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.

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.

Thoughts on the Final Debate

The final presidential debate of 2012 saw President Obama and Governor Romney met in a duel that was supposed to focus on foreign policy, but in which both men were content to return the emphasis onto domestic affairs. The debate was expected to favour Obama, with its emphasis on international affairs, and following his underwhelming performance in the first debate, the president has found himself having to make up a great deal of lost ground in an attempt to reverse a trend that has seen support ebb away in favour of his Republican rival.

Having been president for the past four years, Obama was clearly far more experienced in foreign policy heading into the debate and his tactic was to stress his credentials in this areas, to highlight Mitt Romney’s inexperience, and, if possible, suggest that his Republican challenger was little more than a warmonger, too eager to plunge the United States into costly and unnecessary foreign interventions.

The debate opened promisingly, with a direct, if rambling question on Libya and the security failings that led to the death of the US ambassador. Not without reason the president was on the defensive throughout the first third of the debate, as the attention remained focused upon a litany of topics that questioned his leadership over the past four years.

In such circumstances it is possible to discern the president’s ill-concealed ire at being so challenged. He would not be the first president to live in a bubble of Yes-Men, ill prepared to speak truth to power. Unlike most presidents, however, Obama doesn’t have the life experience to conceal his frustration when his opinion is brought into question. Rather than stress the challenges, promote the successes, and seek to present a coherent policy with which to address the coming years, Obama instead sought to demean his opponent and singularly failed to present a strategy for a second term. Governor Romney was forced to remind the president that personal attacks were no substitute for a plan of action.

The president, as expected, drew early and repeated distinctions between his four years of experience in dealing with foreign policy and Governor Romney’s lack of international dealings. There was nothing subtle about this approach and it was one in a series of touches that somehow made Obama appear small, defensive, and petty. He did not necessarily need to stress the fact that he had been president, presumably most viewers realised this. One of the most remarked upon moments came when the President rebuked Romney for lamenting the current size of the US navy, which he claimed was at its most sparse since World War One. The President launched a cutting and facetious attack, reminding the Governor that things had changed since 1918 and that no one used horses and bayonets anymore. Except, of course, that they do. The US has engaged in horseback riding in Afghanistan and only this summer a British soldier was honoured for his bravery in leading a bayonet charge against the Taliban forces.

And then, bizarrely for a debate intended to focus on foreign policy, conversation switched to domestic affairs, as the President sought to drag the focus away from issues such as Benghazi and the whole ‘maybe we are, maybe we aren’t’ negotiating with Iran debacle. In the midst of a foreign policy debate, Obama managed to introduce a discussion about the importance of teachers, causing the moderator to note, “I think we can all agree we love teachers.” No doubt a few union votes were shored up in this exchange.

A particularly telling moment arose when the President intoned that in his first term, too much time had been spent ‘nation building’ in other countries and not enough at home, something he planned to alter in a second term. This suggestion of a pivot to a domestic agenda in a second term is reminiscent of George H. W. Bush’s failed tactic in 1992. American presidents have traditionally gone on to be more, not less, internationalist in a second term as they seek to establish a legacy as a statesman. Obama’s suggestion, therefore, appears to replicate Bush snr.’s failed approach and runs counter to expectation and precedent.

Surprises on the night included the lack of real attention to events in Libya, on which Romney really should have skewered the president, and on the suggestion in the New York Times that the administration has been engaged in secret talks with Iran on nuclear weapons. That the president was able to get away with a simple denial of this story was remarkable, as it implies that either a) the New York Times made up a story, b) an administration official lied to the paper to plant a story 36 hours before the final presidential debate, or c) the White House is lying about a true story.

If Libya and Iran got away relatively lightly, the same cannot be said for China. The President again got in a few low blows about the Governor’s investments and apparent preference for outsourcing, but both were harsh on the rising world power. Obama quickly pivoted to address China in a question that sought to consider the gravest threat to US national security, whilst Romney insisted that the United States was already engaged in a secret trade war with China.

Over the course of 90 minutes the conversation turned heated, comical, and robust. It was never anything other than fascinating. Both men sought to portray themselves as being capable of leading the United States for the next four years. But neither man was without flaws. Obama had a weak start and was stronger once he could pivot conversation to the domestic linkages. Romney was not as strong on specifics and numbers (a failing of most challengers) but exuded confidence and, vitally, appeared the president’s equal in many regards, passing ‘the commander in chief,’ test. In their closing remarks both men addressed the American people directly. Obama appeared earnest, but his habit of waging his finger in the face of voters may not have gone down well.

Romney expressed his optimism and excitement about the years ahead. He has clearly been studying Ronald Reagan’s performances and is seeking to tap into the natural confidence that the Gipper expressed over thirty years ago. Vitally, he specifically asked Americans for their vote. Such details may be seen as lacking in importance, but in an election that appears increasingly likely to be decided by a few hundred thousand votes in Ohio, they could prove pivotal. Early polling appeared to give Obama an edge, but Romney was still standing at the end of the night as the president’s equal and clearly eager to take his argument to the country in the 13 days that remain until Election Day.

Obama’s Nuclear Game Changer

This evening’s breaking news, that the Obama Administration has been involved in secret negotiations with the Iranians over the possibility of face to face talks promises to be a vital event in the last weeks of the 2012 presidential election, coming so close to the final presidential debate, scheduled for Monday night.

The possibility of a fabled ‘October Surprise’ has loomed large ever since the president’s numbers began to tank following his poor first debate performance. Many of us have speculated privately and in public as to what form this may take. A mysterious countdown clock has recently appeared on the Internet promising a mysterious revelation.
Now, however, it has been revealed by the New York Times.

That indeed, should tell us something. The paper is hardly a friend to Republican candidates, and as one of the most reputable international newspapers, the story was guaranteed to make a splash heading into the Sunday news shows.

The news threatens to impact both the US election and the election in Israel, since Netanyahu will doubtless be unhappy with the concept of negotiations with a nation that has discussed removing Israel from the face of the Earth.

Of more immediate concern is the impact that this could have on the US presidential election. With Election Day drawing closer and Romney surging in the polls (including in Ohio) the release of this story must be suspect and raises once again the issue of national security leaks from the Obama White House.

How Romney chooses to react will be telling, and react he must, for the final debate focuses on foreign policy. According to the New York Times story, the Iranians have reservations about Romney. Could the Republicans suggest that it is fear of a GOP victory that has inspired this move? This is doubtless incorrect, but may be spun this way.

More likely, this is yet another move by Tehran to divide opinion and sew the seeds of doubt into potential adversaries. Put another way, Lucy has once more placed the ball in front of Charlie Brown. We know what happens next…

The move has dramatically raised the stakes, however, ensuring the Monday’s debate could be the most pivotal ever held since the live televised coverage began in 1960.

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.

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!