Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for August, 2012

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

McGill News, 8-31-12

The battle for the White House

Source: McGill News, 8-31-12

Questions & Answers

Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill and an expert on U.S. politics and the history of American presidential campaigns. Sylvain Comeau recently approached Professor Troy for his thoughts on the current race between Republican nominee Mitt Romney and U.S. president Barack Obama.

American politics seem to be polarized between right and left. Which side will “get out the vote” most effectively?

The biggest problem both candidates are facing, at the moment, is that neither of them has really excited the American people yet. When you compare Obama in 2012 to Obama in 2008, he’s not going to get the same kind of vote, the same passion and enthusiasm. As for Romney, he hasn’t shown an ability to stir the nation. I believe this will be a vote characterized by a little bit of exhaustion, and a sentiment that “we’d rather have him than the other guy.” My fear is that we won’t have a winner; we will have the one who doesn’t lose. And at this point in American history, I think the nation needs a winner.

So the election will be won by default?

The winner will be the one left standing. Obama should have increased his lead in the polls by now, but that hasn’t happened. On the other hand, Romney should have been able to [capitalize] on the current high levels of anxiety in the country. He hasn’t. So both of them are more distinguished by their weaknesses than by their strengths so far in this campaign. And that’s unfortunate.

Does the incumbent normally have some kind of built-in advantage?

In American politics, that is usually the case. Name recognition, a certain conservatism among voters, fund raising, infrastructure; all these are huge advantages. Also, in the last half-century, the only sitting presidents to lose the White House were the ones who faced very serious challenges in the primaries, before getting the nomination. This year, Obama got the nomination in a cakewalk, so historically, that means the odds are much more in his favour. On the other hand, the economic numbers are pretty weak.

How would you evaluate Obama’s first term?

It would not be controversial to say that it has been a disappointment. But that was inevitable, considering the incredibly high expectations surrounding him, and the set of problems he faced. It has been a very sobering first term. It’s interesting to note a certain convergence between the policy decisions of the Bush and Obama administrations. Bush responded to the initial housing crash and financial crisis by stimulating the economy by pouring in hundreds of billions of dollars. What did Obama do? The same thing. Bush locked away suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, a policy which Obama promised to eliminate; that never happened. The president who tracked down and eliminated Osama Bin Laden was not Bush, it was Obama. What do we learn from that? The world looks very different from outside the Oval Office, compared to inside. Outside the Oval Office, we emphasize the differences. But once in office, there is a lot of similarity [between administrations] when it comes to key government ideas.

Obama inherited many of his administration’s key economic challenges from the Bush administration; will that hamper his chances, or will the voters take that into account?

Obama’s narrative is that he inherited all these Republican problems. He applied Democrat solutions to them, the economy has improved, and we will have improved health care now. The Republican narrative is that those problems were the result of both party’s policies, going back to Reagan and then Clinton, and that we have to take a long term view in order to understand how this mess developed.

What role will health care play in this election?

The Democrats are coalescing around health care as a new American right, and that plays well for Obama. In order to win, Romney has to mobilize the Republican base against universal health care. He has to help them overcome their doubts about him, by making them realize that they need him in order to overturn the health care reforms.

Do you think the bullying incident involving Romney will come back to haunt him during the vote?

So far, Romney appears to be a Velcro candidate: all kinds of negative stories have stuck to him. He has allowed the Democrats to define him by these negative reports. He needs to reintroduce himself to the American public, and to focus on basic issues such as the economy and health care.

What about his “silver spoon” image, in which he is said to be responsible for layoffs at companies where he worked, and to favour tax policies that benefit the rich?

During a time of depression or recession, it is very difficult for a super-wealthy person to succeed in American politics. And yet, [Franklin Roosevelt] pulled it off. How did he do it? He was able to turn his aristocratic air into a jaunty, breezy self-confidence that transcended class barriers. He turned a negative into a positive, and that’s what Romney has to do. Romney has to make the case that his skill set in business is not about outsourcing and destroying American jobs; he has to show that they’re exactly the kind of skills needed to lead the country into a healthy 21st century economy.

Has Romney deliberately positioned himself as a far-right candidate? For example, he said that he would eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, and oppose gay marriages.

American candidates have a tendency to swing to the extremes of the right or left during the primary debates. Campaigns tend to bring candidates back to the centre, but Romney hasn’t really shown that ability yet. So his challenge will be: can he recalibrate and go back to the centre without appearing to be inauthentic? If he only plays to the right, he will not win.

How will his choice of Paul Ryan as vice presidential candidate change the campaign?

Ryan is an experienced congressman with a strong ideological record. This choice shows that Romney is not afraid to run with someone who is articulate, energetic and ideological. This was a bold way of defining the Republican ticket.

Was it a gamble, picking a running mate who is favouring big budget cuts for medicare, and is considered a fiscal hawk?

No matter who he picked, it was going to be someone who is more of a deficit hawk and more fiscally conservative than the Democrats — but picking someone like Ryan defines it very clearly. And I think Romney recognizes that Ryan is not afraid to fight and can articulate his vision — he won’t just sit there and absorb blows.

Romney could have made a “safer” choice. Did he feel that he had to do something, since he has been behind in the polls?

Yes, I think he needed to make a move that shows that this is not business as usual; that was equally important for the morale of the troops as it was for the campaign. This choice also means that the rest of the presidential race will focus on more substantive issues than where Obama was born or what Romney did to the family dog.

Do you think Obama’s handling of the financial crisis, including the unpopular bank bailouts and the ballooning deficits, will hinder his chances?

There is a gut feeling [among the American people] that not enough was done, and yet too much debt was taken on. Also, there is an impression that his decisions are too closely tied in with the philosophy of the Democratic Party, yet he dealt with the crisis in much the same way as Bush. So there are a lot of contradictory, mixed feelings when it comes to the financial crisis.

Do the Republicans face any challenges in this election associated with the fact that the last Republican president, George W. Bush, was not a popular figure when he left office?

I think Obama wants to cast Romney as Bush II — and even Republicans understand that the baggage from the Bush administration persists. Romney has to show — without disrespecting Bush, because some Americans still support the former president — that he is a true Republican, an effective Republican, a competent Republican, and that the Republicans have the answer.

Do you believe that any third-party candidates could dilute support for either of the main party candidates?

Six months ago, I could have speculated about all kinds of people. Today, it doesn’t look like any serious third party contenders are emerging. This is definitely the kind of election in which a third party candidate could have made some noise and possibly done some damage, but so far, that doesn’t seem to be the dynamic. On the Republican side, during the nomination process, the third party phenomenon played itself out. They gave a lot of room to a lot of voices, some of them quite extreme, and ultimately, those were defeated. On the Democratic side, the power of the Obama myth, and, frankly, his status as the first African-American president, means that it’s not viable for anyone on the far left to contend with him.

Since Reagan, every sitting president has presided over a ballooning deficit and national debt. Will that continue to colour both the campaigns and the terms of future presidents?

Reagan tried to start a conversation about deficits and limits, but even he failed. He only succeeded in limiting the growth of government. There has been an addiction to government spending and deficit spending, and no politician has had the power, the courage or the standing to really take on this problem. There have been government commissions and lots of good ideas are out there, but what it really take is leadership, and guts. It is a toxic mix of special interests trying to protect their turf, and politicians who are more concerned with the next election than with long term solutions.

Read Full Post »

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, HNN, 8-29-12


Mahalia Jackson, 1962. Credit: Library of Congress

On August 28, 1963, in front of a quarter of a million people massing at the Lincoln Memorial, a young 34-year-old orator felt a little intimidated, a little overwhelmed. Initially, he delivered a somewhat formal address from prepared notes. Suddenly, the singer Mahalia Jackson called out to Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Tell them about your dream Martin, Tell them about the dream!” Turning to oratory he had been perfecting for a decade, King delivered one of the great speeches of all time.

This week, Republicans are desperately in need of a modern-day Mahalia Jackson to liberate Mitt Romney. So far, Romney has failed to inspire many Americans with his life story. He often seems too stiff, too robotic on the campaign trail. Two things seem to be holding him back. First, he has a bit of the patrician George H.W. Bush in him. In 1988, when running for President, Bush was reluctant to get personal, go emotional, or even use the word “I.” His formidable 87-year-old mother, Dorothy Walker Bush, had taught him not to boast, not to focus on himself, not to be a peacock — and she was still watching him carefully. Eventually, Bush let loose — so much so that he ended up apologizing after the campaign, and after his victory, for being too aggressive.

A second factor reinforcing Romney’s personal and cultural restraint is his religion. Since entering public life, Romney has learned to be circumspect about his Mormonism. He understands that many evangelical Protestants have deep prejudices against Mormon theology. And while during his 2008 campaign he tried to echo John F. Kennedy’s famous Houston remarks about fighting religious bigotry, he has been too afraid of his skeptical base this time around to go there. But trying to explain the most interesting aspects about Romney, including his charitable initiatives and the lure of public service, without mentioning his Mormonism, is like discussing Barack Obama’s calling without mentioning his racial background or absent father.

Especially in American politics, culture counts. Biography counts. Words matter. We are a nation of story tellers and of rapt listeners. Hollywood — and American history — entrance hundreds of millions of people around the world with dramatic tales, inspiring moments, grand lives, compelling ideas. A presidential campaign is a forum for this kind of storytelling and wordsmithing. Americans want to be inspired. They want to know their leaders. They want to be swayed by a compelling narrative, a sweeping vision, and significant ideas. So far, Mitt Romney has failed to provide much of any of that to most Americans. So, when he accepts the Republican nomination for president, the call of history, the call of the people, will be an echo of Mahalia Jackson’s 1963 call to Martin Luther King, Jr.: despite your upbringing, your personality, your religious caution, “Tell them about yourself, Mitt. Tell them about yourself.”

Read Full Post »

Unconventional Wisdom

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, New York Times, 8-27-12

With fewer Americans interested in party conventions and television executives providing less prime time coverage, the calls to “just scrap ’em” are mounting.  This summer, CBS announced it preferred broadcasting a rerun of “Hawaii Five-0” to convention speeches, while Chris Wallace of Fox News toasted the good old days when “real business got done.”

Primary voters, not convention delegates, select the presidential nominees. The nominees announce their running mates before the conventions begin. Nearly everyone seems to agree: these party parleys risk irrelevance.

But the conventional wisdom about conventions is wrong. Conventions still count. They help define the candidates, frame the debate, command attention and inject some communal moments into an increasingly atomized political process.

Maintaining traditional rituals is an important, unappreciated element of the campaign as a whole, a key part of its legitimizing function. The way we mobilize citizens, build candidate credibility and reaffirm party identity in two parallel rituals — despite all the partisan enmity — helps explain America’s quicksilver shift from vicious campaigns to peaceful, often rapturous, inaugurations. These familiar political ceremonies broadcast a reassuring continuity and stability even as candidates promise change, and partisans warn of disaster if they lose.

Since the 1830s, these matching, deliciously democratic rites have shaped campaigns, enhancing the dialogue between candidates and voters. Until Andrew Jackson’s democratizing revolution, “King Caucus” reigned, as Congressional leaders picked party nominees secretly. The conventions reflected nineteenth-century Americans’ emergence as partisans and not just voters. Popular party politics became the first great American national pastime. Then as now, convention delegates were both mediators and validators, conveying messages to candidates from their constituents, while bathing the candidates in populist love with hoopla and huzzahs.

True, conventions were once kingmakers, selecting the party’s nominee, often to the people’s surprise — and occasionally to party elites’ chagrin.  Originally, delegates chosen by local party leaders convened in elaborately festooned halls, like the “Wigwam” in Chicago, where Abraham Lincoln was nominated by the Republican Party in 1860. Back then, nominations and even the basic character of the party were up for grabs, as local political bosses squabbled over the platform while choosing the party’s “standard bearers” – the campaign’s military metaphors announced the party’s commitment to mobilizing manpower while maintaining discipline.

More power-hungry than idea driven, the bosses were angling for “spoils” and protecting turf, not just advancing policy positions. And the defining convention cliché — when delegates from the “great state” of LouWHEEziana or CaliFOURRRnia or wherever else praised their home bases effusively — affirmed regional sensibilities while uniting an increasingly centralized polity.

Ticket to the 1928 Democratic National Convention, held in Houston, Texas.Library of CongressTicket to the 1928 Democratic National Convention, held in Houston, Texas.

Seeking a “balanced ticket” to reflect both parties’ traditional self-image as broad, umbrella coalitions, conventions often produced awkward shotgun marriages. The Republicans in 1904 paired the staid William McKinley with the bombastic Theodore Roosevelt. The Democrats in 1928 mismatched the Northern Catholic city slicker Governor Alfred E. Smith of New York with a “favorite son” candidate from Lonoke, Ark., Senator Joseph T. Robinson.

Divided and disputatious, conventions frequently deadlocked. In 1928, the Democrats took 103 ballots to nominate a candidate. Sometimes, the stalemates reflected the party’s fragmented politics, producing “dark horses” — unexpected, inoffensive compromise choices — such as the Democrat James Knox Polk in 1844 and the Republican James A. Garfield in 1880. Sometimes, great ideological divisions were at play. In 1852, the Whigs, splintering over slavery, nominated the antislavery General Winfield Scott on the 53rd ballot, even as the platform appeased Southerners by endorsing states rights. Antislavery Whigs supported their nominee while “spitting upon the platform” in Horace Greeley’s memorable phrase. Twelve years later, during the Civil War, when the nominee George McClellan reversed the pacifist Democratic convention’s priorities by saying “the Union is the one condition of peace,” vice presidential nominee George H. Pendleton was so furious that McClellan would not end the war unconditionally, he boycotted his running mate’s campaign events.

Originally, nominees rarely attended the conventions, and never addressed the delegates once chosen. Believing a candidate’s reluctance and passivity reflected his virtue and suitability, the party offered the nomination by mail, which the nominee accepted with a formal reply. In 1848, Zachary Taylor’s acceptance was delayed for weeks because the notification committee’s invitation, sent postage due, languished in the Dead Letter office. The thrifty Taylor only accepted letters with prepaid postage.

By 1852, Scott used a new invention — the telegraph — to accept immediately, becoming the first nominee to address a convention directly, albeit remotely. When the rival Democrats chose Franklin Pierce after 49 ballots, the notification committee’s visit to him created a tradition of sending a party delegation to make the offer in person.

Pierce kept quiet that day. The post-convention notification ceremony later grew into a spectacle, as large delegations representing the diverse party interests visited the nominee, who, increasingly, endorsed the party and the platform with a full speech. By 1892, the Democratic financier and strategist William C. Whitney rented out Madison Square Garden so that the ex-president Grover Cleveland, seeking a comeback, could accept in front of 20,000 people.  Democrats rejoiced that this ceremony “indicated that the candidates were in touch with the people.” Republicans mocked Cleveland as “Jumbo” the circus elephant playing Coney Island.

Even before they could be transmitted live, dramatic convention moments united Americans. After William Jennings Bryan’s electric “Cross of Gold” speech in 1896, the once-obscure 36-year-old Nebraska Congressman became a national celebrity.  From then on, his wife recalled, they lost their privacy: “The public had invaded our lives.”

In the twentieth century, the proliferation of primaries increasingly shifted the focus from the convention delegates to the people. Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to fly to Chicago and accept the nomination in person in 1932 was a twofer: it illustrated his vigor despite his polio and it signaled his readiness to offer a daring “New Deal.”  Functioning more as coronation ceremonies than anointments, conventions now climaxed with acceptance speeches. Especially with the televising of the conventions starting in 1948, the Republican and Democratic gatherings became more about what the candidate stood for than who the nominee would be.

In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt, trying to recapture the presidency, championed direct primaries to bypass the party bosses who opposed him. The major issue, Roosevelt said, is “the right of the people to rule.” While these primaries were “beauty contests” sporadically reflecting voter appeal, candidates began arriving at conventions with established national reputations and independent power bases.

These blows to the conventions — and party bosses — boosted democracy. The spread of Republican and Democratic primaries, especially after the party reforms of the 1960s, popularized the nomination process. The drama of conventions now stemmed from what politicians said and did rather than which presidential aspirant lost or won. The Democrats’ divisive, disruptive conventions in 1968 and 1972 helped elect Richard Nixon to the presidency, twice. In 1968, Hubert Humphrey could not recover from the generational conflict that erupted in riots between mostly Democratic working class Chicago cops and mostly Democratic radical student protestors. The botched convention helped him lose the presidency by a slim margin.

Four years later, the convention defined George McGovern as the candidate of “amnesty, abortion, and acid.” As one McGovern supporter put it later, “we should have had a coat-and-tie rule,” as many of the 50 million viewers at home saw too many long-haired hippies in tie-died T-shirts on the convention floor. McGovern became the first candidate since polling began to drop by two points rather than enjoy a “convention bump.”

In 1992, Pat Buchanan’s alienating, shrill call for “religious” and “cultural” war to “take back our country” taught Republicans the political dangers of convention extremism. By contrast, that year, Bill Clinton tapped into the convention’s contemporary power as a forum for communicating with the masses, strolling toward Madison Square Garden with his wife and daughter in tow, as part of an image makeover that helped him find his way.

Like the Olympics opening ceremony they always follow, these televised party carnivals forge party solidarity and launch the campaign, but they can still make or break candidacies. We could do without them because like the Olympics they are often overblown and self-important, but we would miss them (and we’d miss complaining about them too).

The conventions are part of the real action. Try explaining George Bush’s turnaround victory in 1988 without his convention call for a “kinder, gentler nation,” or George W. Bush’s surprisingly narrow 2004 victory without his joke that his “swagger” was merely considered walking in Texas, or Barack Obama’s entire career without his 2004 Democratic convention keynote speech proclaiming that “we worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the red states.”

Maintaining a democratic dialogue with 300 million citizens is hard. Using this traditional medium — resounding with history and the echoes of earlier speeches, incorporating the battles resolved and the triumphs achieved — roots the often stressful election in America’s proud and ongoing democratic heritage. The mirror image convention rituals of the seemingly hostile parties eloquently broadcast a message of commonality even amid the many policy differences.

Ultimately, these dueling conventions remind us that presidential campaigning is not just about choosing a winner, or debating the national future. It is also, like every good national ritual, about binding a community together through symbols and stories and reaffirming our joint past, common ties and shared fate.

Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University, is the editor, with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Fred Israel, of “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008,” fourth edition. His most recent book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism,” will be published this fall.

Read Full Post »

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, The Montreal Gazette, 8-8-12

Gil Troy, an American who is professor of history at McGill University, is the editor, with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Fred Israel, of History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008, fourth edition.

Gil Troy, an American who is professor of history at McGill University, is the editor, with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Fred Israel, of History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008, fourth edition.

Photograph by: unknown

With Americans reeling from the “Joker’s” movie massacre in Colorado and the Sikh temple slaughter in Wisconsin, the disconnect between what they are thinking about and what their presidential candidates are talking about has grown.

During this nasty nadir in the election cycle, the campaigns paused briefly as the nation grieved over the Colorado shootings. President Barack Obama visited Aurora and gave the nation the defining image of young Stephanie Davies pressing her fingers over her best friend Allie Young’s neck wound amid the gunfire, refusing Allie’s pleas to flee, saving Allie’s life.

After the Wisconsin murders, Obama said he was “deeply saddened,” while Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney joined in “mourning” the dead. But there was something missing in Obama’s and Romney’s remarks. Their words, while heartfelt, lacked the resonance of the greatest presidential responses to tragedy, which focused Americans on the particular loss, provided a renewed sense of purpose and blazed a trail toward transcendence from anguish.

Obama’s Allie-Stephanie tale did capture the extraordinary heroism of ordinary people that often emerges in such situations. It illustrated his message that what matters most is “how we choose to treat one another and how we love one another.” But nothing Obama said matched Abraham Lincoln’s characterization of the Civil War as “this mighty scourge of war” or Franklin Roosevelt’s description of the Pearl Harbor attack as “a day which will live in infamy.”

Lincoln and Roosevelt, among other presidential orators, understood they could not simply mourn. They had to motivate, they had to propel a huge, complicated and newly fragile country forward. Lincoln, at Gettysburg, spoke of “unfinished work” and “a new birth of freedom.” Roosevelt, who conjured the “warm courage of national unity” to fight the Great Depression, swore to avenge American deaths from Japanese treachery.

Finding a national purpose is hard enough; greatness comes from transcendence, soaring beyond the trauma. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address promised: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right.” Lyndon Johnson laced his eloquence after John Kennedy’s assassination with inspiring idealism, seeking to create an America where “the strong can be just in the use of strength, and the just can be strong in the defence of justice.” And Bill Clinton, after the Oklahoma City terrorist bombings, showed that great presidential oratory often fuses the national with the theological, saying: “Those who are lost now belong to God. Some day we will be with them. But until that happens, their legacy must be our lives.”

A shooting at a mall and even a loner attacking a temple cannot be compared proportionately with wars, presidential assassinations, or mass terrorist attacks. Individual crimes, no matter how heinous, are not national assaults. And following the hasty attempt to politicize the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz., in 2011, when many reporters and Democrats wrongly blamed another crazed gunman’s sins on the red-blue political divide, politicians need to tread cautiously. But since the two shootings, millions of Americans have been going beyond the individual stories to ask broader, deeper, more disturbing questions.

And instinctively, in this secular age of the media-magnified presidency, they look to America’s pastor-in-chief or pastor-in-chief-to-be to minister to their wounded souls and provide the kind of transforming sermon many of their parents and grandparents once received from preachers.

Just as Obama, in 2008, used the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy to address the country’s tortured history of race relations, Americans need a candidate this year to address America’s values crisis. Americans need a leader to push the conversation beyond the left-right divide. Character questions should not be political but they can be shaped constructively by wise politicians. With Wall Street exposed and Joe Paterno deposed, with the economy flagging and political credibility sagging, Americans want a conversation about culture and belief and values that does not degenerate into debates about gay marriage or abortion rights.

The common revulsion at the Colorado and Wisconsin crimes, along with many Americans’ growing fears that somehow these latest mass murderers from among us reflect something institutionally and ideologically broken, are building blocks for a national conversation. All Americans — all moderns — need “warm courage” to improve ourselves and our respective nations. Americans need a leader. And if done right, we will honour the victims.

Gil Troy, an American who is professor of history at McGill University, is the editor, with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Fred Israel, of History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008, fourth edition.

Read Full Post »