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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, The Globe and Mail, 9-20-12

(L) Mitt Romney pictured in Lansing, Michigan May 8, 2012 and U.S. President Barack Obama in Port of Tampa in Florida, April 13, 2012. (REUTERS/Rebecca Cook and REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS/Rebecca Cook and REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

America’s presidential campaign is turning surprisingly substantive. True, tomfoolery also abounds, with Democrats mocking Mitt Romney’s rendition of God Bless America, and Republicans questioning Barack Obama’s patriotism. Nevertheless, Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney are offering a dramatic electoral choice, rooted in conflicting visions of government’s role in American life. Even Mr. Romney’s recently revealed comments at a fundraiser, dismissing 47 per cent of Americans as too dependent and too hostile to him, reflect this divide.

Mr. Obama recognized this twist in his acceptance speech, saying: “I know that campaigns can seem small and even silly.” But, he insisted, Americans “face the clearest choice of any time in a generation.” This sentiment was one of the few Obama points echoed in Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s acceptance speech.

Although the candidates disagree about much, they keep debating government’s size and reach. Mr. Ryan, whose selection sharpened the two campaigns’ contrasts, described the choice as “whether to put hard limits on economic growth or hard limits on the size of government, and we choose to limit government.” He added: “After four years of government trying to divide up the wealth, we will get America creating wealth again.”

Mr. Romney, who only mentioned the word “government” three times (to Mr. Obama’s 10 mentions), said Americans “look to our communities, our faiths, our families for our joy, our support, in good times and bad.” In the fundraiser video, Mr. Romney’s resentment of Big Government was palpable; as the gaffe flap has grown, he has tried to shift the focus to the question of who gives and who gets in modern America.

Mr. Obama’s response to this anti-government rhetoric has been withering. “Over and over, we have been told by our opponents that bigger tax cuts and fewer regulations are the only way; that since government can’t do everything, it should do almost nothing,” he said. “We don’t think government can solve all our problems. But we don’t think that government is the source of all our problems – any more than are welfare recipients or corporations or unions or immigrants or gays or any other group we’re told to blame for our troubles.”

Ridiculing years of Republican calls for tax cuts, during booms and busts, Mr. Obama joked: “Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations and call us in the morning!”

In that same spirit, Mr. Obama’s most effective non-spousal surrogate, Bill Clinton, who upstaged the President at his own renomination party, challenged Americans to “decide what kind of country you want to live in. If you want a ‘you’re on your own, winner take all’ society, you should support the Republican ticket. If you want a country of shared opportunities and shared responsibilities, a ‘we’re all in it together’ society, you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden.”

Many Americans root this debate in the 1980s’ backlash against the 1960s’ Great Society “every problem requires a big government program solution” approach. When inaugurated in 1981, Ronald Reagan declared that not only was government not the solution to the problem, government was the problem. Fifteen years later, Mr. Clinton declared the era of big government over. But Americans have been debating this question for much longer.

The American Revolution rebelled against heavy-handed government and executive authority. The country’s first governing plan, the Articles of Confederation, so feared government that the central authority lacked any real power. The constitutional counter-revolution of 1787 offered a limited government compared to Europe, but a more vigorous government compared to the revolution’s initial, impotent entity. “We the people” formed the government, with power divided into three branches, each with checks and balances over the other.

This divided governing plan was not enough for some. Ten amendments to the Constitution, mostly restricting the state while guaranteeing more individual freedoms, quickly emerged. The original plan remained so restrictive that a 16th amendment was required in the early 20th century so Congress could impose a national income tax.

As government expanded, following the centralization of the Civil War in the 1860s, and then with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal responding to the Great Depression, America’s individualistic, entrepreneurial culture also thrived. American leaders consistently sought to provide just enough government to keep up with changing Western conceptions of what basic services a state should provide.

Today, governmental services that most Republicans and Democrats take for granted – such as Social Security guaranteeing old-age pensions (and which Mr. Romney included in his 47-per-cent remark) – would surprise America’s founders. Still, Republicans retain more of the evolutionary skepticism, while Democrats retain more of the Constitution’s political activism.

To use a presidential campaign to revisit this debate takes one of American democracy’s most sacred acts, voting, and consecrates it further, rooting it in meaning and substance, even amid all the charges and counter-charges, the silly ads and the daily candidate squabbles.

Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University, co-editor of History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008, and author, most recently, of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

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