New Research Published

As some of you know, along with my continuing research into the Clinton administration, I have been working on a project to compare and contrast the Nixon and Obama administrations and their use of wars of choice.

I am delighted that the second paper in this series has now been published and invite you to read it, along with the first paper and my other academic pieces HERE

I hope you find the work to be both interesting and challenging and welcome your thoughts.

 

Paralyse, Neutralise, Stigmatise: The Master Plan Behind the GOP’s Legal Pursuit of Obama

While not implementing what I this week christened his Half-Arsed Doctrine in key geographical regions such as Syria, Iraq and Ukraine, or dithering over the growing immigration crisis on America’s borders, President Obama has been busy tinkering with his signature legislative ‘achievement’, the Affordable Healthcare Act, better known as Obamacare. Passed with undue haste and a lack of legislative attention to detail (‘We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what’s in it’) as the Democrats’ narrow grasp on a Senate supermajority and a majority of any sort in the House evaporated, the bill has contributed to great ruptures in the American body politic.

Rather than passing a universal health care bill that garnered strong bi-partisan support, the manner in which the legislation was steamrollered through, and the specific elements of the provisions, ensured that the Act remains contentious. The bill’s opponents have attempted pretty much every legal manoeuvre possible to have it overturned, including a telling day in the highest court of the land, in which the administration was forced to concede that the measure was indeed a tax, having stressed all along that it was not. Such efforts formed part of the GOP’s master plan for Obama’s time in office: Ensuring he was a one-term president.

When the best efforts of Mitt Romney proved unequal to this task in 2012, Republicans were forced to come up with a new plan, one designed to ensure that this president has more than one historical distinguishing star by his name. Reaching back to the late 1990s, they devised a plan to derail his administration by legal means. Whereas their predecessors attempted to impeach a popular, populist Democratic Chief Executive, they now would seek to sue an increasingly unpopular and far from populist president for his excessive tinkering with legislation and his continuing efforts to bypass the Congress.

This is a move based on political calculation and a very specific reading of history. Republican leaders know that they do not have anything like the votes to impeach President Obama, even if they could agree upon what to charge him with and get the House of Representatives to approve such articles. 67 members of the Senate are simply not going to vote to remove Obama from office.

Yet removal from office is not the aspiration of the GOP. The bigger target is Hillary Clinton and the forthcoming election of 2016. Right now, the GOP simply does not have anyone who can beat her. With that being the case, a strategy appears to be one of decimating the incumbent to ensure that a case for continuity cannot be made at the next election. In this, a leaf is being taken from the GOP playbook of the late 1990s.

Think the impeachment of Bill Clinton failed? Think again. Who won the presidency in 2000? Republicans dreamt of impeaching Clinton throughout his presidency, but recognised that if this were to succeed they would hand the presidency to Al Gore, recognised as being a weak campaigner, but whose stature and chance of electoral success would be greatly enhanced by the incumbency.

Despite their best efforts, perhaps, the GOP therefore arrived at their perfect scenario when its efforts to impeach President Clinton failed to remove him from office: A humbled and contrite chief executive remained in office, while his deputy and would-be successor found it impossible to campaign as his heir for moral and political reasons. It can safely be acknowledged, that the final vote in Clinton’s impeachment came not in the Senate Chamber in 1999, but in the Supreme Court in December 2000.

Such a play is underway once more, and again, Republican efforts in regard to President Obama do not need to succeed to be successful. The plan is simple: paralyse, neutralise and stigmatize.

Paralyse

There are 27 months until the next presidential election in November 2016.   These are vital times for the president to establish his legacy. If he can achieve a lasting peace in a key global region, or enact meaningful legislation this would go a long way to relieving the sense of disappointment with his time in office. By paralysing his remaining time in office, his political opponents seek to prevent such a reappraisal from being possible. Paralysis of the president’s political activities and timetable would deny him the opportunity to focus upon and implement legacy projects and ensure that his presidency is lamented in history books, rather than lionised.

Neutralise

President Obama my be a lame duck, constitutionally prohibited from seeking a third term in office, but that does not mean that the Republicans are guaranteed to win the White House in 2016. Indeed, their recent track record has been poor. Defeated in the elections of 2012 and 2008, narrowly securing victory in 2004, the benefactors of a highly contentious decision in 2000 having lost the popular vote and having lost in 1996 and 1992, the GOP national campaign strategy is in serious need of a new approach as its natural constituency gets older and whiter, as the nation gets younger and darker. The GOP cannot necessarily win by advancing policy, but it can neutralise any opponents, and the obvious target is Hillary Clinton. If the GOP can neutralise her candidacy by tying her to an administration and a president under legal review, either via impeachment or prosecution, the GOP may be able to secure victory by default, in a similar patter to 2000. All this before they need to raise the shadow of Benghazi, or whisper anything about the oft-reported continuing private antics of the former president.

stigmatize

Any legal process against Obama will form part of his presidential history. As was demonstrated in the 1990s, such initiatives need not succeed to be successful. The stigma of a presidency under legal review will prevent the Obama administration from pursuing a meaningful, place a democratic succession in jeopardy and further alienate the White House from local politicians in close races. All of which aids the GOP in its efforts to further undermine the Obama presidency both in the immediate and long-term, and in its efforts to secure electoral success in 2016.

Such initiatives are hardly the methods of governing that can be found in US Politics 101 classes or ones that anyone would necessarily want to be implemented to run a modern superpower. It is, however, the way of doing business in the 21st century. It is the inverse of Clausewitz’s famed remark about War being the continuation of politics by other means. As politics becomes the continuation of war by other means, there will be casualties on both sides; the risk, however, is that democracy itself becomes the ultimate victim.

JDB on Marco Rubio at Chatham House

Senator Marco Rubio spoke at Chatham House on December 3, firmly establishing the think tank as the destination of choice for visiting American politicians eager to establish an international reputation ahead of the 2016 presidential election. Following hot on the heels of former Secretary of State, former senator, former First Lady of the United States (and Arkansas for that matter) Hillary (sometimes Rodham) Clinton, the visit of Senator Rubio marks London as the new epicentre of an emerging International Primary, designed to raise their profiles ahead of Ohio and New Hampshire.

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In a 30-minute address, Senator Rubio provided a wide-ranging vision of the future direction that US foreign policy should take, addressing the Special Relationship and Washington’s dealings with a variety of nations, leaders and locations. In a solid, workman like address, Rubio discussed Iran, Russia, China, the UK and the development of EU-US trade ties. The defence and advocacy of Liberty was at the heart of the talk and was returned to time and again as Rubio threaded a narrative of US commitments and responsibilities through a series of locals, events, and personalities.

Rubio was steadfast in his positions in regard to Iran and Russia. As a member of the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he forecast that bi-partisan legislation would be presented as early as next week that would increase pressure on Iran, at the same time that the Obama administration is seeking a rapprochement with Tehran. Rubio remains convinced that Iran is merely using the discussions as a delaying tactic to enable it to achieve an enrichment capacity and that a nuclear empowered Iran would begin a regional arms race. Putin’s Russia also came in for heavy, repeated criticism, as the senator took issue with the manner in which it was seeking to use energy supplies to exert influence over Central and Eastern Europe, and the manner in which Ukraine was being weakened as a result.

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In response to a series of questions, coordinated with the usual grace by Chatham House Director Robin Niblett, Senator Rubio was adamant that while he believes in the concept of Medicare and Medicaid, the mandated spending programs as presently constructed are financially unsustainable. Addressing these issues, however, will require more than charm and youthful vigour, for they remain the third rail in American domestic politics. Rubio advocated the reductions in trade tariffs that would accompany the potential TTIP framework, while acknowledging that the US would struggle to accept much of the EU regulatory frameworks on international trade and commerce. Rubio declared that the United States needs a strong European Union but that it must respect the UK’s decision with regard to its continued membership.

Returning to foreign policy, Rubio was quick to dismiss talk of ‘hawks and doves’ as being an outdated division in the 21st century. He advocated the use of diplomacy, foreign aid and soft power in US foreign activities and stressed that for Americans, foreign policy was domestic policy. While stressing that he did not believe that the president was required to seek Congressional approval for a course of action, Rubio presented a concise explanation for his lack of support for Obama over Syria. As he had mentioned previously Rubio had sought US involvement for 2 years, during which he had advocated allying with moderate opposition forces that now appear to have dissipated; he opposed the limited engagement that the president had called for; and he found the plans lacking in direction. Worryingly, however, he made reference to ‘the forces of darkness and evil’, language that is all too reminiscent of a recent president whose lack of nuance was portrayed as mere naivety. This is one area where progress needs to be made in the coming months.

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This was then was a sold delivery, though not without the occasional misstep; a speech that was read, rather than delivered. It was a shopping list of ideas and aspirations, designed in part to tell an audience what they wanted to hear; a speech that quoted both Reagan and Thatcher and even made reference to One Direction.

Rubio was adamant that in a season of doubt, the United States remained vigilant and ready to lead. He noted the 6 decades of declinist talk and of the various world powers that had been predicted to assume the mantle of global leadership, all of whom had failed to rise to the occasion. With the revolution in US energy production and forecasts of its future as an energy exporter, Rubio was certain that the future was indeed a bright one.

As the son of Cuban immigrants, Rubio has a fascinating narrative and is well positioned to take full advantage of his heritage, youth, and position as senator for the key state of Florida heading into 2016. Accordingly, this visit was all about establishing international credibility and elevating the senator in the eyes of potential kingmakers in the GOP. Senior parliamentarians with whom he met were understood to have been impressed, although those who had not met with him were heard to mutter in the corridors of power ‘Isn’t he a bit of a nutter?’ Well, the simple answer is, no, he isn’t, and it is concerning that such a view was being aired so openly. Whilst the depth of the senator’s grasp of the issues was never tested, his breadth of knowledge and the span of the talk were more than sufficient.

Cuba was mentioned just once, clearly signalling that Rubio is seeking to position himself not as the Cuban candidate, but simply as a candidate who happens to be of Cuban extraction. He will, doubtless, reap an electoral windfall from the huge influx of Latino voters who are expected to form a huge voting bloc in 2016. One wonders in what capacity London will next welcome Marco Rubio to these shores?

CLICK HERE TO ACCESS MY INTERVIEW WITH VOICE OF RUSSIA ON THE SPEECH

 

Obama’s Power Play

This is just a short posting, as the UK Parliament is recalled to debate events in Syria.

Across the Pond, the President has a dilemma. He was elected as the apparent antidote to George W. Bush but has prevaricated in the face of slaughter in Syria for over a year. Now it appears that an air strike is imminent. So what has brought this about?

Here are a few choice quotes that may give us a clue:

‘American political leaders interpret society-wide silence as an indicator of public indifference…’ (xvii)

‘No U.S. president has ever made genocide prevention a priority, and no U.S. president has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence. It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on.’ (xxi)

‘Over the course of the last century, the United States has made modest progress in its responses to genocide. The persistence and proliferation of dissenters within the U.S. government and human rights advocates outside it have made a policy of silence in the face of genocide more difficult to sustain.’ (503)

‘ American leaders did not act because they did not want to.’ (508)

‘One mechanism for altering the calculus of U.S. leaders would be to make them publicly or professionally accountable for inaction.’ (510)

‘The United States should stop genocide for two reasons. The first and most compelling reason is moral. When innocent life is being taken on such a scale and the United States has the power to stop the killing at reasonable risk, it has a duty to act. It is this belief that motivates most of those who seek intervention.’ (512)

These are not the quotes of a wild-eyed outsider, but of the current US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, drawn from her Pulitzer Prize winning book, ‘Problem From Hell.’

Having recruited Power to the administration and promoted her at the start of his second term, how could Obama not be influenced by such thinking?

Having accepted a position in an administration, how could Power remain in post if the US did not act?

We shall see how both the president and his ambassador respond to the developing situation in the coming days…

George W. Bush’s Third Term Continues…

A year ago, at the height of a campaign for re-election, Barack Obama inadvertently crossed a line. Going off-message and beyond his own agreed upon boundaries, he muttered that chemical weapons use by Syria would represent ‘a red line’ which, if crossed, would result in ramifications.

Ever since, the administration has desperately sought to put that genie back in the bottle and has proved singularly unable to do so. For a president renowned for his rhetorical skills, Obama had once more demonstrated his lack of ability when it came to speaking off the cuff and perhaps revealed the lack of experience that many had raised when he first announced for the presidency after a little more than 2 years in the Senate.

Having made the statement, however, the White House has prevaricated on the issue ever since. Not wishing to get involved in a foreign deployment during the campaign, they hedged and weaved, even in the face of increasing atrocities. Holding statements were issued, as Press Secretary Jay Carney was forced to perform semantic somersaults to continue his justification of in-action in the face of international condemnation.

Even as late as Friday night the president appeared to stake out two positions in a single interview on CNN. Insisting that ‘core national interests’ of the United States were at stake in Syria, while failing to commit to an engagement that he believed could be ‘expensive, difficult and costly…’ (Note the double reference to the financial implications of any intervention?)

The US called for UN weapons inspectors to be granted access to a variety of sites, including the location of the most recent tragedy. After days of prevarication, the Assad regime yielded over the weekend, only for the UN team to come under sniper fire as they sought to investigate the situation.

Having been denied access to the sites for days, governments in Europe and the US downplayed the decision to grant access as being too little, too late. Before the inspector’s could conduct their work, therefore, their efforts were being sullied.

Sound familiar?

Clearly, this weekend, something appears to have changed in Washington.

Secretary of State Kerry has declared Syria’s use of chemical weapons to  be ‘undeniable’ despite the apparent lack of any new evidence and the total lack of time for the UN inspectors to have reported back anything of value. Kerry has spoken of ‘real and…compelling’ evidence that the Assad regime was committing ‘a moral obscenity’ that ‘should shock the conscience of the world.’ But where is the evidence of this?

Clearly deaths have occurred, but what new evidence does the White House have today that it lacked a year ago?  Kerry has announced that President Obama will shortly ‘be making an informed decision about how to respond to this indiscriminate use of chemical weapons.’ Yet it was apparent a year ago that such incidents were occurring, so what has changed?

If anything, public support has declined. Polls indicate 9% of Americans support intervention, a decline from a figure of 30% only recently. Indeed, a Syrian intervention is even less popular with voters than Congress, not an easy feat to achieve. There is no domestic constituent pushing for intervention and when was the last time you heard reference to a shadowy ‘Syrian Lobby’ on Capitol Hill?

What is at stake here is the Moral Authority of President Obama. Elected as the apparent antidote to George W. Bush, Obama has proven to be a profound disappointment to liberals who felt he would restore something that had been lost between 2001 and 2009: Moral Leadership.

However, as he expanded drone use, failed to close Gitmo, expanded the war in Afghanistan and failed to respond to atrocities in Syria, he appeared to many to be merely continuing Bus’s policies. His time in office had become, in some circles, Bush’s Third Term.

However, even now, in threatening to intervene, such a parallel continues: An American president using the use of WMD as a pretext for engaging in a Middle East nation, with little to no domestic support and without the approval of the UN Security Council is a scenario all too familiar for those with memories that extend back just ten short years.

George W. Bush found himself caught between Iraq and a hard place due to his own rhetoric. Barack Obama has backed himself into a corner with his red-line remarks. In both cases lives have been lost as a result. All too easily we forget the power of speech and the implications of action and inaction. What happens next in Syria, will reveal the true distinction between the current and the previous occupant of the Oval Office.

The U.S. National Interest and the Falkland Debate

This week has seen the wonder of democracy at work with a ballot held on the Falkland Islands in regard to their continued status as a British territory. You may have heard that they voted overwhelming in favour! Notwithstanding that a vote so heavily slanted in one direction would have raised eyebrows in any number of countries, the vote was a clear and unequivocal rejection of any entities from Argentina.

In the midst of the simmering row between London and Buenos Aires, however, a third party has been widely critiqued for its efforts to remain neutral: the United States of America. The White House reaction to the vote has been tepid at best and downright insulting to British interests, to say nothing of what it says about the state of the Special Relationship. Certainly Downing Street and the FCO will be extremely disappointed by the derisory reaction that emanates from a nation that has repeatedly placed democratic promotion at the heart of its foreign policy. Judging by the wording, however, this will have been written by a bureaucrat, not a political appointee at the State Department.

It is clear that some of this criticism can be dismissed as politically motivated nonsense by those seeking any reason to attack this particular White House as long as it is occupied by Barack Obama, who has proved to be a particularly ineffectual president in terms of foreign policy. Some criticism can also be dismissed as the typical carping of European anti-American intellectualism, happy to sleep easy under the military security that America provides, whilst spending every waking hour criticising the manner in which they do so. However, it is important to consider a third rationale: Ignorance about the manner in which nations adopt stances on the international stage coupled with a flawed appreciation of history and geography.

First up is the problem of the Monroe Doctrine that commits the United States to a defence of Western hemispheric powers against European colonial interference. It may be a little outdated, but it is still worth bearing in mind that a strict adherence to this document would place the United States squarely behind Argentinean claims to the islands.

Doubtless there will be those who put American neutrality down to apparent anti-colonial sentiment as personified by Obama, eager to pivot to the Pacific and opposed to the ‘evil’ British due to our history of imperial conquest. To those who think this is impacting the current situation, I say merely “Wake Up.” This is not how decisions are made at a national, strategic level. Neither is this a ‘Democratic’ problem, a fact revealed by an appreciation of history. Lest anyone think that things would be different with a Republican in the White House, consider what happened in 1982.

When diplomatic niceties broke down between London and Buenos Aires in the 1980s the Reagan Administration singularly failed to ride to the defence of the UK, leading to similar claims in regard to the status and relative importance of the Special Relationship. The president was adamant that the United States was intent on maintaining good relations with both the UK and Argentina, whilst his Ambassador to the United Nations, neo-conservative Jeanne Kirkpatrick was adamantly pro-Argentinean to the point that the British Ambassador referred to her as “more fool that fascist.” Reagan’s Secretary of State Al Haig was perceived to be pro-British, causing a public rift in the administration that ended only when President Reagan ordered Kirkpatrick to vote against her personal wishes in favour of the UK at the United Nations.

Eventually, the Americans came though and were instrumental in ensuring British military victory in the South Atlantic, providing state of the art missile technology, satellite feeds and, as revealed recently under the thirty year rule, offering to provide an aircraft carrier.

At this point in time the Obama Administration finds itself in the initial stages of a spat between two allies, just as Reagan did in the 1980s. Like Reagan, Obama will do his best to stay out of the situation and remain neutral hoping nothing serious develops. Only when push comes to shove will he break one way or the other. That is not unexpected; it is what nations do. Right now, it serves no American purpose to do otherwise. Nations act for one purpose and one purpose only, when it is in their National Interest. Right now, it is not in America’s National Interest to choose sides because it doesn’t need to. We in the UK might not like this, and it certainly doesn’t place Obama in a favourable light, but fence sitting is standard diplomatic practice.

The saving grace in this situation is that precedent is on the side of the British. The Americans prevaricated before, and they are doing so again. Now, as then, I expect that they will come to aid the UK if, and only if, it becomes necessary to do so. As Sir Winston Churchill, an ardent admirer of the United States and himself half-American, put it so well; “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing, once they have exhausted all other possibilities.”

Round One to Mitt..

Earlier this week I wrote for the Commentator, “In the coming days the world will witness whether Mitt Romney has what it takes to take on a sitting president and emerge unscathed. If he can do so, and land a punch or two, his odds for victory in November will improve considerably and motivate his legions of supporters. If he proves unable to do so, then it will finally be time for the obligatory Plump Female to begin her low, mournful torch song lamenting Romney’s beleaguered campaign.”

Well, the Fat Lady has been forced to postpone her outburst, at least for now.

After weeks of anticipation the 2012 presidential debate season began in earnest last night at the University of Denver. With both sides having sought to lower expectations to such a degree that an ability to walk and chew gum at the same time would be sufficient to declare one pleased with the result, the gloves finally came off as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney finally met on stage. It is an oft- forgotten fact that the two men at the centre of the election will only meet three times during the entire election process.

As the debate focused on domestic policy it was perhaps Mitt Romney’s best opportunity to take the fight to the incumbent. With unemployment standing stubbornly at around 8% and the national debt upwards of $16 trillion this was always going to be the one debate during which Obama may have been on the defensive. That being the case, however, few could have expected to what degree this would be the case. Not usually one to be seen as lacking in confidence, Obama appeared to be in something of a daze last night, as though he couldn’t decide which Obama to be.

Ahead in the polls and enjoying a post-convention bounce, Obama really just needed to keep calm and servive. Fundamentally he didn’t need to debate Mitt Romney. However, having been derided for his dependence on an autocue, the president’s inherent flaws were on display in front of an audience of millions. Alternating between a professorial approach that sought to lecture the American people, and an altogether more contrite and subdued performance, the impression was of a candidate uncertain of his place. One minute he was hectoring the anchor, (who, it must be said, did a poor job of moderating the event) the next he appeared servile and demure in the gaze of his opponent. He failed to raise flaws in the Romney manifesto, the issue of Romney’s apparent dismissal of 47% of the electorate or to rebut allegations made on stage. In short, the president was badly off his game.

For there can be no doubt that this was Mitt Romney’s night. Following an initial concern regarding the haltering tone of voice, Romney quickly found his stride, his tone and his message. This was an excellent performance that deliberately took the fight to the incumbent and made a valiant effort to reclaim the middle ground of American politics, where this election will be decided. Romney changed the dynamic of the race by throwing caution to the wind and chosing to take the battle to the president. He dominated the stage and the debate. By directly challenging Obama on the economy, on jobs, and on healthcare he left the president nowhere to run to and nowhere to hide.

This was not the Mitt Romney of the primary season that appeared on stage last night. This was the Mitt Romney that was Governor of Massachusetts, the Mitt Romney that introduced what became an early model for Obamacare. Conservative Republicans may not like this, but the Democratic leadership should fear it. If Romney can continue to stress the moderate message and bi-partisan track record of achievement, he may yet begin to chip away at the independent voters who will decide this election.

Debates usually favour the challenger and this has proven to be the case once again, but will Romney actually benefit? Races traditionally tighten in the last few weeks, a period we are now entering. It may be too late in the process to secure a Romney victory, especially as anything up to a third of all votes have already been cast. However, his efforts will enhance the pressure on the Obama team and increase the likelihood of mistakes. If the polls start to narrow in the coming days then Romney can take great credit for a commanding performance in Denver. This could position him well for the debate on foreign affairs, a topic the president is so eager to pivot to that he introduced it in his closing remarks.

Indeed, the closing remarks of the candidates were revealing in their own right. Obama, master of the autocue, forget to address the audience at home until the last seconds of his remarks, having focused his response directly to the moderator. As a result, he appeared distracted, unfocused and befuddled. Romney, in contrast, directed his remarks straight down the camera lens to the millions of voters whom he badly needed to connect with. He gave a direct and forthright statement and of the two candidates, was the only one to thank the voters for bothering to tune in.

It may all be too little, too late for Romney, but he appears determined to go down swinging. The odds and the polling still favour the incumbent. But as the American Ryder Cup team found out at this weekend, it ain’t over, until it’s over, and right now, this race is far from over. Indeed, last night’s debate may have blown it wide open for the first time!

The Joy of Debating (Presidential Style)

One of the joys in covering American presidential elections is the uniformity that belies the potential for chaos; there is a rigidity to the events and a fanatical attention to detail to ensure (on the surface at least) that nothing can go wrong, that events occur like clockwork and that ‘democracy’ can be celebrated from sea to shining sea.

Then the candidates get involved and it all gets far more interesting….

A classic example of this is the quadrennial holding of the great debates. Every four years   TV producers pull out stock footage of Kennedy and Nixon and hold the latest candidates up to this historical high-point in an attempt to offer ‘analysis’ and ‘insight.’ The debates form the dramatic highpoint of the election as the candidates appear together for the only time during the electoral process and seek to outdo one another.

Historically the debates have recorded astronomical viewing figures. But let us not fool ourselves into thinking that these 50 million viewers are switching on to learn anything new. These debates are not traditionally a forum for freethinking, or for wide-ranging answers or even interaction between the candidates. They have historically been a forum for the delivery of stock answers to what are often sycophantic questions. So why the high viewing figures? For the same reason that millions tune in to watch NASCAR or Grand Prix races, part of the reason is in the hope of witnessing carnage; a truly awful moment that will define the election and which people can claim to have witnessed live.

Such incidents have occurred before, but are generally rare and becoming rarer. As politicians have become more professional and less personal, they have generally performed ‘better,’ stayed ‘on message,’ and not fallen foul of dangerous ‘off the cuff’ remark making. Which has, of course, made the debates far less interesting.

Even when the odds look stacked in favour of a disaster, frantic preparation caused disappointment to the millions who tuned in to witness the expected car wreck of Sarah Palin’s 2008 debate with Joe Biden. Despite expectations, the general consensus was that she more than held her own, came across as engaging and, dare I say it, looked great in the camera cut away shot from the back of the stage…

In the fifty-two years since the televised debates began, there have been some remarkable turning points: The visual dynamism of JFK, Gerald Ford’s insistence that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, Mondale’s admission that he would raise taxes, Lloyd Bentsen’s withering put down to Dan Quayle and Clinton’s extraordinary use of the set to demonstrate his empathy with the audience.

Debates, therefore, are about far more than content. They are about conveying a feeling and a style that either attracts or repels voters. Gore’s condescension towards Bush in 2000 was palpable and reinforced the impression that Bush would be a far better drinking partner (although whether this is really the basis for electing a president is another matter).

The debates in this election cycle will be fascinating to observe. Irrespective of one’s own view of the candidates, both Obama and Romney are professional politicians. They are not leaving anything to chance and have both been practicing for months. Neither will really debate one another. Instead they will have stock answers, ready to be wheeled out in response to predictable questions. The degree to which the candidates can inject personality into what have been rather staid events,  will be revealing, for it will likely be on this topic that un-decideds will finally make their selection.

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