With a major contender for the American presidency ostentatiously parading his anti-Russian, anti-Chinese, pro-Israel, anti-Palestine, anti-Iran, anti-immigration foreign affairs platform while asserting that Mormonism is main-line Christianity and accusing the incumbent president, Barack Obama, of being surrounded by “Marxist advisers” who wish to make the United States of America a socialist country like Canada and the United Kingdom, it is hardly surprising that the Indian media has not taken Republican Mitt Romney very seriously. And even less his running mate, the conservative Catholic Paul Ryan with his extreme private-sector capitalist theories. This happens to be the most radical right-wing Republican platform since Barry Goldwater in the 1960s.
And yet, Romney and President Barack Obama are neck and neck in the polls and an ABC News/Washington Post survey when the Democratic convention started revealed Obama with the lowest pre-convention favourability factor for an incumbent president since the 1980s. But Romney is doing no better; at this stage, no previous Republican candidate has had his negative personal ratings. He has no great appeal for the young and a perceived lack of warmth and fellow-feeling. These weaknesses have caused strenuous efforts to be made by spin-doctors to ‘humanize’ him by diminishing the emphasis on his wealth and robot-like remoteness.
Romney’s task has been to unify an ideologically divided Republican Party. In the process, he has travelled the whole spectrum from liberal Republicanism to hard-core conservatism in a few short years in order to appease the far Right and attain nomination as the presidential candidate. As the Massachusetts governor, Romney had described himself as “progressive”, defending a woman’s right to choose abortion, backing full equality for gay and lesbian people, supporting a ban on assault weapons, a version of healthcare, a tolerant position on undocumented immigration, and efforts to control climate change and close corporate taxation loopholes. This was a successful strategy, and through it, he managed to get himself elected as governor in the most Democratically inclined state in the US. The same man now pushes for a ban on abortion and same-sex marriage, for minimal gun control and the repeal of Obama’s healthcare legislation, proposes action against illegal immigration, opposes attempts to curb climate change, and advocates a massive corporate tax cut when the effective tax rate is already among the lowest in the developed world and the country is plagued by deficit financing.
Romney’s attitude towards illegal immigrants, requiring up to 11 million Latin-Americans to “self-deport”, has no appeal for Hispanic voters and contrasts with Obama’s commitment to immigration reforms. And when it comes to women, Obama leads Romney by six to eight points, although Romney as the governor of Massachusetts appointed more women to high office than any other governor in the country. The Romney-Ryan campaign would ban abortion in all cases including rape, and Ryan has backed bills making a distinction between “forcible” rape and other less serious kinds. Not even the efforts of the wholesome Ann Romney could gloss over this kind of misogyny.
Normally, aspirants to political office move to the middle ground in order to attract support from both left and right. In Romney’s case, he has been pulled to the outer extreme, and has moved the Republican Party well to the Right. The result is that only a tiny fraction of Hispanics vote for the Republicans, and just 2 per cent of the recent Republican convention was black. Although Condoleezza Rice was there and loudly cheered, black support for Romney is almost non-existent. And the names of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were scarcely given a mention at the convention.
Only a few voters are undecided in a polarized US, and both Romney and Obama are addressing themselves to a narrow band of the electorate in the eight ‘swing states’: Florida, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia and Wisconsin, in which neither candidate has the edge. Wisconsin being the home state of Paul Ryan, he may incline it towards the Republican Party. What matters is not the largest percentage of voters, but securing 270 of the 538 votes in the electoral college.
Romney has been cautious not to attack Obama personally, since he knows that the president still finds favour with many swing voters; his harshest line was to claim that the president’s supporters’ “best feeling was the day you voted for him”. He blames Obama for not delivering on his promises, for starry-eyed global idealism instead of caring for the American public, and above all, for not curing the economy when 13 million Americans are jobless and the national debt has risen by $5 trillion. Romney has concentrated on trying to capture the public mood of insecurity and pervasive pessimism, and his reasoning that only hard-working private businessmen can fix the economy has found some resonance among independent voters.
Romney’s approach to the spiralling national debt is to all but terminate the government’s discretionary powers of domestic funding on infrastructure and clean energy, to slash taxes across the board, especially those affecting the very rich, to increase defence expenditure and cut entitlements for the younger generation. According to the Congress budget office, a Paul Ryan-inspired budget would balance the books in something like 30 years. Romney should have established a decent lead over Obama in a ‘bounce’ after the Republican convention but he did not, possibly owing to the fact that the convention speeches were almost devoid of policy substance. Nevertheless, Romney’s campaign treasure chest is getting ever stronger, including money pouring in from non-traditional sources. Obama easily out-spent the Republicans under John McCain in 2008, but he will be the underdog this time in negative media manipulation.
Obama’s campaign is dogged by disillusion and lack of enthusiasm from the young who supported him so avidly last time. Romney’s Republican agenda in some ways lets the president off the hook as to why he failed to deliver on Wall Street reform and a strong healthcare bill. He can now run as a moderate populist, although the dire state of the economy and unemployment could still render him a one-term president. The media are largely unsympathetic, and David Maraniss’s biography, Edward Klein’s The Amateur: Barack Obama in the White House, Dinesh D’Souza’s The Roots of Obama’s Rage, and the new film, 2016: Obama’s America, have all caused him damage. Furthermore, everyone is aware that given the legislative gridlock in Congress, even if Obama wins, he will be nothing but a lame-duck president since the Democrats will not fare well in elections to the Senate and the House during an Obama second term.
Obama is a crafty campaigner, and he refrained from lofty rhetoric in the Democratic convention. There was the promise of new economic goals but little on the detail. In terms of policy issues, he remains more plausible than Romney for the thinking electorate, but his main task is to keep his core support intact, playing on the resistance on the part of large sections of the public to draconian cuts in healthcare entitlements for the old and poor, and even greater scepticism about tax benefits for the wealthy and the corporate sector.
It is hard to see either candidate winning in a landslide, and there will be no knock-out blow; this is going to be a victory teased out using all possible tactics, both above and below board. Given the holding pattern over the past several months in the figures polled by the two contestants, a great deal will depend on the impact of the ensuing television debates on the undecided voters. And there is the unpredictable factor of a crisis abroad, such as an airstrike on Iran’s presumed nuclear capabilities by Romney’s close friend, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Such an action would upset everyone’s calculations.