 trillion and unemployment stubbornly above 8% this could and should have been an election focused on policies and politics, on the competing approaches to alleviating America’s economic, social and global woes. Instead it has descended into an American farce, in which one millionaire is accusing another of being out of touch with the electorate.

Mitt Romney’s latest verbal offering to offend the masses in the media could well prove to be decisive heading into the final stages of the campaign. Romney’s poorly run, poorly defined campaign looks set to be defined by his political opponents between now and Election Day by the contents of a tape recorded, off the cuff remark made to a roomful of supposed supporters.

It was in Romney’s interest to drag the national debate back to domestic, financial issues, where the president is arguably on weaker ground. However, by his remarks, he may well have surrendered any advantage he previously had in that area.

His overall point, that 47% of Americans probably won’t vote for him may well be true, as is his further point that he desperately needs to reach the 5% of independents who will, as usual, decide the election. Had he said this, in cool, logical terms, then you would be reading something else right now. But alas, Romney went further, equating all of the 47% as somehow being delinquents, dependent on the government and contributing nothing to society, determined to vote for Obama come what may.

This will do nothing to endear Romney to anyone beyond the most extreme members of his base and could, indeed, decimate his chances with wavering independents. His remarks reinforce the concept that the United States remains deeply divided after 4 years of Barack Obama, with little hope of unity in sight.

The Romney campaign was further rocked when a second video emerged in the wake of the initial debacle in which he asserted that peace in the Middle East was ‘virtually unthinkable,’ and that ‘Palestinians aren’t interested in peace…’

Once more Romney has demonstrated a lack of agility in foreign affairs. His overseas trip this summer proved to be a public relations disaster and failed to succeed on any level to raise his profile in a positive manner. His remarks in relation to the death of Ambassador Stevens and the attacks on the US positions in a series of nations was equally flat-footed and appeared to reveal a lack of diplomatic prowess. His latest remarks on the chances for peace, in a region where the U.S. has historically attempted to play the role of honest broker, look set to further reduce the credibility of his candidacy.

In a single day, the individual, personal failings of the Republican candidate for the presidency of the United States, in both foreign and domestic policy, as revealed on a grainy home video, appear set to ensure that Barack Obama receives a second term in the White House, not in a vote of confidence in the incumbent, but as a resounding vote of no confidence in his opponent

Changing Perspectives in American Politics

For decades there has been an accepted maxim in American politics: when the American people felt secure internationally they voted in a Mummy president who would keep any eye on the store and ensure that domestic issues were addressed. However, when they felt uneasy, insecure or altogether threatened, they would vote for a Daddy candidate who would stand tall on the world stage, face down any adversary and defend the nation, come what may. Throughout the past 40 years, Democrats have been cast as the Mummy Party and Republicans as the Daddy. It has been the Republican Party that has managed to successfully wrap itself in the flag and campaign successfully on national security issues, portraying the Democratic Party as being weak and unreliable on foreign affairs. For much of that time they were also able to portray the Democrats as being financially irresponsible and as being advocates of tax and spend approaches to government.

Events of the past two administrations have altered this perceived reality.

During the 1990s the Clinton administration did much to end the perception of the Democrats as being poor handlers of the economy, as the United States entered the 21st century with a debate over what to do with the almighty surplus that had built up in the government coffers. The administration’s handling of foreign affairs was more mixed, but essentially Bill Clinton bequeathed his successor a nation that was prosperous and at peace.

His successor, of course, was George W. Bush, who continued to invert the perceived wisdom in relation to the role of American political parties. The apparent economic prudence of former Republican administration’s was replaced by a tax cut in time of war, which saw the eradication of the surplus, as the administration sought to have guns and butter. If its economic legacy was poor, its foreign policy was worse, as it deliberately ignored previous Republican strategies that had been successfully implemented as recently as 1991.

The inversion of previous perceptions has continued under President Obama. With his team drawn largely from the former Clinton Administration, this is perhaps to be expected. However, Obama has not been able to replicate Bill Clinton’s economic polices, which saw vast reductions in the US debt. Instead, the debt level has increased substantially, to an eye-watering $16 trillion dollars. The scale of the debt is such that easy remedies appear no longer to be an option. The scale of the debt, coupled with an unemployment rate stuck stubbornly above 8% should have spelt doom for the incumbent, but so far it has not.

Unusually, voters are not yet registering their overwhelming disenchantment with the Obama presidency, despite the usual maxim that people vote according to the contents of their purses or wallets; President Reagan’s question remains pertinent today: “Are you better off than you were 4 years ago?”

Instead of running on his economic record, or his groundbreaking (however you view it) decision to implement healthcare reform (initiated, like the Bush tax cut, at precisely the time that it was least affordable), President Obama is instead taking the battle to his opponents, casting them as naives with insufficient experience, indifferent to the plight of normal Americans and ill-prepared for high office. Intriguingly, Four years ago, many of the same accusations were made of Senator Obama.

A key area that Obama is exploiting is the difference in terms of experience in foreign policy. Continuing to defy accepted maxims, the president is portraying himself as the steady, experienced Commander in Chief, and his Republican opponents as woefully unprepared for global leadership. The Republicans have done much to aid him in this. Neither Mitt Romney nor Paul Ryan have served in the military, or focused upon military or defence affairs during their careers in government service. Neither has a record of addressing foreign or military affairs in any manner of note. For a Republican ticket this is unheard of. A quick stroll through past tickets confirms that on all occasions either the top or bottom of the ticket had a recognised appreciation of foreign or military affairs that would be brought to bear in the White House. That is not the case in 2012.

Instead, President Obama has been able to portray himself as the man who killed bin Laden. He has successfully managed to avoid being ‘swiftboated’ on this issue so far, despite many efforts, not least of which is the new book ‘No Easy Day.’ His efforts have been aided by Mitt Romney’s recent overseas trip to Europe and Israel, where he at best did little to impress and at worst did much to reinforce a negative image of his candidacy. Developments in recent days have exacerbated this situation. Despite the potential problems that the numerous embassy storming could have posed politically for the president, Mitt Romney’s poor handling of the issue has actually eased the pressure on the administration.

With a little over 7 weeks to go until Election Day, Obama continues to lead in the polls, both nationally and in key swing states. He has noticeably opened up a lead in the key swing states following the convention. This is not over yet, and the debates could be crucial. A key blunder, an indiscretion and this could all turn on a dime. Yet, as this week’s events have demonstrated, when opportunity presents itself, Romney’s reaction has been far from beneficial to the Republican ticket, and he still has all of the heavy lifting to do if he is to have any chance of securing what at this point would looks like an unlikely victory come November.

A Second Podcast with the Commentator

2012 has brought many pleasing developments; my fellowship at King’s College, my many media appearances and role at The Commentator. The team work tirelessly to put together an informative and engaging publication and I am delighted to be a Contributing Editor, producing my weekly article for them on the latest developments in the United States.

This week I have once again contributed to their latest venture, The Commentator’s podcast, “We Need to Talk…” I sat down with The Commentator’s high-flying Executive Editor, Raheem J. Kassam and former British ambassador to the world’s trouble spots, Charles Crawford, to discuss the week’s developments at the Democratic National Convention and in the British Cabinet.

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO THE PODCAST…..

Women and the Right

Much has been made in recent months of the role of women in American politics. Hardly any of the coverage has been positive, especially in its portrayal of the Republican Party. Several weeks ago, Ann Romney stared from the cover of Time Magazine, representative of everything feminine about the GOP: strong, loyal, attractive, God-fearing and proud. She became this season’s GOP pin-up, but in a way far unlike earlier incarnations such as Sarah Palin or Cindy McCain. But how representative is Ann Romney of American womanhood, or even of Republican women? In short, is she really Mitt Romney’s ‘secret weapon’ or merely another prop to be wheeled out on cue to utter appropriate blandishments in regard to this year’s anointed candidate?

American politics has come a long way in a short period of time. In 1952 Nixon’s ‘Checkers speech’ was attacked as being shameless in its tone and content. It would appear, however, that ‘shameless’ has become the norm in American politics as spouses are now routinely presented to talk up the moral character of the candidate, lest there be any doubts.

Despite suggestions that she has been little more than an adornment for Mitt Romney, Ann Romney has emerged in recent months as a symbol of the Republican Party, desperate to rebut allegations that it is involved in a war on women and as a means to soften her husband’s image: Surely anyone with a wife like this can’t be all bad? This is one lady who it would be easy to dismiss as a cardboard cut-out Republican spouse, but her battle to overcome the debilitating impact of Multiple Sclerosis must give one pause for thought. Her tenacity and drive is all the more remarkable for having to overcome this ailment and to endure the tough life that comes with campaigning for the presidency.

In a debate about a war on women, what better artillery to deploy than a smart, attractive and eloquent woman to refute such allegations and present an image of her husband as seen through the eyes of the one who knows him best? Ann Romney’s elevation during the Republican National Convention is no coincidence and the decision to cancel the first planned day was also no tragedy. Over the weekend, the GOP was casting around in an attempt to re-schedule the presentations once they learned that the major networks were unlikely to carry Monday night’s feed (and Ann Romney’s speech) in full. Cancelling in the name of safety in the eye of the storm, allowed for a truncated convention in which Ann Romney would be guaranteed a prime time speaking slot in which she could attract the attention of the watching world.

Her speech was noticeable devoid of references to policy or politics, but aimed instead at the heart. At times it sounded alarmingly Palin-esque, before Mrs. Romney dovetailed into a history of her relationship with her husband and their early life together, a focus designed to appeal to ‘normal women’ not necessarily married to the son of a governor. As such this was not a speech that one can imagine Hillary Clinton having given. Ann Romey’s contribution to her husband’s life and career appears not to be as a consigliere, but rather as the steel in the spine at times of doubt.  Like Barbara Bush before her, it would appear that Ann Romney is the real power in the relationship, driving her husband’s ambition, actively supporting him in his aspiration to higher and higher political office. She is undoubtedly a great asset to her husband and his campaign. It must be asked, however, as to how much she will appeal beyond the traditional Republican base. What she said last night was unlikely to convince undecided voters that she and her husband are anything other than pleasant, moderate, successful and wealthy Americans who have been blessed with good luck and good fortune. They have made their way in the world and who now stand at the brink of political history, about to either enter a pantheon of greatness or a cupboard of also-rans.

There are clearly contradictions and areas of potential conflict. As a recipient of costly medication to treat her M/S, there are risks that Ann Romney could be drawn inevitably into any on-going debate about healthcare in the United Sates. Likewise, it will be intriguing to see how she addresses the potential for conflict that could emerge from the GOP platform document that opposes abortion but which remains conspicuously silent on issues of rape and incest. Irrespective of Governor Romney’s rejection of such a stance, this will, nevertheless be the platform that he and his fellow Republican candidates will be forced to run on and defend in debates and interviews. Even if Romney himself has declared that his potential White House will not be beholden to such a manifesto commitment, there will be plenty of Republicans who will attempt to hold him to this position, including members of congress. Would a President Romney veto a bill to overturn Roe v Wade presented to him by a Republican congress? This hypothetical situation that could all to easily become a tough reality for Ann Romney’s husband to address as President of the United Sates.

The degree to which Americans vote for a candidate on the basis of their wives is debatable. As John Kerry discovered in 2004, having a wife who was viewed unfavorably by the country can certainly be a burden. Clearly Ann Romney is no Hillary Rodham Clinton and she is certainly no Michelle Obama. What emerges from her biography is a headstrong, determined and intelligent women, dedicated to her family and determined to ensure that her husband achieves all that is possible.

Ann Romney has become the leading lady of the Republican Party this electoral cycle, a move aided by the lack of a woman on the ticket for sure, but a move designed also to draw comparisons and quell discussion of a Republican War on Women. In an election year that has seen Sandra Fluke disparaged as a whore by Republican talk show hosts for her views on access to birth control, and in which the odious topic of rape and women’s biological reaction to it has dominated debate, it is perhaps not surprising that some have suggested that the Republican Party itself is engaged in a war on women. Were the party to declare such a conflict, they would surely lose. For one thing, there are far more women than there are Republicans! Neither is it in the Republican Party’s interest to attack women. Female voters have been vital in securing the White House for Democratic candidates in 1992, 1996 and 2008. If the Republican Party could secure the long-term support of the female vote, it would have a virtual lock on the White House.

Interestingly, the Women for Mitt Romney coalition has recently launched a web site, presenting what it claims to be the priorities of American women. Absent are any references to what could be broadly termed ‘women’s issues.’ Indeed, the web site makes a distinct point that these women are Americans first and women second and the issues that are important to them are issues that should be important to all Americans, irrespective of gender.

In the United States women’s reproductive rights becomes a nation issue on an all too regular basis to the national stage, with vague threats to overturn Roe v Wade, before slinking back to the extreme wing of the Republican Party to wait for another moment to try once more to reduce women’s rights to do what they wish with their own bodies. These attempts to wage Culture Wars repeatedly backfire, as in 1992, and lead only to Democratic Party victories, fuelled by women voters.

The comments made by the Missouri Republican Party candidate for Senate, Todd Akin cast a shadow over the Romney/Ryan ticket. Not because they agree with him, they do not. They, along with members of the Tea Party, have made requests that he stand down. His refusal to do so ensures that he remains an embarrassment, not only to himself, his party but also to his nation. The Romney campaign is also forced to continue to address the statement, which diverts time and attention away from the issues that the campaign is focused on; jobs and the economy.

Women are the great-untapped resource for the Republican Party. American women have been responsible for denying the Republicans the White House on several occasions. They were singularly responsible for keeping Bill Clinton in the White House, despite his repeated indiscretions. However, as a party, the Republicans appear unable to decide how best to court their vote.

For the Republican Party to win in November it needs to consider the gender breakdown in the United States:

  • There are 157 million American women and only 151.8 million men.
  • 46.2% of American women voted in the last elections compared to 45% of men.
  • Only 43% of women voted for John McCain compared to 56% that voted for Obama in 2008.
  • Obama only carried 49% of the male vote in 2008
  • Obama appears tied with Romney for the male vote, but is ahead by up to 20% with women.

When Republicans win the female vote, they win elections, as was the case in the 2010 mid terms. The remarks by Todd Akin this week, therefore, are detrimental on a whole variety of levels. They risk identifying the Republican Party with an anti-female agenda and continuing allegations that the party is engaged in a war on women in 2012. This is exacerbated by reports that the Republican Party platform will oppose abortion even in cases of rape and incest. The inclusion of Paul Ryan on the ticket also raises concerns. As a Catholic, Ryan has voted repeatedly for measures in Congress that have won the support of the National Right to Life Committee Group. There are also strong concerns that the Party Platform that emerges at the Convention will severely restrict access to IVF treatment in the United States.

Akin’s remarks place at risk the potential of winning the Senate seat in Missouri that seemed eminently possible until very recently. With the withdrawal of party support, his chances appear doomed. Failure to win the seat places the Republican national strategy in jeopardy and will impact the party’s hopes of retaking the Senate in November.

Akin’s remarks highlight a singular fact: Until the Republican Party learns to successfully woo the female vote, women will continue to keep the party from power. Ann Romney’s drive and support has brought her husband to the cusp of the presidency, within the margin of error in many opinion polls. The question of whether Mitt has what it takes to go the extra mile for victory and secure the female vote, will be revealed in the remaining days of this campaign…