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Archive for October 26th, 2012

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, The Globe & Mail, 10-26-12

(REUTERS)

The 2012 U.S. presidential debates did what debates are supposed to do: They shook up the election campaign in the best kind of way, forcing voters to reconcile the image of the candidates’ negative campaigning with the more direct impression they had from watching the candidates themselves.

While this, too, is an artifice – the days when people imagined television as an X-ray of the soul are long gone – it was a welcome corrective. It’s far better for a vote to be determined by direct impression than through media hearsay or a rival’s hostile caricatures.

Along the way, American voters gained at least four key insights into their presidential contenders. First, both are honourable, decent, talented and smart men – fast on their feet, extraordinarily poised, able to master the difficult task of sounding intelligent yet intelligible, staying reasonably consistent, and covering a dizzying array of topics, in a fast-paced, high-pressure format where millions are scrutinizing you when you speak, when your rival speaks, and long after the debate, too. From a human perspective, the three debates are brutal, relentless, stomach-churning – and both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama handled those challenges quite deftly.

We also learned where each goes when flustered or the pressure gets a little unmanageable. Mr. Romney goes to blusterville, speaking a little too quickly, letting his sentences lose their linearity and discipline, as one phrase circles into the next and words collide uncomfortably and randomly. Mr. Obama goes to peevishland, his voice sounds higher, his demeanour looks grimmer, his body language becomes tighter. At their worst, Mr. Romney risks looking too flummoxed or clueless, the chastened preppy seeking his footing in a newly hostile world; Mr. Obama risks looking too angry or arrogant, the Mr. Perfect Golden Boy unused to being corrected or confronted by others.

Substantively, the debates uncovered many similarities between the two that are only surprising to partisans who believe their respective party’s propaganda that the two have mutually exclusive visions for America. Especially in the final foreign policy debate: Americans discovered that both mistrust Iran, worry about the Syrian mess, are wary of China, support Israel, want to end the Afghan war, and hope to see the Arab Spring produce democracy. In the 1940s, Republicans and Democrats preached that partisanship should not go beyond the water’s edge. While neither candidate in 2012 was quite ready to launch a bipartisan foreign policy, each could have stolen many of the other’s lines, with Mr. Romney rhapsodizing about peace and Mr. Obama hanging tough.

Still, the drama in the debates came from the clashes, and they were substantive, not just stylistic. Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney disagree about some crucial fundamentals. Mr. Obama believes government can help Americans, Mr. Romney believes it often burdens them. Mr. Obama says his stimulus package and other measures righted the ship of state and America’s economy, Mr. Romney fears the growing Obama deficit will sink Americans. Mr. Obama celebrates his health-care legislation, Mr. Romney doubts it. Mr. Romney celebrates his tax-cut promises and job-creation plans, Mr. Obama doubts them. These differences will make for different presidencies, even as we know that Mr. Obama also believes in free enterprise, and Mr. Romney also acknowledges government’s important role in American life.

Ultimately, serious issues remain unaddressed. It’s unfortunate that this campaign has lacked substantive discussion about the growing polarization in politics and the corrupting role of money in the campaign. Each side caricatures the other as guilty without taking any responsibility for also perpetuating the problem. And while abortion gets lots of play, even though it’s a constitutional issue for the Supreme Court, both candidates and the debate moderators ignored other issues that the President could try addressing, such as the epidemics of family breakdown, of violence in the schools, of collapsing social structures, of the perpetually alienated, of the temporarily demoralized. The U.S. faces serious domestic challenges that go beyond taxes and health care; neglect will only exacerbate them.

In every presidential campaign, Americans assess the present and invest in the future, using history as their guide. In this campaign, Mr. Obama has been running against himself, haunted by the ghost – and hopes – of 2008 – that the complicated realities of his presidency have not been able to match. Mr. Romney has been haunted by the ghost – and successes – of Ronald Reagan, unable, so far, to measure up to the governor who unseated a Democratic incumbent during times of economic difficulty by displaying great charm and moderating his once harsh conservative image.

The debates gave both Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama opportunities to shine. And once a winner emerges, the great American myth-making machine will kick in, and magnify some moments from the victor’s debates into the stuff of legend.

Gil Troy, a history professor at McGill University, is the author, most recently, of Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama.

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Oxford University Press Blog, 10-26-12

Although he last ran for office nearly 30 years ago, and died eight years ago, Ronald Reagan remains a surprisingly strong presence on today’s campaign trail. It is not just the multiple times Republican candidates’ invoked his name during the primary debates. It is not just that Americans are still debating Reagan’s cry to shrink the federal government. It is not just that Barack Obama has said he wants to be as transformational a president as Reagan was and Mitt Romney says he wants to follow the Reagan playbook – or that Newsweek has a cover story renaming the President “Barack Reagan.” It is also that each of the two candidates is trying to replicate a Reagan electoral feat.

Mitt Romney is trying to conjure up the spirit of 1980. During those days of economic trauma, low morale, and national angst, a remote, gaffe-prone Republican candidate – who even believed that trees caused more air pollution than cars – was stuck in a tight race against an unpopular, cerebral opponent whose rocky first term belied the euphoria his quick ascent to the Oval Office had generated four years earlier.  Ronald Reagan sealed his victory over Jimmy Carter with an effective debate performance, including his avuncular dismissal of Carter’s attacks with the kiss-off line “There you go again.” After the debate, the Gallup Poll recorded its largest candidate jump in the polls since polling began, approximately ten points in Reagan’s favor. On Election Day, Reagan defied the expectations, and silenced the scoffers.

Obama is hoping that 2012 will be more like 1984 than 1980. That year, an embattled incumbent whose party suffered serious electoral setbacks two years earlier, and had struggled to jumpstart the economy, won reelection with a triumphal campaign over a weak opponent. Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” campaign not only won Reagan four more years, it shaped the legend of Ronald Reagan, the president who brought peace, patriotism, and prosperity back to America.

Of course, history, like a winning army, only marches forward, and, as in sports, there are no do-overs. The two candidates can learn from Reagan’s successes – but they also should learn from Reagan’s failures. Reagan pretended that his 1981 win was a mandate for change, when it was basically an anti-incumbent, ABC election – with Americans choosing Anybody But Carter. And in 1984, Reagan scored more of a personal victory than a party victory; his Olympic pride and apple pie campaign had been so vague that he retained power but had trouble governing.

Whoever wins in 2012 will need broad support to lead. While running to win this fall, both candidates need to think about the day after, about how to unite the country and move forward. Such considerations should keep the campaign more constructive and more centrist than it has been, given that the President has to lead all the people. And the President needs a vision. Otherwise, he will echo the famous movie, “The Candidate.” In that 1972 movie, Robert Redford plays a longshot candidate who wins a tough Senate race. The movie ends with the famous tagline “What do we do now?”

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal, and a Visiting Scholar affiliated with the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. He is the author of The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2009), Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism (OUP, 2012), and co-editor of Living in the Eighties (OUP, 2010). Follow @GilTroy on Twitter.

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