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.

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…

“The Next Vice-President of the United States…”

For those who are less than inspired by the current presidential election, I have good news; it will all be over in 6 months (well 8 if you include the wait until Inauguration Day)! The dynamics could not be more removed from those of 4 years ago. Barack Obama is far from the historic figure if ‘change’ that he positioned himself as in 2008. He has aged visibly in the role and is failing to stoke the passions as once he did. Unable to run on a platform of ‘change’ he has chosen the rather uninspired ‘Forward’ slogan, that has gone down like a lead balloon.

As a candidate he appears unwilling or unable to take credit for his 2 signature moments without them rebounding in his face: His health care reforms are being considered by the Supreme Court and could be rejected as being unconstitutional any day now, and his efforts to maximise the raid that killed bin Laden were scuttled by his inability to credit the work of those on the ground who actually carried out the raid. So all, in all, Obama is failing to cut an inspiring figure in US politics anymore. He may not be Jimmy Carter just yet, but the signs are worrying.

Facing the president is Mitt Romney. This was the governor of Massachusetts who introduced a health care system so similar to that endorsed by the White House that it was referred to as ‘Romney-care’ by his Republican critics in reference to ‘Obama-care’. This is a Republican that is acceptable in Massachusetts. He is also a Mormon, which causes suspicion amongst some and finally he is the very personification of an old school insider politician; a governor and a son of a governor. This is not exactly the candidate that the Tea Party were hoping for and it is their activism that held so much promise for a potential Republican victory this November.

If the top of the ticket is failing to generate any interest then all that leaves is the VP slot. Readers of The Commentator will no doubt be familiar with the HBO movie Game Change that aired recently and which did much to ridicule the Republican process in 2008 that resulted in the selection of Sarah Palin. Less well known is that the book this was drawn from was focused almost exclusively on the Obama-Hillary race with only a small section focused on the Republican VP process.

However, whilst the selection of Governor Palin provided career a high for Tina Fey and filled ample column inches around the world, the forgotten reality is that the Democratic choice didn’t work out too well either. The initial reaction to Obama’s choice of Joe Biden was hardly euphoric with many, myself included, asking how this choice demonstrated the much-vaunted ‘change’ that Obama had campaigned on. Here in the UK Biden was most known, if he was known at all, for plagiarizing material lifted from Neil Kinnock, aka ‘The Welsh Windbag’ and former Leader of the Labour Party who was routinely trounced by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s; Hardy a figure to want to be imitating in order to secure the White House.

Biden, it was argued, helped to balance the ticket. Well, ok, he was white and Obama was black, he was old and Obama was not. Was the implication also meant to be that Biden was experienced and Obama was not? That was a reasonable position to take from the comparison, though hardly a flattering one for the would-be president. Biden was from Delaware and Obama from Illinois, so hardly a great North/South divide. Delaware is also a tiny state with only 3 Electoral College votes, so he didn’t exactly bring much to the party on that score. Since the election Biden has hardly covered himself in glory, committing gaffe after gaffe.

If Obama is victorious in November, his power will begin to ebb away very quickly as thoughts turn to the 2016 race and who will replace him in the White House. Does anyone seriously expect that candidate to be Joe Biden? Of course not. Which brings me to my point: What purpose does it serve to retain Biden on the ticket? He no longer serves any purpose other than to distract attention from the president and to act the fool. He is after all, such a buffoon that even bid Laden recognised the potential value of having him in the Oval Office. So, if Biden no longer helps with the ‘lack of experience’ vote, or with the racial equation, his state brings virtually no Electoral College votes and he serves only as a hindrance, why retain him? There is simply no logical argument for his place on the Democratic ticket in 2012.

Obama needs a candidate who will be his Game Changer for 2012. A candidate to excite the base of the Democratic Party. A candidate who is ready to assume the presidency should the unthinkable happen to the Commander-in-Chief. A candidate with a track record of winning campaigns. A candidate who has demonstrated an ability to be a tough and loyal ally. A candidate whose home state would bring in a large number of Electoral College votes. And finally, a candidate that has a viable chance of winning the White House in 2016. There is no one in the Democratic Party that fits these criteria better than Hillary Clinton. She has denied any interest in the role, but selecting Hillary will also aid Obama in his depiction of the Republican ‘War on Women’ in 2012 and present the Republicans with a dilemma.

The dilemma for Romany is how best to counter a decision to place Hillary on the ticket. It can hardly of escaped anyone’s attention that the Republicans had a week field of candidates this year. The heavy hitters all stayed home, clearly anticipating a clear run against a non-incumbent in 21016. They will be ill at ease with the thought of joining a ticket that, if successful would keep them from the Oval Office for at least eight years, and which if it fails, could end any chance of such a situation arising altogether.

Romney desperately needs a Game Changer of how own, but if Obama selects Hillary then Romney could be accused of playing gender politics if he names a woman as his VP candidate. Not that there is a logical Republican female candidate who brings the same strengths to the ticket as Hillary does for the Democrats. Romney must do something altogether different therefore. His one sure-fire bet is to choose Marco Rubio from Florida. Rubio would excite the Republican base, engage the Latino vote, put Florida in play (remember 2000?) and certainly make a Republican victory more of a possibility than it is at present.

The challenge for Romney is not placing the call; it will be if that call is rejected. The risks are huge on both sides however.  If Rubio refuses and Romney loses, does it get blamed on the petulant self-serving one term senator who placed self ahead of nation and party? If Rubio accepts and Romney loses does Rubio get tagged as a loser, thus running his chances in 2016? If Romney wins, then does Rubio lose all of his appeal when he eventually gets to run, which could be as late as 2020?

This is a debate that has been rumbling for some time and must surely come to a head in the coming weeks. Not everyone agrees with this analysis, which is one thing that makes politics so fascinating. However, with the polls close, the stakes so high, the lead candidates so dull, the VP-stakes could not be more important in 2012.

Reflecting on Obama’s Gay Marriage Decision

In a recent article, Courting Bubba, I noted that former president Bill Clinton had been accused of racism for questioning the credibility of Obama’s 2008 campaign. This was particularly perplexing and wounding to Clinton whom in office had famously been referred to as America’s First Black President by Toni Morrison. Obviously, Bill Clinton was not an African American, but the point was that he was one of only a few Caucasian politicians who appeared to feel comfortable and capable of empathizing with a non-white audience.

This week Newsweek has referred to the supposedly post-racial Barack Obama as ‘American’s First Gay President.’ They even revealed alternate cover mocks ups in case anyone wondered how they arrived at the cover story. Clearly, Newsweek’s decision has much to do with its ongoing ratings war with Time Magazine and its somewhat more risqué attitude under new editor Tina Brown. The decision to do so has ensured that almost as much time has been spent dissecting Newsweek’s coverage of the story, than it has analysing Obama’s decision to support the idea of gay marriage in the first place.

Indeed the coverage of the announcement is a story all in itself and will doubtless be retold over and over as the media clearly loves nothing more than a tale that it essentially about themselves. Yet the media, its coverage of the story and its apparent usage by the White House remains central to the developing tale of President Obama’s statement endorsing the idea of gay marriage.

Recall that despite attempts to present a serene image of a tolerant, thoughtful president whose position had been evolving on this issue, this was not a planned or carefully thought-out decision. Instead, the President of the United States was playing catch up and being forced to address the situation following yet another gaffe by the vice president, the man even bid Laden did not want to target!

Once the vice president had given his support for gay marriage it was inevitable that the president would be required to go on the record in one form or another. The decision to come out and make an announcement appears to have been made quite literally as the president was heading out of the White House door en route to Albany. There then followed a mad scramble to identify an appropriate vehicle by which to make the announcement, with the White House finally settling on using Robin Roberts on ABC’s Good Morning America. The use of Roberts, an African American, was revealing and this must have been factored in when deciding who got the scoop.

With the announcement made, the media have jumped all over it, with ABC congratulating themselves for securing their place in broadcast history. In the week that Time Magazine made headlines for its cover on breastfeeding, Newsweek chose to place its coverage of the Obama story front and centre in what will doubtless be a cover for the ages. Interestingly, just as the White House made a conscious decision in the selection of Robin Roberts, so too did Newsweek in their selection of Andrew Sullivan to write the cover story.

With the media congratulating itself over its coverage of the story, what are the political ramifications? As noted above, this was not a well thought out announcement and whatever one’s views on the morality of the issue, the political timing is dreadful. It has clearly caught the country and Obama’s own party completely flat-footed.

Is there an up side? Well, by all accounts there was a great deal of money riding on this that Obama will presumably now be able to secure from the gay community. It has also (and completely unconnectedly, of course) played well in Hollywood. This combination was expected to generate anything up to $12 million in campaign funds in the immediate aftermath of the announcement.

It will be argued that this places Obama on ‘the right side of history,’ that gay marriage is an inevitability and that Obama is right to endorse it now, lest he get left behind on the issue and be forced to play an even bigger game of catch up later. Maybe. It will help with some elements of the Democratic base that view this as a matter of civil rights.

So…. the gay community, Hollywood and the Democratic base are pacified by this.

But where else were they going to go? Would they have ever voted for Mitt Romney? Which forces us to consider the downside to the announcement….

At present, polling indicates that this is a closer race than many (myself included) would have predicted. With the power of the incumbency, a divisive Republican primary season and millions of dollars in his campaign war chest, the expectation was that Obama would be far ahead in the polls.

That he is not is encouraging to Mitt Romney and problematic for the president, who must be wondering where he is going to garner the magical 270 Electoral College votes necessary to secure a second term in the White House. At a time of economic hardship, international turmoil and in the midst of an election cycle, the president’s announcement carries great political risk, with questions raised as to the necessity to address this issue now. Is it a national priority? Is it an issue that the president intends to campaign on? Is it an issue the president is prepared to lose an election over?

Vitally the White House is not proposing to legislate on the issue. The president maintains that this is a state issue and that the federal government will not become involved. He has, however, firmly pined his colours to the mast and will be praised and criticised in equal measure for doing so. His choice will doubtless please his base and appal his opponents. What will be of interest is which side it motivates most to get out and vote in November.

Mitt Romney has come out in opposition to the president’s announcement, which should surprise no one in particular. This alone should appease those who lament a lack of distinction between opposing candidates in an election.

However, elections may be based on issues, but they are won with numbers and right now the president’s numbers on this issue do not look good. Many states can be discounted in a presidential election. There will be those states that will inherently vote Democrat (New York, Massachusetts, etc) and those that inherently vote Republican (Indianapolis, North Dakota etc). However, it is in the all important swing states that the race will be decided; states that cannot be relied upon and where the difference between defeat and victory could be as little as a few hundred thousand votes. It is these votes that will decide the coming election and they do not appear to be in favour of the president’s stance on gay marriage. Seven of these states have provisions of one kind or another that restrict or ban gay marriage. Vitally, the majority of these were not enforced by mean spirited legislators, but were instead passed through ballot measures, which is a major problem for the president.

Same sex marriage is outlawed in Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Colorado and there are restrictions in Wisconsin and Nevada. Elsewhere in the Union, over 30 states have legislated against gay marriage. Planning a route to victory for Obama that does not include Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio or Florida becomes a mathematical challenge. In addition, Democrats are preparing to descend on Charlotte, North Carolina this summer for their nominating convention, the state that acted last week to ban gay marriage. This decision has led to calls to move the convention and to an online petition to boycott the state. As noted above, however, if Democrats are forced to gather only in states that have not passed similar legislation then they must avoid Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida.

Polls released in the aftermath of the president’s announcement indicate that Americans recognise that politics as usual is at play here. This brings the issue around full circle in regard to the lack of planning that was put into this announcement. For an administration to gain public support on a contentious, history making issue, it is necessary to build up a head of steam and to prepare the public for a shift in policy so that when it comes the voters have been prepared to receive it. This did not happen in this case.

The subject does not dominate national debate but has the potential to damage Obama in marginal constituencies. 67% of respondents in a New York Times/CBS poll believed that the announcement was made “mostly for political reasons.” “38 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage, while 24 percent favor civil unions short of formal marriage. Thirty-three percent oppose any form of legal recognition. When civil unions are eliminated as an option, opposition to same-sex marriage rises to 51 percent, compared with 42 percent support.”

At a time when the economy appears to be improving Obama has not aided his electoral chances with this announcement. The economy remains the number one issue for voters but the NYT/CBS poll indicates the decision could cause 26% of voters to be less inclined to vote for Obama.

It’s still the economy stupid, but Obama may have been advised to wait until he was safely re-elected before addressing this issue, which threatens to undermine his carefully constructed re-election plans.