Romney or Obama: Does it really make any difference?

By J Brooks Spector 5 June 2012

Cynics say it doesn’t matter whether you vote Republican or Democrat; the US system is still the same. Whether left or right, the leaders of both parties are usually middle-class, protestant Christian males who went to the same colleges. Well, this time round it’s slightly different. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

Back in 1960, historian Arthur H Schlesinger Jr wrote a little pamphlet-sized book called Kennedy or Nixon – Does It Make Any Difference? Schlesinger was a noted historian at Harvard University (and the son of a still more highly regarded historian) and he became a top Kennedy aide, when JFK was elected.

Given his Democratic leanings and his obvious allegiance to the John F Kennedy candidacy, the point of his book would have seemed obvious: Democrat good; Republican bad. But in reality the true objective of Schlesinger’s quick bit of polemical literature was to convince the liberal left that Kennedy was actually a tough-minded closet liberal, despite his father’s cut-throat, machine-politics resumé and his brother’s strident, crusading anti-communism.

If he could help convince the left that Kennedy was the real deal and their man, the left wouldn’t sit out the election and fail to work hard for Kennedy’s election in key, closely contested states. Schlesinger’s real task was to convince the old left (the new left hadn’t actually been born yet) that Kennedy actually was the heir to Roosevelt’s New Deal traditions, rather than convince many putative Nixon supporters to switch their votes to JFK.

For many years it has been something of an article of faith with both the hard left and the libertarian right in America that it really doesn’t make any difference – Democrat or Republican. They all come from the same political elite cloth, they are ultimately working in the interests of a ruling class or some super-secret elite cabal, and those interests are ultimately determined by the hard truths of the economic substrata. Much of this derives from the Marxist critique of bourgeois society as well as the analyses of political scientist-sociologists like C Wright Mills, Vilfredo Pareto and Gaetano Mosca. There is always that knowing, cynical French observation, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” – the more things change, the more they stay the same. 

Besides the standard criticism of the moderate centrism of the left- and right-handed varieties that have been the hallmark of presidential administrations since Herbert Hoover’s term of office in the late 1920s and early 1930s, critics of the US political system point to the fact that most presidents have tended to come from the same social and economic class for the past two centuries. They’ve often gone to the same small cluster of universities – early on the College of William and Mary as with Virginia’s founding father presidents, and more recently Harvard, Yale, Columbia and the military service academies. Moreover, they have shared membership in the mainline or evangelical protestant religious denominations and some of them have even been related.

This time around, however,  at least some things seem rather different.  For the first time ever, the two presidential candidates derive from “out groups”, albeit via different pathways. 

In a well-known tale now known by virtually the whole world, Barack Obama is the bi-racial child of an African exchange student and a younger white American student from a brief marriage while this couple attended the University of Hawaii. Add to that his unusual upbringing in Indonesia and Hawaii, a year or so in Los Angeles and then on to New York City and then, finally, on to Harvard Law School for a thorough intellectual burnishing. Then there was his even more atypical career as a community organiser in a poor black neighbourhood in Chicago, before brief stops in the Illinois state legislature and the US Senate and two best-selling books, a pathway not frequently travelled by previous presidential candidates.

Mitt Romney, on the other hand, is the scion of a well-to-do family whose father was a successful executive in the auto industry, governor of the state of Michigan and an unsuccessful Republican candidate for the presidential nomination, back in 1968. As a practising Mormon, Romney spent his obligatory period of proselytising – in France. Educationally, he studied at Brigham Young University and then went on to law and MBA degrees from Harvard.

Upon his return to the US, he began a business career in venture capital/leveraged buyout activities, rescued the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics from imminent financial and organizational collapse, and was a successful moderate Republican governor of Massachusetts – one of the resolutely most Democratic states in the country. Along the way, Romney created a statewide healthcare reform plan that became the model for Obama’s own healthcare proposals – and then an anathema for Republican Party activists. Over the years, analysts and observers have debated whether Romney is fundamentally a conservative who took on a moderate-liberal mantle to gain support in Massachusetts, or if he is a closet liberal who has shrouded himself in conservative symbols to gain the support of those Republican primary voters.

According to friends and political allies, both men have interesting personal similarities. Both like process-driven decisions, iPads, ABC’s Modern Family TV sitcom, grilled spicy chicken, and Star Trek. Both are analytical introverts operating in a political landscape filled with extreme extroverts. Says former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, a Democrat who knew Romney when he was governor of Massachusetts: “Neither is the epitome of the backslapping pol. Both of them are almost shy, which is amazing in this business.”

By this time, a well worn-down cynical voter might be prepared to say they are both simply campaigners angling towards the same centre, where the bulk of the votes are usually said to reside. But a case can also be made that the two men bring starkly different perspectives to three key areas: international relations, national economic policy, and domestic social relations.

On international relations, the combination of Romney’s inexperience and the need to stake out definitive positions during those 18 brutal intra-party debates has put him on something of the defensive. Along the way he has labelled Russia as the US’s most challenging adversary; insisted that he would act tougher towards China on human rights, trade issues and the US dollar/yuan exchange rate; argued that he would put more pressure on Pakistan to bring fundamentalist insurgents to heel; follow the lead of the generals on withdrawals from Afghanistan; give much more support to the Israelis; and wouldn’t kowtow to foreign potentates.

In addition, he has argued that he would beef up the US military – despite severe pressures on the government’s budget and Romney’s predilections to cut taxes. Overall, he has sharply criticised  Obama for his presumed indecisiveness and that less-than-laudatory catchphrase “leading from behind”.

By contrast, Obama has built up considerable credit with the voting population in foreign affairs/international security issues since 2009. Essentially meeting his campaign promises to complete a withdrawal from Iraq and go well down that same road in a withdrawal from Afghanistan, these actions have met with wide voter approval. The demise of Osama bin Laden and some of his deputies has also been a sharp plus for Obama.

Similarly, he has been successfully managing an ongoing pivot of a greater weight of diplomatic and military heft towards the Western Pacific (away from Europe and the Middle East) as a stronger counterbalance to an ascendant China – all without thoroughly provoking China in the process. There is also at least a little bit of sunshine visible in the building of a relationship with the new regime in North Korea – although one never really knows for sure with Pyongyang.

On the other hand, Obama’s efforts in the Middle East have entered rough weather. The never-ending elusive goal of an Israeli/Palestinian settlement; the impasse over Iran’s nuclear programme (or the lack of it); how to respond to the growing civil war in Syria and to get Russia and China to participate in a settlement; and how to engage effectively with whatever government emerges in Egypt are all issues without answers – even as they have real possibilities for going badly for the US.

Moreover, Obama’s critics charge that a key campaign pledge – ending the incarceration of accused fundamentalist insurgents at the US base at Guantanamo – has been put on the back burner, even as the Obama administration has sharply increased the use of drone aircraft against human targets in Yemen and along the Afghan/Pakistan border. In addition, after a promising start, Obama’s push for new nuclear non-proliferation efforts, and an engagement with a new generation’s forces for change in the Middle East and Africa have received increasingly less attention.

If his foreign affairs record, on the whole, has received popular approval, the challenge for the Democrats is that voters’ attention is fixed on domestic economic issues, according to every poll. 

Meanwhile, on economics, the Romney message is to turn this election into a thumbs-down referendum on Obama’s economic stewardship (even as Democrats want the election to be a judgement that Romney is both too inexperienced and too doctrinaire to be trusted with the future of the republic). Put simply, Romney’s argument is that Obama may be a very nice man and kind to his children, but he simply doesn’t know how to create the conditions that create jobs – and that Romney does.

In this, however, Romney seems largely a creature of traditional Republican orthodoxy – cutting taxes frees up funds for the rich to invest, the market has the magic to determine where funds will be best utilised, and government regulation and dirigisme industrial policy is wasteful at best and an abject failure at worst.

One element of the Obama response is that, yes, Romney’s corporate experience taught him how to create profits, but that is definitely not the same as creating jobs or nurturing industries for the future. So far, various Obama surrogates have been arguing that sweating out inefficiencies in a leveraged buyout firm’s latest acquisition is a far cry from saving the national automotive sector in the midst of a national financial meltdown. 

In his 3 June column in the New York Times, Paul Krugman asked: “What should be done about the economy? Republicans claim to have the answer: slash spending and cut taxes. What they hope voters won’t notice is that that’s precisely the policy we’ve been following the past couple of years. Never mind the Democrat in the White House; for all practical purposes, this is already the economic policy of Republican dreams. So the Republican electoral strategy is, in effect, a gigantic con game: it depends on convincing voters that the bad economy is the result of big-spending policies that President Obama hasn’t followed (in large part because the GOP wouldn’t let him), and that our woes can be cured by pursuing more of the same policies that have already failed.”

Given the still-weak economy, Krugman’s answer is for Obama’s forces to take a leaf out of Harry Truman’s winning 1948 campaign. Since they will not – at this point – be able to deliver a convincing narrative of overall economic policy success, “Their best bet, surely, is to do a Harry Truman, to run against the ‘do-nothing’ Republican Congress that has, in reality, blocked proposals — for tax cuts as well as more spending — that would have made 2012 a much better year than it’s turning out to be.” Krugman concludes that the best arrow in the Democratic quiver is to hammer home the point that the country has “already seen the Republican economic future — and it doesn’t work.”

Finally, on social policy, Obama and the Democrats have been busy drawing a clear line that tries to connect Romney to the so-called “war on women” championed by Rick Santorum while he was still a candidate for the nomination, to counteract opposition to Obama’s support for gay rights and efforts by a wide swathe of Republicans to undo his administration’s healthcare reform plan. Since each of these issues connects closely to crucial voting groups supportive of Obama in the past, the strategy here is to build a winning coalition, bloc by bloc, until they achieve a critical mass of support by 6 November. That may be more “politics old style” than “the politics of hope”, but that is what a re-election campaign is about.

If this does not augur well for a campaign of soaring rhetoric and brave promises on the campaign trail via the stump speeches of the two candidates, it may well promise very interesting things for the debates that will almost inevitably be scheduled. If the voters are lucky and if the past is any guide, there will be three – one each on international affairs, national economic policy and government social programmes. 

On 3 June, Washington Post columnist E J Dionne argued for a constructive use of the remaining time in this year’s presidential campaign. Dionne wrote: “Can we at least reach consensus on the sort of debate between now and November that could help us solve some of our problems? I’ll let you in on the outcome in advance: Ideology quickly gets in the way of even this modest effort.” 

Answering his own challenge, Dionne calls for “defining goals everyone could rally around. We need to get the economy moving faster and bring unemployment down, an all-the-more-urgent imperative after last week’s disappointing jobs report. We want all Americans to share prosperity and to reverse the trend toward widening inequality. We want a sustainable budget where, in good times, revenue more or less matches expenditures. And we want an education system that prepares members of the next generation for productive and rewarding lives.”

If we get these debates, we should be rewarded with chances to watch two smart, intellectually agile men frame their best – but very different – cases for what must be done, and why their opponent is just the wrong man for a very tough job. If that happens, it should be worth the wait. DM

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Photo: Mitt Romney/Barack Obama (REUTERS)


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