Monday, November 05, 2012

Romney, Obama and the next four years

The American Constitution is a practical document, not holy writ as so many Americans might have you believe. It has its fair share of holes- as was most recently shown in 2000 when despite a popular victory of over a million votes, Vice President Al Gore was defeated by George W Bush in highly controversial circumstances. However in its practical way is sets a regular round of elections, with the election date being the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

The 2012 election is thus due on Tuesday 6th November. It is an election in many states for the Senate, and in all states for the House of Representatives, on the ballot are innumerable state offices, from to sheriff to comptroller, to district attorney. Of course this is a leap year, and as a result the top of the ballot is reserved for the election of the President and Vice President of the United States- the two most senior officials of the Republic.

OK, so its an important election, and it is also a close one... if you believe the opinion polls. Certainly the incumbent President, Barack Obama, has not had an easy time convincing the American people that he deserves re-election. Nevertheless in the past week he has received some surprising endorsements: from The Economist and the Financial Times, which as part of the European fan club for Obama might not be all that surprising, but also Mike Bloomberg, the nominally Republican Mayor of New York City- an endorsement that came when Mr. Bloomberg was firmly in the public spotlight, dealing with the impact of tropical storm Sandy on the Big Apple.
In some ways, the choice is extraordinarily narrow- the choice between two Harvard Educated Lawyers. That, of course is not what Europeans think: the European support for Obama is massive. Indeed even Conservative politicians have been downright rude to the Republican challenger- even though the opinion polls have shown him within touching distance of the White House. More to the point President Obama, with his "pivot to Asia" and his continuing reset on relations with Russia is hardly the most pro-European president. Romney has gone out of his way to make positive overtures to the Europeans, he even speaks French, which the Republican party is as close to an admission of being political unsound as they will allow. Yet Europeans seem either blind to his blandishments, or indeed are openly contemptuous. Why is this?

Many point out Romney's own rather privileged background- and the fact that he has made himself hugely rich. However, in the United States, the fact that Mr. Romney created a business like Bain Capital puts him in something of the same light as Sir Richard Branson in the UK- an unabashed, can-do entrepreneur. Then, of course, there is the issue of the positions that Mr. Romney adopted in order to gain the nomination. There is no doubt that he espoused positions which, even within the US may be seen as pretty right-wing. Yet in fact since securing the nomination, he has rather tacked back to the centre on several issues, albeit that he chose the strongest fiscal hawk in the House- Paul Ryan- to be his running mate. More to the point, there is the matter of Mr. Romney's record as governor of Massachusetts, where he demonstrated a pragmatic and centrist streak in his administration that both speaks well of him as an administrator and also suggests that he would indeed be a very effective President of the United States. 

To my mind the issue that has remained unspoken- on both sides of the Atlantic- is the matter of Romney's Mormonism. There remains deep suspicion of the Latter Day Saints as some kind of cult, and although I would say that the LDS are no worse than most other millenarian Protestant sects- and better than many. Nonetheless if Romney was not a Morman, I think he would be firmly ahead in the race.

However, the fact is that if we believe the numbers coming out of Nate Silver, Mr. Obama seems set to secure a second term. Yet after having regained office, Mr. Obama may find that the difficult ride he had in his first term will be as nothing to the problems of his second. Even if we assume that he is indeed returned, the fact is that the Congress will remain fractious, with little wish to bridge the partisan chasm that has opened up across the aisle, Congress is finding it ever more difficult to complete the role that it is given under the constitution. As another "fiscal cliff" looms, the fundamental gap between the Republican tax cutters and the Democrats who refuse to cut spending is leading the most powerful country on the Planet to perdition. Without compromise- now a dirty word in American politics- the relationship between the Administration and the Legislature will grow ever more dysfunctional.

Then, of course there are the multifarious international challenges which will face the West  over the course of the next few years. The threat of Iran may be receding just a little, but the slightest mistake could lead to open warfare in the Persian Gulf. Russia remains resentful of its diminished status, and all to eager to challenge the West in Syria, or any other place where it retains the capacity to meddle. Above it all, there remains the growing challenge of China. For it is not just the United States that is changing its leadership this week- so too is the People's Republic, and it may yet be that the most deeply conservative factions of the Communist Party have been able to retain their influence and thus derail the prospect of a more liberal and open society emerging in the Middle Kingdom. In the end, that might be a more significant turning point than the turning of yet another page in the US constitutional calender.   

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