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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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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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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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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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Canada.com, 11-5-10

….Gil Troy, an American who teaches U.S. political history at McGill University in Montreal, cautions that however passionate Canada’s Tea Party wannabes might be, their ideals are unlikely to ignite the same fires in this country as in the U.S.

For one thing, Canada’s economy is in far better shape. Troy says the wreckage in the U.S. — high unemployment, shuttered factories, foreclosed homes — is the real reason behind the Tea Party’s success this year.

“Their victories are the result of economic distress, and the fear that there’s something seriously wrong with the country,” says Troy. “If we take out the recession, if we take out the sense that there’s serious dysfunction going on, would there be the same kind of phenomenon? I don’t think so.”…

Troy says not only is that divide less acute in Canada, but that political discourse here remains far more civil. Canadian debate has not yet been hijacked by what he calls the “toxic media culture and the toxic blogosphere” that feed the Tea Party’s populist anger.

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By Gil Troy, The Globe & Mail, 5-17-10

Did Elena Kagan somehow lose her voice and soul while climbing her way to the top?

Ms. Kagan reveals she is one of Bork’s babies

For New Yorkers born in the 1960s, U.S. President Barack Obama’s nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court triggered the frissons of pride and envy many of us feel when someone our age and from our humble background makes it.

But Ms. Kagan’s careerist conundrum is particularly fascinating. Did this woman with the perfect Princeton-Oxford-Harvard résumé somehow lose her voice and her soul while climbing professionally as deliberately as she did?

To be fair, to young New Yorkers in the 1970s, the notion of a woman sitting on the Supreme Court was downright revolutionary. Ms. Kagan’s nomination is the ultimate Free to Be … You and Me moment.

Back in 1972, Marlo Thomas and some celebrity friends released a gender-bending, mind-expanding series of songs, poems and stories that became a best-selling album and book, as well as an Emmy-award-winning television special.

The football great Rosey Grier sang It’s All Right to Cry, encouraging boys to show their emotions, too, because “crying gets the sad out of you.” A pre-disco Diana Ross sang When We Grow Up, reassuring youngsters, “Well, I don’t care if I’m pretty at all/And I don’t care if you never get tall/ I like what I look like and you’re nice small/ We don’t have to change at all.” Alan Alda and Marlo Thomas performed William’s Doll, with William ultimately being vindicated after being taunted by his friends: “a doll, a doll, William wants a doll.”

All this delightfully iconoclastic feminist propaganda paved the way for an unmarried 50-year-old woman to become what she dreamed of becoming.

And yet, Ms. Kagan’s résumé seems too perfect. She may have forgotten the essential message of Free to Be … You and Me’s title song: “Every boy in this land grows to be his own man. In this land, every girl grows to be her own woman.” This woman, who posed in judicial robes for her Hunter College High School yearbook, may have been too calculating in climbing to the top. She has taken remarkably few public stands, entered into surprisingly few public controversies for a woman of her prominence and power. Even her academic writings focused on safe analyses of administrative law while other law professors debated issues passionately.

In this way, Ms. Kagan reveals she is one of Bork’s Babies, a product of the searing battle that resulted in the Senate’s rejecting Ronald Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee Judge Robert H. Bork in 1987. At the time, ambitious law clerks like Ms. Kagan watched how critics vacuumed through Mr. Bork’s past, blasting decades-old articles he authored, even snooping into his video rentals seeking something embarrassing – turned out Mr. Bork liked Fred Astaire movies. From then on, many of my Washington-oriented friends openly worried about their “paper trails.” Their moral calculus was blunted, replaced by the ubiquitous question, “How will it look in my confirmation hearings?”

As a result, cadres of careerists trudged ahead in America’s anxious army of the ambitious. Warned not to rock the boat, always looking ahead to the next promotion, their motto was “CYA,” which, less crudely rendered, meant cover your backside. Many of these cool, pragmatic technocrats have climbed high in corporate America and in politics – but at what cost?

If Elena Kagan is confirmed, she will join America’s most elite club, which has become the preserve of Ivy League meritocrats. Atop the Supreme Court building on Capitol Hill, just below the motto, “Equal Justice Under Law,” we may have to add a sign saying: “No country judges need apply – not even State law school graduates.”

Still, we do not know how Ms. Kagan will act. She may prove to have been a phony phoenix, emerging, after years of hiding it, as a full-throated ideologue. Alternatively, decades of calculated accommodating might keep her building bridges as she did when she was dean of Harvard Law School.

Regardless, as a professor and a parent, I wonder: Do I advise my students and my children that they are “free to be you and me?” Or, to go as far as some want to go, must they squelch their voices, round their edges, and be the corporate careerists that excessive media scrutiny in a polarizing political culture demands they be?

Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington.

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Gil Troy “BALLOT BOX BLUES – Votes for sale: Political candy replaces ideas and ideals”

Canwest News, 1-11-09

“If ever there was a moment where we needed a candidate who could come out with a big idea, we just experienced it, in the Canadian and American elections,” says Gil Troy, a political historian at McGill University. “This was a real leadership moment. But as the stock markets imploded, the candidates just went small bore rather than embracing big ideas.” “I didn’t hear anything from (Stephen) Harper or (Stephane) Dion that was particularly illuminating,” he says. “There was no inspiration and no insight. It was deeply disappointing.” Dion had tried to campaign on a big idea, but his Green Shift was so poorly explained, and so quickly overshadowed by the unfolding economic crisis, says Troy, that if anything it proved ideas don’t work in election campaigns anymore.

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