The Two Turning Points in the 2012 Presidential Election

When the 2012 presidential election is analysed retrospectively, I believe that 2 events will prove decisive. First were the debates. All too often they have been dull, lifeless affairs. This year, however, we witnessed real excitement, high drama and three debates that greatly helped shape the course of the race in its final weeks. The first debate was a clear victory for Mitt Romney, the second a tie and the third… well as with all these things, it is possible to take from an event what you bring to it. Opinion was divided, but my calculation was that even if Obama won on points, he failed to land a knockout blow, and on foreign policy this was telling.

Obama’s performances away from an autocue have alternated between petulance and perfunctory. His attempts at humour have backfired and his efforts to assert his stance as president have oftentimes appeared to be condescending. Throughout the debates he sought – and on two out of three occasions secured – the support of the moderator. Obama’s dithering over the Benghazi tragedy did little to inspire confidence. His inability to present a comprehensive strategy for the next four years, in over fours hours of debates, was equally troubling. The president’s performances in these debates raised questions as to the real nature of his abilities. Four years ago, many hailed his arrival on the political scene as a breath of fresh air. Here, it was proclaimed, was a new type of politician who could get things done, reposition America and initiate a new era in U.S. politics. Four years later, much has occurred to diminish this reputation. In retrospect it is clear, as it was to many at the time, that almost any Democrat was going to win the presidency in 2008. Arguably, Obama’s great victory came not in November 2008, but in the previous summer when he secured the nomination.

In recent weeks I have considered the presidential debates for The Commentator and for Sky News. I have sought to present a considered perspective on the events and to highlight that even when the debates could be considered a tie, this itself could be considered a triumph for Romney, due to Obama’s inability to derail the Republican’s remarkable last gasp surge. This has caused my vision and sanity to be called into question by those who felt that Obama’s performance was superior and sufficient to restore his lead in the polls. I have been referred to as a Theatre Critic for focusing upon the candidates’ performance in the debate and less on specific policy details.

So, what was the impact of the debates on the polls? Gallup had Romney up by 6 points nationally, 51 to 45 percent. This has been compounded by a Real Clear Politics prediction that placed Romney ahead in the Electoral College for the first time in the contest by 206 to 201 with less than two weeks to go and ahead in Florida, Colorado, and North Carolina. With the polls swinging in Romney’s favour, the only question appeared to be whether there was enough time before the election for the momentum to carry him to victory in the key swing states he needs to win.

This was not yet a done deal, but the world was blissfully unaware how close Obama appeared at this stage to becoming a one-term president. This possibility was woefully under-reported in the press and it was revealing how many highly respected political scientist, historians, and supposed experts are openly dismissive of the possibility of a Romney presidency, putting aside their professional training to discount the slightest possibility that Obama could lose.

And then Sandy hit the Eastern Seaboard. Usually when political scientists and pollsters consider the implications of the weather on voter turnout in elections, they do so with rainstorms in Ohio in mind, not the risk that the entire Eastern Seaboard of the United States might be reduced to rubble by a storm, the like of which is hard to imagine. There was little doubt that heading into the final week of the campaign, Mitt Romney was in the ascendancy. His debate performances had been solid and he had continued to build upon the momentum he developed from the first debate in Denver. Discussion and analysis of the vice presidential candidates, or of the final debate suddenly seem a long time ago.

The Obama campaign appeared desperate to get as many supporters to the polls as early as possible, lest they be convinced by Romney’s hopeful message in the final days of the campaign. Even the President himself voted early, in an historic first. The White House’s nightmare, of a continuing Romney surge, peaking on Election Day, appeared to be a distinct possibility.

Whist is it still a little early to be certain, it appears to be a distinct possibility that Barack Obama will owe his re-election to the mayhem and chaos that has been delivered upon the Eastern Seaboard, and on the millions of Americans who lives have just been blown apart. In times of crisis it is to the President of the United States that the people turn. Not to his challengers, or to the Speaker of the House. The eyes of the nation and indeed the world have been fixed on Barack Obama, and in the past 48 hours he has been seen to rise to the occasion.

When Republican Governor Chris Christie (until not to long ago, a serious candidate as Republican VP) is seen greeting the President warmly and praising his efforts to assist in the recovery operation, it is difficult not to sympathise with the Romney team. With power out in many key districts, one wonders if the election results could easily be called into question on Election Night. They have come so far, closed an almost insurmountable gap in voter intent, only, it appears, to be undone, quite literally, by an Act of God.

Presidential Leadership: Consistency Required

True leadership involves assuming responsibility in bad times as well as in good. As President Kennedy noted in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs, widely seen as being a ‘perfect failure’ in US foreign policy, “success has a thousand fathers but defeat is an orphan.” Despite the abject failure of the initiative he had inherited from Eisenhower and Nixon, Kennedy refused to allow anyone else assume to responsibility, telling the American public that he was categorically responsible for the failings.

Kennedy’s performance should be required for all aspiring politicians. Having made an error of judgement his timely public statement on the issue and refusal to blame others for his errors won him the support of the American electorate and his approval ratings actually increased. (“It’s like Eisenhower,” he quipped, “the worse I do the more popular I am!”

Not all American presidents are so smart. Despite his public adulation for the late president, Bill Clinton appeared not to have learnt this vital lesson when his Attorney General, Janet Reno, assumed public responsibility for the Waco fiasco. In a cabinet dominated by men, it was America’s first female Attorney General who appeared the most courageous by assuming responsibility. In contrast, Bill Clinton’s dithering on the issues appeared timid at best, and did little to inspire confidence in his leadership early in his presidency.

Some twenty years later, another Clinton finds themselves at the centre of a similar storm. For several days, speculation has mounted that President Obama was seeking to allocate blame for the Benghazi tragedy firmly at the door of the State Department. The Internet has been awash with observations as to how Hillary Clinton would react to being thrown ‘under the bus.’ The popularly held belief was that she wouldn’t stand for it. However, in the hours leading up to the second presidential election, Hillary took one for the team and declared that she was responsible.

This is an admirable, though shortsighted effort on her behalf. It demonstrates a very admirable ability to assume responsibility and be seen as a team player, which of course, many have questioned in her determination and drive to become the first female president. However, it may backfire in ways that could damage both her own presidential ambitions as well as those of her boss, Barack Obama.

By taking responsibility Hillary has placed herself squarely in the firing line for the administration’s critics and ensures that if she runs in 2016 this could come back to haunt her. More immediately, her announcement, which must surely have been signed off by the White House presents the president in a poor light. In his eagerness to allocate blame ahead of his debate with Mitt Romney, Obama has ensured that he will now be covering behind Hillary Clinton’s pantsuit, hardly an inspiring sight in a would-be Commander In Chief.

The move actually increased the pressure on the president going into this week’s debate. If he had responded to Romney’s attacks on the Benghazi tragedy by blaming Hillary, he would have appeared weak. However, when asked directly who refused the extra security in Libya, Obama’s answer was retrospective and failed to address the specific question. Instead, he asserted his responsibility, which completely contradicted the statement issued by the Secretary of State. When asked directly if the buck stopped with Hillary Clinton, Obama again insisted, “she works for me, I’m the president and I’m always responsible.” In doing so President Obama merely continued the process of sending mixed signals and further muddy the water’s of responsibility on the issue.

The president needs to take a look at the lessons from the Bay of Pigs and assert unambiguous leadership, not leave questions of responsibility to be pondered in time of national tragedy.

Can Romney Win? It’s Debatable…

A little over a week ago President Obama appeared to be cruising towards re-election without a care in the world. Victory in the debate and the election seemed a formality. Now that has all changed. Uncertainty is everywhere and the race is well and truly back on. A poor performance for Romney last week would have been enough to seal the deal for an Obama victory. Instead, the president is on the ropes and Romney is surging. It may still be too late, but Obama has given himself an un-necessarily difficult final three weeks of the campaign.

With less than a month until Election Day, Mitt Romney had the debate of his life on precisely the same night that the president simply failed to show up. In fact, it may have been better for him if he actually hadn’t shown up at all. Instead he took to the stage, in what Al Gore reminds us is the thin, icy atmosphere of Denver, and gave a lacklustre performance that must have had Hillary Clinton wondering why he could not have been so bad 4 years ago.

The campaign to besmirch Governor Romney’s clear victory has made the Obama team look all the more desperate. Desperation may turn to despair when they finish analysing the latest data from the Pew Centre that gives Romney a clear lead. Even discounting national polling and focusing on the 5-6 key swing states, Romney has picked up dramatically. This may be part of what could be called a ‘dead cat bounce’ but I’m not so sure. The debates appeared to allow the American people what some on the right feel was their first, untainted view of Romney, removed from the spin associated with TV coverage. I think there is more to it, and that blaming the liberal bias (which is undoubtedly true) is a little too easy and actually diminishes what a great performance Romney turned in last week.

Before we begin to throw soil on Obama’s political corpse, however, let us not forget that Ronald Reagan had a poor first debate in his bid for re-election in 1984. He tuned that perception around with one great line in his second debate and never looked back. It has historically been the case that the first debate attracts most viewers. Put another way, millions who watched the debate last week will have decided on the basis of that performance who to vote for and won’t be tuning on to see if the president can perform miracles in the next two events. It is open to debate as to how many Americans will be willing to give this president a second chance, or whether he can pull off a Reagan-esque retort. His record on off-the-cuff remarks is not good. Indeed, if the debate last week revealed anything, it is the president’s dependence on the mighty auto-cue. 12 years ago Al Gore was forced to consider his demeanour, having been too hot in the first debate and too cold in the second. It cost him dearly. The same may well now be true for Barack Obama.

In a single evening, Mitt Romney has busted this race wide open. Now he needs to keep the pedal down and ruthlessly exploit his performance by once again taking the battle to Obama on foreign policy. Where once this would have been a potentially insurmountable problem, now, opportunity beckons to portray a stark contrast between a potential Romney presidency and what would occur under a second term Obama Administration. Romney began that process during a speech on foreign affairs in Virginia this week. With the upcoming debate he has the opportunity and the motive to continue his drive to chip away at Obama’s credibility on this key policy area.

Last week’s debate was focused on domestic affairs and as such it is possible that it will be Romney’s high point. From here on in, the debates could prove more difficult as the forum changes to a more relaxed style and the focus shifts to foreign affairs. Yet even in this case, perceived wisdom could be about to get turned on its head.

Until several weeks ago an argument emerged that unusually the Democrats were running as the party of national security (with Obama claiming responsibility for killing bin Laden) and the Republicans were running on a financially responsible ticket (having nominated Paul Ryan, along with his calls for fiscal responsibility).

However, having been demolished on domestic affairs, events are now even conspiring to shred Obama’s claim of foreign policy prowess. The facts emerging from Benghazi portray a disengaged president, asleep at the wheel as his ambassador perished and America’s consulate burned. All of the possible plaudits that Obama earned in the strike that killed bin Laden may well become nullified by the events in Libya. The House Oversight Committee hearings into the security failings in Benghazi are the last thing the president wants to deal with in the dying days of this campaign and could prove catastrophic to his claims of foreign policy credibility.

Last week Romney dominated the stage and brought his argument down to a series of succinct points. This apparently, is the true Mitt Romney style. He must do the same in the next debate on foreign policy and present a strong and credible alternative based on solid foreign and domestic polices if he is to prevail in November.