Archive for the ‘HNN Blog’ Category


By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-23-12

Could it be that despite all that tension and testosterone, that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney agree a whole lot more about foreign policy than they disagree? I learned from the debate that both candidates hope to stop Iran, contain China, support Israel, and magically conjure up a peaceful solution in Syria while seeing a flourishing Democratic Arab spring. I also learned that both candidates would prefer to speak about domestic issues than foreign issues, as they repeatedly segued into their economic and education programs, claiming that achieving a “strong America” is a foreign policy issue too. These shifts reflected the American people’s mood – this election is much more about domestic policy than foreign policy.

True, at heart Barack Obama is more an idealistic internationalist, preferring multilateralism and global cooperation, while Mitt Romney is a muscular isolationist, yearning for American autonomy and insisting on American strength. But these differences pale before the fact that it is difficult to assess any candidate’s foreign policy ideology – let alone how that candidate will act as president. Predicting how a president will function in foreign affairs is as reliable as guessing how first-time parents will act when their children become teenagers – lovely theories succumb to tumultuous unforeseen squalls.

Foreign policy is particularly elusive due to the unpredictability of foreign events, the mushiness in American foreign policy ideologies, and the often-constructive tradition of presidents abandoning their preconceptions once they actually start governing.  Barack Obama himself is proof of the haziness here.  To the extent that Senator Obama had a foreign policy vision in 2008 as a candidate – when he had as little foreign policy experience as Governor Romney has in 2012 – his presidency has frequently succeeded by forgetting it. As Obama boasts about getting Osama Bin Laden and approving the Afghanistan surge, and as Guantanamo Bay remains open, pacifist leftists are understandably wondering what happened to their anti-war, human rights hero. If Obama is correct that the Republican candidate’s newly moderate domestic policies reflect “Romnesia”; pacifist leftists could mourn many such “Obaminations.”

Ultimately, the convergence offered a welcome reminder, as this campaign intensifies, that America’s greatest foreign policy victories, including winning World War II and the Cold War, were bipartisan moments uniting the nation not dividing parties. Whoever wins will have to lead from the center, in both foreign and domestic affairs – moving from the theoretical clashes of the campaign trail to the necessary reconciliations of governance.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-17-12

The editorial section of Real Clear Politics gives the ultimate verdict on the second debate. It shows the pro-Obama New York Times declaring Mr. Obama Comes Back. It shows the pro-Romney New York Post concluding Romney Wins on Points. And it has the middle of the road USA Today proclaiming Second Debate a Split Decision. In short, Barack Obama did not have a second debate debacle and Mitt Romney continued appearing solid, presidential, and far more moderate than the caricatures of him suggest.

The polls echo these findings, although they tend to be giving Obama a slight edge. Obama’s bigger win was in the campaign narrative wars. Predictably, proving Woody Allen’s insight that “Eighty percent of success is showing up,” when Obama showed up, loaded for bear, he launched hundreds of Obama is back campaign stories. This was a classic pseudo-event, a media-generated moment that fit into the narrative many reporters were looking to right, to keep the campaign alive.

In truth, stylistically, both candidates were more similar than different. They were well-prepared and well-spoken, assertive without being too aggressive, with neither giving much ground. The moment relatively early in the debate when they each looked like they were about to butt heads or chests over gas drilling, was great theatre – but not a game changer.

Substantively, serious issue differences persisted, with important clashes over Libya, taxes, immigration, and energy. Whereas some debates tend to diminish one or both candidates, this debate boosted both. Obama left feeling vindicated that his first-time stumble was a fluke. Romney continued feeling vindicated that the stereotype of him as a fanatic or a fumbler was fading. And the American people should feel vindicated that amid all the hoopla and distractions, this set of debates is proving entertaining and edifying, introducing the candidates and their positions to tens of millions of voters, building excitement and engagement toward Election Day.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-12-12

While polls show that those surveyed consider Mitt Romney the winner of the first debate with Barack Obama by landslide proportions, the vice presidential debate will probably be perceived as more of a tie. Democrats who went in primed to like Joe Biden will applaud his slash-and-burn aggressiveness. Republicans who went in primed to like Paul Ryan will applaud his wonky Boy Scout earnestness. In the end, this vice presidential debate, like most, will have little impact on the electoral outcome.  But the big question this debate raised is one of debating dignity. Biden’s performance – and he was clearly performing – included smirking, scoffing, chuckling, and guffawing, although he seems to have mostly skipped the sighing which hurt Al Gore’s standing in 2000 when he debated George W. Bush.

The quest for dignity is as old as the republic. It reflects America’s more elitist and character-oriented republican roots, as well as the monarchical dimensions involved in executive leadership. Originally, the candidate’s virtue as expressed through his dignity was so cherished it was considered undignified for presidential candidates to run, they stood for election, as George Washington did. But the waves of democracy that transformed America also changed campaigning protocols, launching candidates into the hurly burly of the political process.

Of course, these restrictions apply more to presidents and potential presidents than vice presidents. And there is a strong counter-tradition – which Biden clearly embraced – of the Veep or Veep nominee as tough campaigner, partisan mudslinger, and hatchet man – or woman. In 1900, when William McKinley ran for re-election against the charismatic William Jennings Bryan, McKinley’s running mate Theodore Roosevelt fought hard against the activist Bryan.   Roosevelt delivered 673 speeches to an estimated three million people, while Bryan’s 546 speeches reached approximately 2.5 million Americans. As Roosevelt denounced Bryan and the Democrats for appealing “to every foul and evil passion of mankind,” resorting to “every expedient of mendacity and invective,” McKinley remained presidentially above the fray.

Half a century later, Richard Nixon did the dirty work for President Dwight Eisenhower – and then expected his vice president Spiro Agnew to fight the partisan wars of the late 1960s and early 1970s against those “nattering nabobs of negativism,” reporters and Democrats. Most recently, in the 2008 campaign, Sarah Palin’s rhetoric was far harsher than Barack Obama’s, her running mate John McCain’s, or her opponent, Joe Biden’s.

Republicans are already encouraging a backlash against Biden’s antics. Whether this will become a broader phenomenon remains to be seen.  But, even with all the handwringing over Obama’s passivity last week, Biden should have been more restrained.  His behavior turned ugly not just undignified at the end, when Paul Ryan tried to conclude on a gracious note of respect toward the Vice President, and Biden kept clowning rather than rising to the moment. Although his position is modified by the word “Vice,” America’s number two leader should still act like a president.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-4-12

Barack Obama’s listless and hesitant performance in the first debate gave Mitt Romney a  twelve-day gift. Until their next debate on October 16, we can expect a turn towardident  more positive coverage of Romney and his campaign.  The insta-polls suggest that Romney’s confident, upbeat, persistent point-making in the debate paid off – and the pundits agree. Words like “zombie,” “throat-clearing,” “downward glancing,” “disjointed,” “convoluted,” popped up in the post-debate reviews of Obama’s performance.

But just as Romney’s people went in hoping to recreate the Carter-Reagan debate, which shifted the winning margin to Ronald Reagan in 1980, Romney’s people should remember Walter Mondale’s victory over President Reagan in the first debate of 1984, and John Kerry’s victories over President George W. Bush twenty years later.  Debates can be determinative but rarely are. Obama is perfectly capable of coming back. And the election remains close with sobering swing state math for Romney.

Yet while this kind of handicapping is what generates the headlines, the real headline should be that the debates once again worked. They offered substantive exchanges that focus much more on issues, statistics, and philosophy than the passing gaffes which reporters are forever seeking in their perpetual “gotcha” game. Not only did both candidates come across as smart, caring, patriotic individuals who love America and are trying to do their best, they shifted the campaign discussion from nonsense to substance. The debates, with each question triggering a tidal wave of details, invite looks at the candidate’s philosophies, their visions of government, their plans for the next four years.  The silly sideshows from partisan extremists look absurd in contrast to the high level discussion Jim Lehrer conducted so well. It is hard after ninety minutes of such seriousness and intensity to return to questions about Obama’s birth or Romney’s riches. The questions and the answers got me – and I daresay most Americans – thinking about who is right and who is wrong, who will be more effective, what are they offering the American people – and what pressing issues remain unaddressed. And so, ultimately, while Obama did give Romney this twelve-day gift, even more important is that both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney gave the American people an even greater gift, at least ninety minutes befitting the majesty of the country and the needs to this moment.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 10-2-12

Ronald Reagan campaigning in Columbia, South Carolina, on October 10, 1980, a few weeks before the only debate of the 1980 election. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Happy October, which every four years becomes debate month in American presidential politics. On October 3, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will debate domestic policy in Colorado. On October 11, their vice presidential running mates, Paul Ryan and Joe Biden, will debate in Kentucky. Five days later on October 16, voters at a town meeting in New York will question the two presidential candidates about any issues and on October 22 — two weeks before Election Day — Obama and Romney will debate foreign policy in Florida.

These debates — which are more like side-by-side press conferences with some exchanges — are usually the political equivalent of military service: long bouts of boredom punctuated by bursts of melodrama. Usually, they reinforce media narratives and voter impressions. But they have sometimes changed outcomes, particularly in 1980, when Ronald Reagan’s aw shucks, “there you go again” dismissal of President Jimmy Carter’s attacks triggered a Reagan surge — and the largest last-minute switch in poll results since polling began in the 1930s.

Treating history as an authoritative tarot card rather than a subtle source of wisdom, Mitt Romney’s supporters have been touting that ten-point swing as proof that the Republicans will win. The 1980 moment appeals more broadly to Republicans as indication that a gaffe-prone, ridiculed, seemingly out-of-touch former governor can defeat an earnest Democratic incumbent afflicted by a sagging economy, Middle East troubles, and accusations that the twin pillars of his foreign policy are appeasement and apology not power and pride.

The 1980 debate should sober Obama and buoy Romney. In his recent book, The Candidate: What It Takes to Win — and Hold – the White House, Professor Samuel Popkin, an occasional Democratic campaign adviser, recalls his failure coaching Carter in 1980. Playing Reagan in debate “prep,” Popkin echoed the Republican’s devastating anti-Carter criticisms. Popkin describes the kind of careful criticism Romney should launch against Obama, knowing that if the challenger is too aggressive he looks angry and insolent but if he is too deferential he seems weak and intimidated. Reagan, Popkin writes, “resorted to more subtle, coded criticisms that were harder to defend against. He appeared respectful of the office and the president, suggesting that Carter was hamstrung by defeatist Democrats in Congress.” This approach forced Carter to rebut the premise — and plaintively claim he was strong — or the conclusion — by insisting Democrats were not defeatists. “Contesting one point left him tacitly conceding the other,” Popkin writes.

Obama’s caveat is in Carter’s reaction. Offended and embarrassed by the criticism, Carter ended the session after eleven minutes. Popkin as Reagan had pierced Carter’s “presidential aura,” unnerving everyone in the room. Trying to dispel the tension, Carter’s chief domestic policy advisor, Stuart Eizenstat, himself Jewish, resorted to ethnic humor by pointing to Popkin and joking, “You didn’t know Governor Reagan was Jewish, did you?” Popkin, who quickly replied “Well, Governor Reagan is from Hollywood,” realized that many of Carter’s people, including the aggrieved president, were unfamiliar with Reagan’s attacks because the majesty of the presidency insulated Carter from serious criticism or serious study of his challenger.

Of course, in an ideal world the debates would emphasize issue flashpoints not gaffe-hunting. In Denver, Romney should, Reagan-style, subtly question President Obama as to when he as president will take responsibility for the anemic recovery and lingering unemployment rather than scapegoating his predecessor. At Hofstra University, Romney should ask Obama to explain to the voters present and the American people how his increasing reliance on the heavy hand of federal regulations and big government does not reflect doubt in the traditional invisible hand of individual entrepreneurial Americans and the markets themselves. And in Boca Raton, Romney should prod Obama on the Arab Spring, asking him at what point he would concede that his policy failed rather than simply dismissing the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the murder of American diplomats in Libya, and other Obama-orchestrated disasters as “bumps in the road.” In response, Obama should emphasize his successes in halting the economic freefall, his faith in American ingenuity guided by the government’s occasional, competent, and gentle helping hand, and his muscular defense of American interests in hunting down Osama Bin Laden, boosting troops in Afghanistan, and reprimanding Egypt’s president for delays in defending America’s Cairo embassy. Meanwhile, reporters and voters should push both candidates to explain what sacrifices they will demand from Americans, where they will deviate from their party’s orthodoxy, how they will end partisanship, and what bold solutions they have to American debt, demoralization, and decline.

While such substantive exchanges would allow Americans to weigh the candidates’ dueling philosophies and records, it is more likely that the debates’ verdict will pivot around some theatrical moment. Since televised presidential debates began in 1960, when John Kennedy’s aristocratic calm contrasted with Richard Nixon’s sweaty, herky-jerky intensity, style has usually upstaged substance in debate reporting and debate perceptions.

It is too easy just to blame the press — although broadcasters and reporters will be seeking “gotcha” moments when a candidate stumbles and “grand slams” when a candidate dominates. Moreover, American voters respond more to debate theatrics than polemics. The mass reaction reflects one of the realities of modern leadership, which too many academics ignore and editorialists lament: image rules, style counts, a successful president or prime minister must communicate effectively not just administer smoothly.

This season, as the American campaign peaks and the silliness surges, it will be easy to mock American politics. But the presidential campaign remains a remarkable effective and dramatic ritual that gets two individuals conveying their messages to a polity of 300 million people.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 9-30-12

In his recent speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad joined the general pile on against the American presidential campaign. Trying to mock American democracy, he asked “Are we to believe that those who spend hundreds of millions of dollars on election campaigns have the interests of the people of the world at their hearts?” Well, I argue, the answer is “yes.”

Without millions of dollars spent in political campaigns, it would be impossible for candidates to communicate with the people — and make their case that their vision is indeed best not only for Americans but for others throughout the world. Ahmadinejad said that  “Despite what big political parties claim in the capitalistic countries, the money that goes into election campaigns is usually nothing but an investment.” Here, he is correct. The money is an “investment”; an investment in the democratic process.

I am not naïve. I know that too many plutocrats hold too much sway over the American political conversation. I know that too many politicians spend far too much time dialing for dollars rather than politicking with the people. Still, it is hard to take advice from a political hooligan who used violence to secure his own re-election, which a majority of the Iranian people seems to have opposed. And it reflects a lack of proportion in the rhetorical world of the UN, that Ahmadinejad would be tempted to take a very legitimate criticism that raises important questions and dilemmas regarding the mechanics of the American campaign and use it to try delegitimizing American democracy and America itself.

This tyrant’s tirade should remind us to view our current frustrations with the current campaign in context. Yes, there is much that could be improved in the campaign. Yes, the debates we are about to witness will pivot far too much on theatrical skills rather than political messaging. But we should not take the magic of the campaign for granted. This includes the power granted the people to change course, the efforts the President of the United States and his opponent are investing in communicating with the people, and the stability, peace, harmony, and order underlying what has been and will probably continue to be a non-violent, surprisingly efficient, deeply democratic exercise involving tens of millions of voters either validating the incumbent or gently but firmly replacing him, with no tanks in the streets, no thugs manipulating results.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 9-13-12

Mitt Romney shaking hands with supporters in Belmont, MA, on Super Tuesday. Credit: Flickr/BU Interactive News.

Mitt Romney “stepped in it” we are being told, with hasty remarks trying to slam Barack Obama as an appeaser as the horrific events in Libya and Egypt unfolded. “Romney’s Libya Response Fuels Foreign Policy Doubts,” Bloomberg news proclaims. In our rush-to-judgment gaffe-oriented media culture, reporters are having a grand old time finding Republicans mumbling about Mitt’s meltdown and his “Lehman moment.” The next step, of course, will be to rummage through the historical closet, and find other campaign-ending gaffes. Expect to hear “presidential historians” on the network news pontificating about Gerald Ford’s premature, rhetorical liberation of Eastern Europe from communism during the 1976 presidential debates — thirteen years before the Soviet Empire crumbled; about Jimmy Carter’s invoking of his teenage daughter Amy’s expertise when talking about nuclear issues four years later; and about Michael Dukakis’s ride in a tank which made him look more like Snoopy fighting the Red Baron than a man prepared to be Commander-in-Chief.

These recent memories build on the modern journalistic addiction to “gotcha” journalism, as well as the more longstanding tendency to explain campaign losses and wins by dramatic turning points. Campaigning history is filled with such moments — Henry Clay’s Alabama letters taught advisers explaining his 1844 loss to discourage candid candidates; James Blaine’s silence when he was introduced by the Reverend Samuel D. Burchard, who called the Democrats the Party of “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion” on the eve of the 1884 election, had future candidates paying more attention at campaign events, to avoid being “Burchardized” — and many party bosses trying to keep candidates at home away from any campaign risks. Campaign grand slams having included Franklin Roosevelt’s flight to Chicago to accept the nomination in 1932, putting to rest fears that he was too handicapped to act assertively, while advertising that his “New Deal” for the American public involved a new leadership style not just bold programs, and Ronald Reagan’s “There-you-go-againing” of Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Ironically, pundits and pols are doing the same thing they accuse Romney of doing — rushing to pronounce final judgment amid a changing and chaotic situation. Historic, devastating gaffes, like Limburger cheese, often need time to become truly pungent — and sometimes, seemingly devastating gaffes, become like bubble gum, stale and discarded surprisingly quickly. For example, according to polls and focus groups at the time, most viewers watching the debate did not react immediately to Gerald Ford’s 1976 statement that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” Reporters, however, pounced. In the Ford Library, Bob Teeter’s tracking polls show the gaffe problem growing with each turn of the news cycle. By contrast, during the 1980 campaign, Ronald Reagan terrified his advisers and delighted his deriders by suggesting that trees caused more pollution than cars and that Vietnam was a “noble cause.” Lo and behold, not only did Reagan win, but he helped changed the American conversation about Vietnam. Had he lost, these two statements would have loomed large in the why-Reagan-failed narrative, instead of functioning as sidebars to the main story.

So let’s hold off on predicting, barely 24 hours after Romney’s remarks, just what impact his reactions will have — especially considering that this crisis still has the potential to make the Obama administration look terrible. If Romney ultimately loses, the first comparison I will make of this stumble will be to John McCain’s hasty suspension of his campaign — which he then quickly rescinded — in 2008 as the economy tanked. The comparison might be apt as a moment that reinforced other moments, which built into growing, accumulated doubts about a candidate.

Ultimately, however, for now, I would say that this latest Mitt mess points to a broader, surprising, phenomenon we are seeing this campaign. Obama and the Democrats have robbed Republicans of the GOP’s decades-long edge on national security and foreign policy issues. The lingering fallout from the George W. Bush years, combined with Barack Obama’s success in presiding over the demise of Osama bin Laden and other terrorists killed by drones, has resulted in polls showing Americans having more confidence in the Democratic candidate than the Republican candidate on foreign issues, even as Romney usually takes the lead in confidence on economic issues. Romney’s misfires in London and over Libya only exacerbate the problem, but the twist is interesting — and potentially extremely significant. For now, however, we all have to do what we are loathe to do and await the people’s verdict before pundits and experts start pronouncing one way or another.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 9-3-12

Clint Eastwood at a Take Pride in America rally, 2005. Credit: U.S. Government.

All of us are having a grand old time laughing at Clint Eastwood’s all too breezy escapade in Tampa, where the veteran actor and national political rookie showed that he could never say goodbye to the GOP audience, blasting President Barack Obama any which way he could, as the teleprompter light flashed furiously. With the Hollywood icon now In the Line of Fire politically, journalists, pundits, bloggers and academics are mocking his performance, suggesting that rather than propelling the Romney-Ryan ticket forward with the magnum force of his celebrity, the Eastwood thunderbolt backfired, showing him to be a lightweight.

Clearly, as an academic, I resent the near absolute power Hollywood celebrities seem to have in our universe, and the fact that grace is gone, dignity sacrificed, and substance a thing of the past. Even Mitt Romney’s actual acceptance speech seemed more soundbite-driven than lyrical or statesmanlike, with his one-liners reminding me of the revelations in 1988 that Michael Dukakis’s speechwriters actually wrote addresses with the soundbites they hoped reporters would cull already highlighted in the candidate’s text.

But when I read the attack on Eastwood’s “truthiness,” snickering at his slam that the nation did not want to be governed by lawyers but by a businessman even though Mitt Romney went to law school, I started wondering whether we of the chattering classes were misreading the moment. Mitt Romney may have a law degree, but we all know which candidate is the one accused of being able to “argue everything and weigh both sides,” and which one is “the businessman.” Just as in 2000, most Americans preferred George W. Bush’s periodic assaults on the English language to Al Gore’s beautifully-sculpted paragraphs because Bush’s bumbling sounded more authentic, I started wondering about the real political effect of Eastwood’s antics on the audience that counted, the American voters. In a perfect world, actors would stick to their scripts and celebrities would stay in Hollywood without venturing into the Washington — or other grownup matters. But our political culture walks a tightrope between the popular and the absurd, between that which should work — and that which actually does.

Clearly, the sudden impact of Eastwood’s riffs was impressive. The convention goers laughed and cheered. Let’s wait for the polls and see if it is possible to discern whether millions of Americans were indeed the beguiled, charmed by Clint’s mix of comedy and politicking, which now goes down easier in the Jon Stewart-Stephen Colbert age of blurred boundaries. Or whether Clint Eastwood truly now is among the unforgiven, a celebrity who overshot, who embarrassed himself and those who sought his help by failing to remember that Hollywood heroes are fictional not real.

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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.”

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 4-4-12

Mitt Romney’s three state sweep this Tuesday is being touted as the tipping point in his surge toward the Republican nomination. The candidate whose greatest ability has been his inevitability now seems all but destined to become the Republican nominee. But in this moment of near-triumph, it is worth examining the great failure of Romney’s campaign so far. In a country that loves to see candidates grow and evolve, with a media primed to write the redemptive campaigning comeback story, Romney never seemed to get better as a candidate, never had that turnaround moment.

Instead, he has been the Steady Eddie of the campaign trail, grinding his way toward the nomination, surviving the occasional gaffe, with no appreciable improvement in his political skill set. His constancy is impressive but his inability to learn, to improvise, to get better, is disturbing. While it is fun to bash an inexperienced opponent by saying the presidency is no place for on-the-job training, the job is so different from any other job that on-the-job training is the only way to function effectively in office. Former governors like George W. Bush and Bill Clinton have had to work hard to adjust to the ways of Washington, while former senators like Barack Obama and John Kennedy have had to work equally hard to master the executive skills required.

Different presidents come in with different talents, but all need to adapt, to stretch, to grow. Either Romney does not have that ability at all, and is just too rigid, or he does not have that ability politically, and is just too patrician. Either way, this failure to kickstart his campaign, to turn it around, and to become the new improved candidate, is worrying.

As a result, Romney looks like he is on his way to inheriting the nomination rather than earning it. The last candidate to back his way into the nomination, Bob Dole, enjoyed higher popularity ratings in the spring of 1996 than Romney does. After months of exposure to the American people, after tens of millions of dollars spent, the latest polls suggest that only about a third of Americans view Romney favorably, and half view him unfavorably. Those low numbers and Romney’s  rigidity should be sobering to Republicans.

Of course, they can point to the Ford surge of thirty points or so in 1976, the Dukakis crash of twenty points or so in 1988, and even the repositioning Bill Clinton had to do in 1992. Campaigns are volatile. The stakes are high. The fight will be intense.  But unless Mitt Romney can start incorporating feedback, making adjustments, improving his political skills, he will be broadcasting a warning message to Republicans who desperately want to win in November, as well as Americans who desperately want to see strong leadership in the White House, in the event that he nevertheless does win in November.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 2-13-12

So far, it seems that former Senator Rick Santorum is having his Paul Tsongas/Bill Bradley Moment. Remember them? Each of these former senators enjoyed a momentary surge when running against a flawed candidate on the Democratic side. In 1992, Tsongas was the Massachusetts media darling who had a brief moment in the political sun, attacking Bill Clinton as a “Pander Bear,” with pander coming out as “panda,” thanks to Tsongas’s Massachusetts accent. New Jersey senator Bill Bradley was the former New York Knicks basketball star and Rhodes Scholar who distracted voters momentarily when Al Gore ran as the inevitable Democratic candidate in 2000. Both Tsongas and Bradley were more popular with reporters than with voters, particularly as they prolonged campaigns that threatened to end too quickly, given the media need for an extended fight.

Santorum is now proving useful to reporters anxious to drag out the Republican campaign, even as most reporters abhor his cultural conservatism. Tsongas and Bradley were each high priests in “Our Lady of the Principled, Priggish Politician,” appearing to waft above the normal political fray. Their fleeting surges fed mass American fantasies about politics as a higher calling. Santorum lacks that appeal—or much popularity with reporters, many of whom view him as a puritanical prig. Republican voters in conservative caucus states like his membership in a real Christian church, the Roman Catholic Church. In this election, that excites Protestant bigots who prefer a Catholic to a Mormon president.

While the bigotry from the Right against Mormonism has attracted attention, this bigotry is also being reinforced from the Left. The unfair obstacle Mitt Romney faces due to prejudice against his community of faith has not stirred enough indignation from the Left or the Right. On the Right, the passivity reflects the deep prejudice among the bigots who view Mormonism as an abomination, not a Christian denomination. On the Left, it reflects a pro-Obama protectiveness laced with an instinctive anti-Mormonism, based on its conservatism and strangeness. It is definitely a red-state religion.

A recent “Room for Debate” among New York Times guest bloggers asking “What is it about Mormons” reflected the kind of static Romney endures from those who would normally be primed to see the underlying hostility against him as a civil rights issue. The five experts the Times solicited about Mormonism were unflattering, to one degree or another. Sally Denton, the author of  “The Money and the Power wrote about the Mormon church’s “Male-Dominated World,” with the tag line:  “Given that Mitt Romney is a high church official and not just a member, voters are right to be circumspect,”  Jana Riess, who wrote Flunking Sainthood, asked  “Can a Candidate Be Too Perfect?” explaining that “Voters want someone they can identify with. Historically, that does not bode well for Mormons.” Ian Williams, a refugee from Mormonism, said: “It May Look Good on Paper…. But some of us who have experienced the Mormon life firsthand would rather choose a messy, colorful America.”  And “There Is a Dark Side to Mormonism,” warned another author, Jane Barnes, saying “When it comes to the social agenda, the Mormon church does not respect separation of church and state.”  Finally, readers learned about “Mormons’ Double Legacy” from Professor Laurie F. Maffly-Kipp, who said “Just as Mormons seem to be ideal Americans, they also provoke typically American fears.”

In fairness, the short entries raised issues that are shaping the contemporary conversation about the man who still remains the leading Republican candidate. But it is instructive to substitute the words “Mormon” and “Mormonism” in judging whether the overall impression provided enlightenment or bred bigotry.  I doubt the Times would have run a debate asking: “What is it about” blacks or gays or Catholics or women or Jews?” Would it have been acceptable to write in 1960 about John Kennedy’s Catholicism: Given that the Kennedys have met the Pope and support the church,  “voters are right to be circumspect,” or in 2000 during Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman’s stint as the first Jew on a major ticket, that “There is a Dark Side” to Judaism?  How about an analysis in 2008 that “just as” African Americans like Barack Obama, “seem to be ideal Americans, they also provoke typically American fears?”

Standing alone, each of these articles analyzes the fears of others. But their cumulative effect together, with no full-throated defense of Mormonism, created this noxious impression. Mitt Romney has been careful to downplay his religion, emphasizing that he is a Jesus-believing, God-fearing Christian. Given what he is experiencing left and right, it seems like the shrewd but unfortunate strategy to follow, especially while the media and voters are still dragging out the nomination battle saga with the Tsantorum Tsurge.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 2-4-12

Everyone’s having a grand old time mocking Mitt Romney for finally “admitting”: “I’m not very concerned about the very poor.” The quotation has been bandied about as proof that Romney is a greedy, unfeeling capitalist. And, in a presidential campaign which emphasizes optics over good sense, Romney has already retreated, saying he “misspoke.”

In fairness, the quotation was taken out of context. Romney said: “I’m not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I’ll fix it. I’m not concerned about the very rich. They’re doing just fine. I’m concerned about the very heart of America—the 90-95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling.” In other words, Romney did not intend to convey contempt for the poor. He was saying that there are programs dedicated to protecting the poor but it is the middle class that is being completely ignored.

This “gaffe” and Romney’s other rich-related verbal stumbles recall the unhappy political career of Dan Quayle, George H.W. Bush’s linguistically challenged vice president, who was dismissed as stupid for all kinds of doozies. Remember the time, when he was in Hawaii, and said, “When I meet with world leaders, what’s striking—whether it’s in Europe or here in Asia…” even though Hawaii’s a chain of islands far from the Asian land mass, and is at best called Oceania. Or the time he said, “We’re the country that built the Intercontinental Railroad” when it was the transcontinental railroad. Or the time he said, “The Middle East is obviously an issue that has plagued the region for centuries.” Or, my personal favorite, the time he said in Beaverton, Oregon:  “I’ve now been in 57 states—I think one left to go.”

Don’t remember Dan Quayle saying these? Well, you’re right—it was Barack Obama. These and other verbal pratfalls, compiled by Daniel Kurtzman, are not all that well-known. This is because even his opponents agree that Barack Obama is smart and eloquent. When he stumbles, most people understand that anyone forced to talk as often as he is before cameras is bound to make the occasional error.

Romney on the wealth issue, and Quayle on the intelligence issue, ran into what I call the “O-Ring Factor.” Just as that particular part on the space shuttle Challenger eroded only because of specific weather conditions, most gaffes only stick where politicians are vulnerable. Obama is rarely tongue-tied, so he can get away with the occasional vocabulary or linguistic malfunction. But reporters and rivals loved questioning Quayle’s intelligence, just as reporters and rivals are now enjoying questioning Romney’s sensitivity to the other 99.9 percent of Americans less wealthy than he is.

Unfortunately, such pouncing comes at a price. It sets candidates on edge, making all of them even more superficial and artificial. None of us would fare very well with cameras recording our every statement. This campaign is seeking a chief executive not a robot. Let’s have an honest debate about the impact of Romney’s wealth on his worldview—but spare us this tomfoolery, or Dan Quaylery.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 1-28-12

Toward the end of Thursday night’s debate in Florida, which viewers were told repeatedly would be high stakes and very serious, CNN’s moderator Wolf Blitzer asked the candidates to assess their wives as potential First Ladies. Blitzer’s question was valid and relevant.  For decades now, Americans have seen a presidential candidate’s life partner as a window into the soul of the man or woman seeking to lead us. Furthermore, experience shows that controversial First Ladies like Hillary Clinton in the first years of the Clinton administration can distract from the president’s agenda, while popular First Ladies like Hillary Clinton in the later Clinton years can be helpful advocates and effective buffers for their spouses. Unfortunately, Blitzer conveyed the impression that the topic was trivial, a fleeting, entertaining diversion from the weighty affairs of state at hand.

Blitzer bracketed the discussion by saying: we “want to get right back to the rest of the debate, but first, on a lighter subject, I want to ask each of these gentlemen why they think their wife would make a great first lady.” Without mentioning her first name, Carol, Ron Paul described her as wife, mother, grandmother, and “the author of a very famous cookbook, ‘The Ron Paul Cookbook.’”

Mitt Romney echoed Blitzer’s breeziness by first saying, in response to Paul’s quick list, “I’ve got to take a little bit more time, a little more seriousness.” Catching himself, not wanting to show disrespect to Paul on this issue, Romney said to Paul: “nothing wrong with what you said—I’m sorry.” Mitt Romney then described his wife Ann, “My wife,” in fuller terms as “a mom” but also “a real champion and a fighter,” battling her own health ailments and helping young women “in troubled situations.”

Newt Gingrich actually mentioned his wife Callista’s name and described her “artistic flair” and media savvy. Reflecting the now-classic divide between working women and stay-at-home-moms, Newt Gingrich described Callista’s work achievements but had no family tidbits to tout. The former Speaker actually was the most gentlemanly by hailing all spouses involved as “terrific.”

Rick Santorum spoke most movingly, describing his wife Karen as “my hero.” Rick Santorum described his wife both as “a mother to our seven children,” and as a nurse, a lawyer, an author, but someone who “walked away” from her profession “and walked into something that she felt called to do, which was to be a mom and to be a wife.”

In truth, each answer could have invited rich follow-ups, raising discussions of gender roles, of family dilemmas, of core values. The candidates could have discussed what it means to be a First Lady as well as the symbolic importance of the President as head of state. But the token moment had passed.

“Very nice,” Wolf Blitzer said. “All right, let’s get back to the debate….”

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 1-19-12

After months of debating, fundraising, positioning, posturing, and polling, America’s Republican candidates are finally facing the voters – with Election Day still nearly ten months away. As always, there is much to mock. But despite its flaws, America’s electoral system is working, managing a complicated, intense, continent-wide conversation among millions of voters seeking a leader.

Admittedly, the Iowa-New Hampshire con  is absurd, with two, small, unrepresentative states starting the voting process earlier and earlier so they can be first in the nation. Both political parties foolishly enable this childish behavior. And yes, the Republican debates often seem more like Bart Simpson versus Sponge Bob than Abraham Lincoln versus Stephen Douglas. The most memorable moment so far from hours of talking by America’s aspiring chief executives has been Texas Governor Rick Perry’s excruciating “brain freeze,” when he could not remember the third federal agency he wanted eliminated, culminating with his now infamous “Oops.”  But this year, especially, the electoral system is not the issue – the frustrations come from the historical context and the candidates themselves.

This election comes at a particularly unhappy moment in American life. The economy has languished for nearly four years.  As during all recessions, Americans fear the downturn is permanent, forgetting the business cycle’s resilience while losing faith in their economy and themselves. The last decade has been clouded by fears of terrorism and the petty harassments at airports and elsewhere from living in a lockdown society. Americans overlook George W. Bush’s greatest achievement, which is a non-achievement — there were no successor attacks on American soil to the 9/11 mass murders. The war in Afghanistan still festers, the withdrawal from Iraq was joyless, even Barack Obama’s triumph in greenlighting the daring operation that killed Osama Bin Laden, brought only temporary relief. It was the dulled enjoyment of a chronically ill patient who had a rare, good day, not the long-sought healing or closure.

Meanwhile, Barack Obama’s upbeat, historic, transformational, “Yes We Can” candidacy has bogged down in the muck of amateur-hour governing, producing a weary, spasmodic, sobering, “Maybe We Can’t” presidency. Obama has now appointed his third-and-a-half chief of staff in three-years. Most recently, the now-retiring chief of staff William Daley shared duties, after his first demotion, with Pete Rouse.

Amid this depressing context, the Republicans promising to rescue America have been more empty suits than white knights, super-cranks not superheroes. The front-runner, Mitt Romney, has been a Ford Escort-kind of candidate, competent enough but not exciting, rolling along smoothly yet frequently stuck in neutral. He has yet to generate the kind of excitement Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Bill Clinton in 1992 each needed to unseat an incumbent president.  Different Romney rivals have successively zoomed ahead sporadically only to crash, sputter, or run out of gas.

Underlying the theatrics and personality questions is a serious referendum about the Republican Party’s character. Romney appears to be the most reasonable, presentable, electable candidate. Voters looking for an anybody-but-Obama candidate should rally around Romney, as the Republicans’ best chance to recapture the White House.  The other candidates – especially now that Jon Huntsman and Rick Perry quit – are ideologues, representing doctrinaire strains within the Republican Party.  Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, in particular, hold fringe views.  In a general campaign, Democrats and the media would easily caricature either as yahoos, while Newt Gingrich remains an unguided conversational missile, who has now been tagged by his ex-wife as an advocate of “open marriage.”

The surges of the Santorum and Paul campaigns demonstrate that in the US today, a growing gap separates fundamentalist provincials and cosmopolitan moderates. The extremes are diverging, submerging the center.  Ron Paul’s libertarianism and Rick Santorum’s fundamentalism epitomize the reddest of the red state sensibility, which is deeply alien to the New York-California East Coast-West Coast blue state sensibility.  In an age of niche media – to each his or her own Facebook page and shrill corner of the Blogosphere — members of each social, cultural, political fragment in a society can have their own echo chamber. As they whip each other into self-referential frenzies, and as the headline-driven media amplify their shouts, they drown out the increasingly silent majority, making it harder to forge a common, constructive social, cultural and political conversation.  Of course, the primary campaigns in particular favor the shrill partisans. General election campaigns often help candidates find the center as they woo swing voters.

So let the games begin. As the Republicans battle it out, it will be interesting to see whether Mitt Romney’s safe, lowest common denominator politics wins, or Republicans turn to an edgier, pricklier candidate. And as Republicans pummel one another, President Barack Obama will be watching from the sidelines but trying not to get sidelined.  Hovering above the fray is nice but Obama cannot afford to be too removed – he is too vulnerable and risks irrelevance.

Republicans seek a new Reagan –a Republican upstart who unseated President Jimmy Carter in 1980.  Democrats should be hoping for 1996 Redux, when a flawed, unpopular Democratic incumbent, Bill Clinton, was blessed by an even more flawed, less popular Republican challenger, Bob Dole. For Obama, even winning by default will represent an historic, and possibly redemptive, achievement, as Clinton learned.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 1-12-12

A crisis is looming for political reporters desperate for a drawn out, dramatic presidential campaign.  Republican voters may be less crazy and more predictable than the conventional wisdom suggests.  If Mitt Romney continues his winning streak because Republicans realize he is the most electable candidate, we might have a much abbreviated presidential nominating season thanks to voters making a rational, non-doctrinaire decision.

Anxious to keep things going, programmed for conflict, reporters have tried to place a big asterisk on Romney’s New Hampshire victory, warning that the emergence of Republicans criticizing his time at Bain Capital proves that in the week he won Romney also witnessed that which will guarantee his loss to President Barack Obama in November.  History suggests otherwise.  Hashing the issue out now just might inoculate Romney against succumbing to the attack in the general election.

The historical analogy most worrying to the Romney camp comes from the 1988 campaign, when George H.W. Bush decided to “go negative” after discovering he trailed behind Michael Dukakis by 17 points in the polls and was saddled with a “negative rating” of 40 percent, twice that of his opponent. In a move that would become legendary in the annals of political consultants, Bush’s campaign director Lee Atwater gave his director of research James Pinkerton a three-by-five card and said:  “You get the stuff to beat this little bastard and put it on this three-by-five card.”  One of the negatives Pinkerton discovered was an issue Al Gore had raised during the Democratic primary campaign—the prison furlough program that enabled a convicted murderer to rape a woman and terrorize her fiancée—and the devastating Willie Horton attack ad followed.

But there’s a flip side to this tale.  In both 1992 and 2008, primary attacks against Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, as unpleasant as they were during the time, ended up being defused by the general election.  In 1992 the Gennifer Flowers adultery allegations and the Vietnam draft dodging charge had largely lost their sting by the Democratic Convention.  In 2008 Barack Obama brilliantly dispatched the Jeremiah Wright problem in March, so that it was not much of a factor in the fall.

In fact, John Kerry might have become president in 2004 had his primary opponents done a better job of attacking him more viciously.  When Kerry ran for the Democratic nomination in 2004, he ran as a war hero and was treated as such.  The Republicans “Swift Boated” him effectively during the general campaign, turning his war record into a liability.  Had Democrats tried that tack during the primary, Kerry might have been able to pull the patriot card on them and deflected the attack—just as Romney has to continue pulling the capitalist card on Republican critics, to squelch the criticism and try to unite his party behind free market values.

The Swift Boat campaign could inspire a great attack and a great defense on the Bain Consulting issue.  The Swift Boat campaign was so effective because the attackers mobilized dozen of fellow veterans, who stood there condemning Kerry.  If I were running against Romney, I would look to get as many individual, heartbreaking stories of job loss on tape, and then try to get as many of his victims as I could together in a room for a day of melodramatic, tear-jerking filming.  If I were running Romney’s, I would look to get as many individual, heartwarming stories of job creation on tape, and then try to get as many of his beneficiaries as I could together in a room for a day of melodramatic tear-jerking, filming.

Romney has to look at these attacks as opportunities—to preempt attacks that might appear again from Democrats and to strut his stuff, as they say. Attack ads are sometimes just what a candidate needs to come to life.  Romney has to demonstrate that he is winning these primaries because of his skills and vision, and not simply backing into the nomination, if indeed, he is “the one.”

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 1-5-12

Mitt Romney’s margin of eight votes highlights just how small and unrepresentative the sample at the Iowa caucus is – -and how marginal that exercise should be. My third grade class presidency was decided with a larger margin. And, once again, the state that made Pat Robertson a viable candidate – albeit temporarily in 1988 – and has made ethanol subsidies a pork barrel standard, has given us the “gift” of Ron Paul. That 21.4 percent of .004 percent of the American people wants this extremist with a racist past does not say much, although Paul’s popularity with the younger voters could be a worrying harbinger.

The big news from this small sample, of course, is Mitt Romney’s continuing stasis. Barack Obama’s campaign people should be studying Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election campaign. Back then, Bob Dole was the inevitable, Republican establishment candidate, dutifully nominated because of his electability, who failed to beat an eminently beatable Democratic incumbent. Romney’s people are going to have to work harder in rifling through the historical files. The candidates who have unseated incumbents in the last half-century – Bill Clinton in 1992, Ronald Reagan in 1980, and Jimmy Carter in 1976 – were blessed with two advantages Romney lacks. First, each of the incumbents faced a tough nomination fight – Pat Buchanan ran against George H.W. Bush in 1992, Ted Kennedy combated Jimmy Carter in 1980, and Reagan opposed Gerald Ford in 1976. Furthermore, Clinton, Reagan, and Carter, in their winning campaigns, were able to generate an excitement among rank and file party members, and core committed partisans, that we have not yet seen propelling Romney.

At this point, the 1980 results, which were more an ABC – Anybody but Carter – vote than a referendum for Reagan, offer the most optimistic path for Romneyites (or should we call them, with a nod at Newt Gingrich’s McGovernik remarks, Mittniks?). Romney has to try casting Obama as Carter redux, failing to manage the economy, inspire Americans, or defend the nation affirmatively abroad, hoping to win the not Yoko but ONO vote – Only not Obama.

Meme Alert: We are now being told that Republicans are Divided. How is this shocking news at the start of a presidential nomination fight when Republicans have yet to choose a candidate? Isn’t that what the election process is all about, starting divided, fragmented, tied to many candidates, and then, through the democratic process, rallying around one nominee, then one winner?

Housekeeping Detail: This is the relaunch of my Blog which covered the 2008 campaign in detail, but has been much quieter lately as I finished a book.  As in 2008, I will post at least weekly through the presidential campaign, trying to provide some historical context to the discussion. My goal is to avoid three Ps – polemics, partisanship, and predictions –and provide a valuable fourth one, perspective. This entails not only rifling through historical files as I did above, but locating this important, nationwide democratic conversation in the broad sweep of American history and presidential campaigning history. I know dear readers, from last time, that if I ever deviate from the mandate, you will be there to chide me, correct me, and help me redeem myself. And we’re off….. Gil Troy on HNN

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By Gil Troy, 5-2-11

Osama bin Laden died a spectacular failure. While his predecessor Yassir Arafat proved that terrorism can work, bin Laden proved terrorism’s limits.  Osama killed more people more flamboyantly than Arafat.  But, under Arafat, the Palestinians blasted their way onto the world’s agenda.  Osama’s nihilistic terrorism was so destructive it hurt his cause, miring Islamism in a bog of death and destructiveness.  Osama’s blood-splattered biography taught the world important lessons, including:  

We cannot escape history:  Too many Americans awoke on September 11, believing we were enjoying a holiday from history.  Communism had collapsed.  The Dow Jones was rising. Electronic gadgets were proliferating.  Serious thinkers and superficial commentators were claiming that Americans transcended history—using “history” as a euphemism for troubles.

Al Qaeda terrorism abruptly ended America’s post-Cold War idyll, highlighting even a super-power’s vulnerability in the modern world.  But the post-9/11 assumptions that this mass trauma would make American society serious proved as false as the September 10 assumptions that peace and prosperity would last forever or that anyone could escape from the various forces large and small which accumulate and shape us—which we then call history.

We can defeat terrorism:  Even before September 11, but certainly after the World Trade Center towers collapsed, the conventional wisdom imputed far too much power to terrorists.  These big bangs in New York and Washington, as well as the latest wave of Palestinian terror that had started a full year earlier in Israel, seemed to be harbingers of perpetual attacks.  But two leaders who were not afraid to be hated, President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, showed that reacting to terrorist attacks was not enough.  Pushing back militarily, hunting terrorists down, keeping them on the defensive, was the best way to prevent future attacks.  Terrorists have trouble planning attacks on the run or under bombardment.

Islamists—and eventually the Palestinians—also suffered from their own, often-overlooked, version of blowback.  Suicide bombings of office buildings and cafes, buses and bar mitzvahs triggered mass revulsion.  The terrorists lost what little romance they cultivated in the 1960s and 1970s, appearing to be barbarians who hurt their own cause.  Ten years later, Al Qaeda has nothing to show for its spectacular mass slaughter in 2001; even Hamas is more likely to deny a terrorist attack than take “credit” for it.

Islamism is evil:  Prior to 9/11, the statement was doubly problematic.  Many of our greatest thinkers recoiled from such judgmental proclamations, especially concerning any non-Western phenomena.  The crime of 9/11 was so dastardly it shocked many—not all—back into a language of good and evil, right and wrong.  And, as politically incorrect as it may be, many recognized that this fight was not just against a tactic—terrorism—but an ideology—Islamism.

Islamism is a Jihadist, holy war-oriented, perversion of Islam, rooted in some Koranic teachings, but ignoring others.  Despite their fury against Bin Laden’s brutal Islamism, few Americans attacked Arab-Americans or Muslim-Americans.  George W. Bush deserves tremendous credit for repudiating such bigotry.  American-Arabs and Muslims also helped themselves.  Most are neither Islamists nor jihadists.  The nineteen hijackers were foreign infiltrators not homegrown terrorists.  And anyone who examined America’s Arab and Muslim population encountered law-abiding citizens, many of whom sought refuge in the United States from this fundamentalist fanaticism.

Israel is not the problem:  Bin Laden’s own words demonstrated his hatred for the West, and for America’s military presence in Saudi Arabia.  He only redirected his Jihad toward Israel after 9/11, in a bid for popularity.  As with this year’s Arab spring, the facts from the Middle East disturbed the conventional wisdom in the West.  Nevertheless, so many supposed experts continued buying Palestinians’ propaganda line that solving their conflict is the keystone to world peace, when their future is not even the central regional challenge.

Democracies are resilient:  September 11 resulted from a dramatic American intelligence failure.  Following September 11, Americans feared terrorism would triumph.  President Bush made many, significant mistakes—or, as Republicans preferred to say it, mistakes were made.  Yet, like Londoners in the 1940s, or Jerusalemites in the 2000s, Americans showed a grit and a grace, a unity and a sense of community, a softness in their hearts and a toughness in their spirits, that ultimately defeated the terrorists and healed the country, even as over 3000 families, friendship circles, neighborhoods, communities continue to cope with unfathomable losses.

Presidencies often converge:  For all their differences in tone, style, and ideology, Presidents Bush and Obama have responded in remarkably similar ways to their respective presidencies’ biggest crises.  Bush looked downright Democratic in turning on the stimulus spigot to spend America out of its economic trauma.  Obama has looked downright Republican in assassinating America’s enemies whenever and wherever he can.  Perhaps, it is worth ratcheting down the rhetoric, just a bit, and understanding that responsible democratic leaders often have more limited options than it seems, and that responsible leaders often act responsibly, regardless of ideology.

In the great American musical “South Pacific,” the main character asked a soldier, “We know what you are against, what are you for?”  Bin Laden failed because he defined himself by what he opposed, while what he promoted was so chimerical, it made him look delusional and dastardly, addicted to death, with no plan for life.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 11-4-10

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University. He is the author of “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents” (Basic Books, 2008). His latest book, co-edited with Vincent J. Cannato, is “Living in the Eighties” (Oxford University Press, 2009).

The American voters gave President Barack Obama a good, old-fashioned political whupping on Tuesday.  It was a stunning political reversal as Mr. Yes We Can became Mr. Why Can’t They Understand and Appreciate Me? President Barack Obama must learn his lesson from this political drubbing.  To redeem his presidency, he must do what he originally promised to do, lead from the center—humbly and substantively.

The rise of the Tea Party, the loss of many moderate Democrats in swing districts, and the reelections of many leading liberals, led some politicos to conclude that Americans do not want centrist leadership.  This conclusion reinforces the Fox News-MSNBC view of the world as divided between good people – those who agree with me— and bad partisans—everybody else.  Instead, the results reflect American structural anomalies, where moderates come from divided districts and extremists come from strongly partisan districts.  During electoral tidal waves, the crucial swing voters veer left or right, wiping out moderates as extremists survive.

Yet with the end of the 2010 midterms marking the start of the 2012 presidential campaign, Barack Obama should worry that independent voters abandoned him en masse.  It is now clear that Obama erred by fighting for health care reform before lowering the unemployment rate.  And it is now clear that having the health care reform pass by such a partisan, polarizing vote, undermined Obama’s entire presidential leadership project.  The twentieth century’s two greatest pieces of social legislation—the 1935 Social Security Act and the 1964 Civil Rights Act—passed, after hard fights, with bipartisan support.  That the twenty-first-century’s first great piece of social legislation passed without Republican support reflects Obama’s broader leadership failure.

Obama 2.0. must resurrect one of the most powerful messages—and successful tactics—which propelled his meteoric rise to the presidency, his lyrical centrism.  Barack Obama did not just promise “hope and change,” he promised a new kind of politics.  In Audacity of Hope, Obama positioned himself as a post-partisan centrist who would resist Washington’s ways.  Central to his appeal was his lyrical, multicultural nationalism, exemplified by his eloquent denunciation of the red-state-blue-state paradigm in his extraordinary keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic national convention.  Americans did not just hire Obama to be president, they hired him to be that kind of a president, one who would reach out across the aisle, who would sing a song of national unity and purpose that was substantive, pragmatic, results-oriented, not just lofty and lovely.

Unfortunately, as president, Obama has stilled his own voice, and failed to reconcile with Republicans.  True, Republicans share responsibility for being truculent and obstructionist.  But true centrism requires finding that golden path, that middle ground.  Instead of delegating the highly partisan congress to craft the health care reform, instead of negotiating so desperately to forge his Democratic coalition, Obama needed to deliver bipartisan support for such a monumental shift in America’s status quo.  The Social Security and Civil Rights bills quickly became part of the national consensus, thanks to the consensus-building presidential leadership which ensured bipartisan passage.  By contrast, abortion has festered as an issue for decades because the Supreme Court legalized women’s right to choose, circumventing any kind of populist, consensus-building, democratic process.

Having demonstrated great potential as a cultural leader in 2008, Obama should spearhead a fight against the gong-show-governance emanating from cable TV coverage of American politics.  Watching MSNBC on Election Night, watching Keith Olbermann and company shout away at Congressman Eric Cantor—who enjoyed giving back as good as he got—I was struck by the cable echo chamber’s violent distortions.  Politicians who spend their time appearing on these shows forget that only a small percentage of Americans are watching.  The pols begin to think that everyone wants to play politics as a blood sport.  Politicians should simply stop appearing on these shows until they foster civility.

What a shame that we needed the comedian Jon Stewart to confront the Crossfire crowd in 2004.  No politician had the guts to reject the format that fostered fighting, that rewarded unreason.  Franklin Roosevelt called the presidency pre-eminently a place of moral leadership.  Obama should take the lead with substantive moves to cut down the culture of confrontation.

Obama also has to avoid presidential preening.  Blaming his losses on miscommunication not substantive policy differences will lead him and his staff to focus on how things appear rather than what they should be.  The elder statesman Dean Acheson once dismissed Richard Nixon by comparing him to a shortstop so concerned about how he looks when fielding, he misses the ball.  Obama has always struggled with a grandiose and highly self-conscious side.  Fighting for his political future, he needs to focus on substance, cultivating the big-tent governance he promised the American people.

In the 1950s, Joseph Stalin dismissed Mao Zedong as a margarine communist.  It was a delicious phrase, capturing the gruff former farm boy’s disgust for a product that looked like butter, but wasn’t.  So far, Obama has been a margarine moderate, making superficial gestures toward dialogue and compromise, then sticking to one side of the aisle.

Obama still has the time and the national good will to recover.  Most Republican campaign commercials targeted Nancy Pelosi, or Harry Reid, or big government, not the president.  This nuance reflected Obama’s personal popularity, despite his 55 percent negative job approval rating.  Moreover, the economy could still revive, unemployment could fall, the Republicans could self-destruct by misreading this election as an invitation to showcase their extremists.

Political greatness, in fact personal greatness, does not come from winning all the time, but from knowing how to turn devastating defeats into incredible opportunities.  The true test of Barack Obama the man and the president has begun.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 1-28-10

The State of the Union Address is Woodrow Wilson’s gift to future presidents. President Thomas Jefferson submitted the annual update the Constitution mandated in writing, deeming presidential appearances before Congress too monarchical. In December 1913, after his first year in office, Wilson decided to address a joint session of Congress directly. Ninety-six-years and a little more than one month later, Barack Obama took full advantage of President Wilson’s gift, appearing crisp and commanding after weeks when even the so-far-embarrassingly-pliant Washington press corps was starting to doubt Obama’s allure.

The mathematics of the State of the Union enhance the dramatics. There stands the Commander in Chief – nowadays the Celebrity in Chief, too – flanked by his Vice President and the Speaker of the House. Things in Washington have become so staged that, this year, when Vice President Joseph Biden’s purple tie matched Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s purple outfit observers wondered if their staffers coordinated their clothing. Everyone else crowded into the House of Representatives chamber is also reduced to a prop. Cabinet members, Supreme Court Justices, Generals of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 100 Senators, and 435 Representatives, sit in the well. America’s legislators end up looking ridiculous not just diminished, as the members of the President’s party bob up and down giving their leader repeated standing ovations and loud “Huzzahs!” while their rivals alternate between clapping begrudgingly and sitting in stony silence. The President wafts over the chaos, doling out his pearls of wisdom, as the people’s representatives act like schoolkids engaged in locker-room antics.

These days, the magic of television magnifies the speech’s power. The first State of the Union speech was broadcast on radio in 1923, and on television in 1947, benefitting Harry Truman as he began planning a 1948 campaign few thought he would win. Televising the speech further trivializes America’s political elite because the President speaks past them to the real audience, the American people.

Obama started strong. His presence, his fluidity, his characteristic calm and charm, reminded Americans why they elected him. Rather than trying to play cute with the usual formulation – some variation at the beginning of “the state of our union is strong” – he acknowledged the economic “devastation” and Americans’ “anxieties.” Evoking the Civil War and World War II, the Great Depression and the Civil Rights Movement, he reminded Americans that, when tested before, they “answer[ed] history’s call.”

Obama quickly plunged into a much-needed defense of the bank bailout and his stimulus plan. In his most human moment, he acknowledged that Democrats and Republicans united in hating the bailout: “I hated it. You hated it. It was about as popular as a root canal.” His stimulus defense appeared more substantive as he detailed the bill’s accomplishments. But to avoid being too professorial, Obama failed to connect the dots, not quite explaining how that controversial bill actually created the jobs he enumerated.

On health care, Obama struck the right balance between being resolute and contrite. For a “Mr. Spock” type far more similar to George W. Bush in refusing to be self-critical than to the perpetually-apologetic Bill Clinton, Obama said: “I take my share of the blame for not explaining it [the health care reform] more clearly to the American people.” As usual, Obama was better at restating the need for reform than justifying his particular prescription, but he used the power of the podium brilliantly in challenging the opposition, saying: “if anyone from either party has a better approach that will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare for seniors and stop insurance company abuses, let me know.” An uncomfortable silence reigned among the chastened Republicans, who seemed to shrink more.

Perhaps the night’s most poignant moment came when America’s political messiah of 2008 confessed his mortality in 2010. “I campaigned on the promise of change…,” the Yes-we-can man said, “[b]ut remember this – I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I can do it alone. Democracy in a nation of three hundred million people can be noisy and messy and complicated.” The President was half-right. Change is hard; but his campaign certainly implied it would be easy, which was part of its charm then, and explains the inevitable disappointment now.

Obama finished with a pep talk for partisans combined with the storyline he hopes will hold the independents. “We have finished a difficult year. We have come through a difficult decade,” he said, once again bashing Bush. “But a new year has come. A new decade stretches before us. We don’t quit. I don’t quit,” he roared, flashing the partisan steel he honed in Chicago’s political wards. “Let’s seize this moment — to start anew, to carry the dream forward, and to strengthen our union once more.”

For all the optics, one strong State of the Union address is not enough to redeem a presidency – it is too much of a “gimme,” too much of a set up, to change history. But the 2010 State of the Union showed that the obituaries pronouncing Obama’s political demise were premature. And his acknowledgment that “change” would not be easy was a rare understatement.

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By Gil Troy, HNN, 12-15-09

As we enter the last few weeks of the first decade of the twenty-first century, if we had a better name for this period, we might have a firmer fix on its identity. Modern Americans are decade-focused, packaging our historical memories in easily-labeled ten-year chunks: the Sixties, the Seventies, the Eighties, the Nineties. Yet neither the “oh-ohs” nor the “oughts” has stuck as a label, making this decade’s character elusive. With 2010 fast approaching, branding our trying times can help us understand them better.

Yes, as historians we know that we should not fall into this decade-labeling trap. We know that it leads to oversimplification. But we also know that periodization is a valuable weapon in our historians’ arsenal, helping us make some sense out of the passage of time. And we also know that just because we don’t plunge in and offer our judgments it won’t stop others. Let’s face it. Journalists – and more superficial popularizers — rush in where historians fear to tread.

At first blush, this period has been marked by catastrophes. The Al Gore-George W. Bush electoral deadlock of 2000 exposed major fault lines in American democracy. In 2001, the dot-com bubble burst and the most lethal attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor murdered nearly 3000 Americans on 9/11. Two years later, in 2003, President Bush led us to war in Iraq. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Finally, the financial meltdown of 2008 triggered America’s worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

Any one of these traumas could have defined a decade. When they look back on this cascade of catastrophes, Americans in the future will assume our lives were miserable, practically unlivable. Yet, for most of us, life has continued. We have maintained our routines, while watching these disasters unfold on the news. In fact, these have been relatively good years. America remains the world’s playground, the most prolific, most excessive platform for shopping and fun in human history. Most Americans can take for granted that our basic human needs of food, clothing, shelter, will be met. We enjoy a stable government while our liberties expand and the microchip miracles dazzle. In perhaps the greatest sign of robust social health, in 2007 America experienced its highest birthrate in fifty years, since those giddy baby boom days. And on Election Day 2008, Americans welcomed Barack Obama’s rise to the presidency with a redemptive, affirmative “Yes We Can.”

Amid all the happy talk, for all the shopping, Americans have responded to the various crises with an odd mix of despair and disinterest. Experts caution that America’s empire is teetering, America’s seemingly-never-ending boom is ending, the unemployment figures are, quite literally, depressing. But, except for the mobilization around Obama’s election, the dire warnings rarely trigger action. Many more Americans watch the Super Bowl than vote. Americans seem dangerously resigned to the status quo. Ours is an era of delighted nihilism, epitomized in Simple Plan’s mega-hit: “I’m just a kid and life is a nightmare,” sung to a happy, infectious beat. Further illustrating this disconnect, Michael Jackson’s recent death engaged many more Americans more intensely than the tragic deaths of over four thousand heroic American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003. It seems that Americans collectively have said to these repeated, frequently-sobering calamities what too many of our teenagers have said to their parents lately: “whatever.”

The aptly-named oh-ohs are the Whatever Era. In this decade of dissociation Americans collectively seem to wallow in the defensive, post-traumatic mental state wherein individuals disconnect from memories, emotions, actions. Our dismissive, passive, amusement imperative amid such great disasters reflects social strength – and weakness. According to Dr. Patti Levin, a Boston-based psychologist, even when people do not experience traumas directly, mass disasters such as 9/11 and the economic crash become “vicarious traumas,” puncturing individuals’ myth of the “just world,” as they discover that “no longer do bad things only happen to bad people – or to others – but they can happen to anyone, including themselves.” Some then succumb to a “detached, hopeless (not even daring to hope) state of passive victimhood,” what Dr. Martin Seligman termed “Learned Helplessness.”

Long-term trends intensify the collective PTS – post traumatic stress – Americans are exhibiting these days. The twentieth century was a centrifugal century. The revolutions of capitalist consumerism, individuating technologies, and personal liberty, all celebrating the “I” not the “us,” cut ties to community, dismissing tradition. Even Ronald Reagan’s supposedly traditional post-Sixties counterattack propelled Americans away from the past and each other. The Reaganite Eighties were an age of conservative libertinism, encouraging individualistic disconnection and less social responsibility. Right-wingers demonstrated the great conservative blind spot, denouncing many social changes without acknowledging how the capitalist consumerism they championed undermined the traditions they cherished. From the left, Barack Obama and others have also talked about the need for community while ignoring how rights-based liberalism helped shape our epidemic of selfishness and failing to shake the status quo boldly enough to restore a sense of American engagement and empowerment.

Great pessimism during economic busts is as characteristically American as great optimism during boom times. The oh-ohs’ whateverism is less fleeting and thus more dangerous. A culture of denial, disengagement, dissociation is dysfunctional. We need a culture of engagement and responsibility, even with all our traumas, distractions and high-tech toys.

NOTE: If you have other suggestions regarding how to label this decade, please post here or email them to me at: namethatdecade.america@gmail.com

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