US presidential election 2012: A dystopian history

By J Brooks Spector 21 July 2011

A copy of NYTimes Sunday magazine, dated 27 January 2013, slipped through the crack in the time-space continuum, and landed right in our hands. After the initial shock, we've decided to share it with Daily Maverick readers. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

27 January 2013, WASHINGTON, DC – Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney was inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States, precisely at midday, 20 January, as the Constitution decrees, in front of the Capitol Building. The colourful, traditional inauguration parade was a dramatic counterpoint to the sea of handmade signs and other displays in support of Tea Party icons like Sarah Palin and Ron Paul in a crowd that US Park Police estimated to be more than half a million people.

This number was lower than the enormous gathering four years earlier to welcome Barack Obama, but it was still well within historical trends. A police spokesman added that the enormous snowfall the night before, and the frigid temperatures during 20 January, probably had a hand in keeping the numbers down by the time of the ceremony.

In a bid for a touch of bipartisanship and collective national purpose, President Romney’s inaugural address reached back to the words and ideas of a Democratic president who had also come from Massachusetts, when the new president told the nation and the world:

“Fifty-two years ago today, at this very moment on the clock and in front of this very same building, an energetic, vigorous man, representing a new hopeful generation, spoke to the inner thoughts of his countrymen and women as he asked them to bear any burden in defence of liberty. That new president spoke for a new sense of national purpose when he said: ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, rather, ask what you can do for your country.’

“While we must be strong in a still-dangerous world, now we have a vital new challenge. But, this time, your government will not be telling you what to do, or how to do it. Instead, our most important task, now, is to step back so that our great people’s creativity can be unleashed for a new explosion – not of war – but of growth, prosperity and opportunity.”

The new president’s words, however, did not completely smooth over the divisions within the his party that had been obvious during the entire primary season and then on into the party’s unusually raucous nominating convention. Throughout the early part of 2012 and then on into the spring of that year, Mitt Romney and – surprisingly – Michele Bachmann had divided up the votes from the caucuses and primaries, Romney winning in New Hampshire, Bachmann taking Iowa and South Carolina, while the big state races were split down the middle. Others like Ron Paul, Jon Huntsman and Tim Pawlenty picked up some delegates, but by no means did they ever have enough to rival either frontrunner in total delegate strength.

Despite his nearly nonstop campaigning since 2008, analysts pointed to Romney’s difficulties in corralling a majority of the delegates throughout the spring and summer. This was due, at least in part, to continuing suspicions by about 20% of American voters that believers in the Mormon faith were members of some sort of exotic cult, rather than being real Christians. But it was Romney’s straightforward statement, “I am an American. I’m not a Baptist, I’m not a Catholic, I’m neither Jew nor gentile. Instead, just like all of you, I am an American who believes in the future of my country, the love of my family and the faith in my God,” in his widely broadcast speech at Ground Zero that helped clinch a bond with many voters.

In fact, the heartfelt responses to Romney’s declaration echoed John Kennedy’s own famous speech in West Virginia in 1960 that confronted fears that a Catholic president would follow the dictates of the pope, or Barack Obama’s powerful Philadelphia speech in 2008 on race that, as the first black president, he would be an American president part of whose heritage was African-American and who understood the tangled racial history of the nation.

In one amazing moment, Romney’s success as candidate for the nomination became certain when a conclave of mainstream Christian clergy joined together for breakfast with the candidate, just as the Republican convention was beginning. They came out into the sunlit morning to applaud Romney as a truly religious man with deeply felt personal values. With that, he swept the delegates heretofore committed to the minor candidates, and a stampede of Bachmann delegates added to the rush to Romney when he broke the rules and came into the convention site a day ahead of schedule to announce he would eagerly embrace Michele Bachmann as his running mate.

More sombre columnists like David Brooks and EJ Dionne, seeing these events, argued in their columns during the convention that this was simply the latest example of Romney’s switching deeply felt political beliefs in exchange for a tactical political victory, but the convention seemed to feel in its collective bones that it had the winning ticket. And so it did.

Despite some grumbling by diehard Tea Party supporters that a better compromise candidate between Romney and Bachmann would be someone like congressman Eric Cantor or Texas Governor Rick Perry, Romney’s acceptance speech – a rhetorical tour d’force – somehow bridged the gap between old-line Republicanism and the new social and economic conservatives on all the key issues. He hammered home the need to cut taxes still further, and, most importantly, that “the Republican job one” was to turf Barack Obama out of the White House and send him back to wherever he had come from. Moreover, his embrace of Bachmann on national television, in tandem with strong speeches by Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and sentimental favourite Sarah Palin ultimately stilled any brewing Tea Party rebellion.

Romney’s campaign against Barack Obama was simplicity in itself. The campaign button – a basic 9% with a circle around it and a diagonal line through it – needed no further explanation. It reminded everyone that Obama’s first-term record was high unemployment and economic stagnation. In the end, Obama’s defeat came because of the continuing downturn in a few crucial states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Indiana as well as Bachmann’s pulling power in Minnesota and Iowa.

Internationally, in the wake of the violent unrest round two of the Arab Spring in Morocco, Jordan and even Saudi Arabia, as well as the fact that the summer Greek debt default had roiled international financial markets so much; ultimately editorial opinion moved sharply neutral – even The New York Times. As part of the Republican presidential win, the party held control of the House of Representatives by an even larger margin and managed to gain a 50 – 50 split in the Senate, in large part because so many Democratic senators chose not to contest their seats, fearing inevitable defeat. This split meant they now effectively controlled both executive and legislative branches of the national government.

After much agony, that paper, along with the Los Angeles Times, the St Louis Post-Dispatch and the Philadelphia Inquirer jointly decided that 2012 was each voters’ equivalent of a parliamentary “free vote” and those papers ran an unprecedented joint editorial. True, the Times had had a severe dispute with Romney’s choice of a running mate (they had, after all, called her “crazed” in an editorial just before the New York primary over some of her more outrageous beliefs and loudly expressed their concerns over Bachmann’s crippling migraines), but the continued dithering in the Democratic administration over how to respond to the Greek default that had shaken the European Central Bank and was threatening to split up the eurozone, that continuing unrest in the Arab world, and a series of worrying trade disputes with China – including some unexpected US treasury bond sales – finally made the Times’ editorial board throw up its collective hands over Obama. Ultimately, the election wasn’t close and a chastened Barack Obama vowed to devote his energies in support of innovative solutions to world poverty.

Of course, the inauguration ceremonies gathered many of the globe’s national leaders and some of them provided a great stock of material for the press. The new British Prime Minister Ed Miliband (who took over from David Cameron after the Liberal Democrats defected from the coalition government following additional revelations around the Murdoch scandal came to light and as some 50 Conservative MPs refused to support their disgraced PM) turned more than a few heads.

Meanwhile, Jacob Zuma brought along two wives rather than upset his newest bride by leaving her at home and Swaziland’s King Mswati brought along four of his – and they all decamped for some light shopping in Manhattan as soon as the inaugural balls were over. Both of those delegations gave international TV anchors a chance to chuckle and provided colourful video and photo moments as well. But, no question about it, the new French President Dominique Strauss-Kahn, was the real head-turner at President Romney’s inauguration.

But the political honeymoon inside the victorious party has already started to fade. The Republicans’ internal bickering had become the stuff of articles on Politico and Talking Point Memo even before Mitt Romney’s inauguration from November to January.

Key squabbles were how Romney’s cabinet would be apportioned among the wings of the Republican Party, even though they had been united for the presidential election campaign. How much could or would the Tea Party supporters claim as their due for helping win the election became the recurring headline for weeks before Romney’s cabinet choices were finally announced.

The first battles were already shaping up: Control of the state, defence and treasury departments became ideological tests of the party’s loyalty towards cutting the overseas operations budget, holding the line on new tax measures and cutting “bloated” defence spending attached to overseas deployments. With Rick Perry as secretary of defence, Jon Huntsman in charge at state and Mitch Daniels at treasury, Romney had experienced hands in charge, but the Tea Party wing wanted its share in policy choices, if they couldn’t get someone like Ron Paul into the cabinet. And so, for example, the battle over state department funds became much more than just a budget exercise to shrink the costs of running embassies overseas in the new fiscal year.

The party leadership, the administration and congress all agreed on a deeply symbolic cut of 50% in foreign aid (except that directed towards Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia). Most of the appropriation for Pepfar was finally spared, but only after George W Bush made an unprecedented, personal plea to leading Republican congressmen on the budget subcommittees that dealt with such expenditures. Pepfar was the Bush administration’s signature legacy, besides wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he was determined to salvage it.

Meanwhile, the agreed-upon defence cuts were already forcing planners to lower projected troop levels in Afghanistan, even beyond their recent decline, as well as set out some sharp cuts in base operations in Japan, South Korea and in Nato commitments in Europe. Left untouched for the immediate future was the size of the navy. Republican leaders – even the Tea Party types – finally acknowledged the need to maintain a balance of forces to stand against a growing Chinese blue-water navy.

While the Republican neo-conservatives were locked out of most administration positions, from their retreats in the think tanks all over Washington, they kept up a sotto voce drumbeat of concern about the impact of a too-rapid, too-deep withdrawal from long-time US commitments abroad. But, budget cuts were king this time around and foreign embassy analysts were kept very busy trying to figure out how the Romney administration’s changes would affect them.

The battle over taxes was even more difficult. Nearly every congressman still had a favourite tax break plus personally supported budget earmarks for special expenditures to keep constituents and supporters happy, regardless of their generic championing of the need to cut all unnecessary spending and finding “waste, fraud and mismanagement”. But keeping all these special arrangements also meant finding another way to accomplish the newly enacted balanced budget rule the Republicans had passed on the very first day of the new congress, just after they repealed (and Romney signed into law) the hated “Obamacare” measure.

In the end, to square the circle, Congress set up a special commission to rewrite the country’s entire tax code – and they added Social Security and Medicare reform and funding into the mix as well. To give a fig leaf to this particular statue, every Republican congressman and woman signed a pledge to enact the study commission’s recommendations without fail. Republican congressman Eric Cantor, one of the leading budget hawks, promised to ensure the whole thing would pass by Christmas, sending the New York Stock Exchange, and all the rest of them as well, to a sudden drop of 18% of total value in just one day’s trading. Not happy, that.

Another major disappointment to the brand-new Romney administration came the other day when leaked unemployment figures from the department of labour showed that the level had moved back up over 9% in January and several major banks announced still stricter rules on home and personal loans, driving home prices down even further than their already depressed levels. Moreover, a joint study issued by a coalition of major economic think tanks pointed to the unlikelihood any mix of tax incentives or regulatory changes would encourage a major wave of new investment in manufacturing any time soon, since so much of the country’s industrial base was now priced out of competitiveness against China or India.

Further, in the absence of federal incentives in support of new energy technology and green technologies to compete with Chinese, Korean and Taiwanese production, the US would be forced to buy much of this technology from the Asian Pacific Basin nations. None of this was good news for the new president as his economic advisors said they were studying the report closely to determine options.

On the other hand, there was a bit of good news. Sort of. A report by a study group tracking immigration trends announced that job prospects in America were now sufficiently difficult that Latin American immigration had begun to dry up and even reverse in a few areas. Arizonans looking for nannies and gardeners were upset, but the resulting change in immigration helped tamp down new pressure for even stricter border controls.

Influential economics columnist Paul Krugman had written in his article coinciding with the inauguration how little wiggle room the incoming Romney administration really had in making effective budgetary and policy changes, given the fact that some 85% of federal spending was locked in already and that so many of the Romney ideas about tax initiatives and regulatory change would only make a difference – if at all – in about a half a decade or so. The White House then left him off the guest list for its first economic roundtable scheduled for 1 February. In response, Krugman wrote in his next column to tell the world what he would have told Romney and his advisors in private, had he been at the table, instead of looking in through the window.

One could well wonder if Romney might already be thinking late into the night that it had all sounded so much neater, and so much easier, on the campaign trail than it was turning out to be practice when the buck really did stop with him. The easy slogans were already melting away in the face of budgetary torments. Maybe he was now thinking he needed a couple of confidantes he could turn to, to chew the fat, no holds barred, while they sat in front of a roaring fire, sipping nice hot, late night cups of whatever he was drinking.

And so it was that in her first column after the inauguration, Maureen Dowd reminded her readers that it was Harry Truman who once told journalists that anyone in Washington who really wanted a friend they could trust needed to buy a dog. But, of course, President Romney couldn’t follow that option. After all, his family vacation trip in the 1980s with their pet spaniel strapped to the roof of their car was legendary. The American Kennel Club and the SPCA had been among the few national associations that ended up endorsing Obama in 2012’s re-election bid instead of Romney’s campaign, she noted dryly.


And then I awoke and realised with a great shiver of horror that the entire American presidential campaign had yet to happen. There are still hundreds of speeches to listen to, position papers to parse, polls to deconstruct, millions of words yet to be written and thousands of hours of TV talking heads to watch who will analyse what has happened, what will happen and what should have happened. But, if you can take it, if you are of stout heart and steady mind, don’t touch that mouse, we’ll be right here for you, every step of the way, right to the very end. Let’s hope it will not be as dystopian as this story suggests. DM

For more, try this inventory of alternative histories:

Photo: Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks to an audience at the 38th annual Conservative Political Action Conference meeting at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, February 11, 2011. The CPAC is a project of the American Conservative Union Foundation. REUTERS/Larry Downing.


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