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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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

(REUTERS)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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McGill on the Move with Gil Troy

Date: Tue, 10/23/2012 – 6:00pm – 8:00pm

Don’t miss your chance to hear one of North America’s leading presidential scholars discuss the upcoming US presidential election! McGill historian Gil Troy, author of the recently released book History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008, will give his take on the upcoming election in his talk, “Some things never change – The 2012 Presidential campaign in historical perspective.” For more than 200 years, candidates have campaigned for the highest office in the land, debating the major issues facing the country, capturing the attention of the voters, and reflecting the will of the people. Presidential elections are the centerpiece of American democracy, as citizens go to the polls every four years to choose a new leader. Professor Troy will take us through a fascinating political journey through American history, reflect on both the Obama and Romney campaigns, and postulate what might come to pass this November. A native of Queens, New York, Gil Troy is a Professor of History at McGill and a Visiting Scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He is the author of several books, including History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008, Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s and Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady. He comments frequently about the American presidency on television and radio, and has published articles in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe and USA Weekend.

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McGill on the Move with Gil Troy (Boston alumni branch)
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Description: Don’t miss your chance to hear one of North America’s leading presidential scholars discuss the upcoming US presidential election!

McGill historian Gil Troy, author of the recently released book History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008, will give his take on the upcoming election in his talk, “Some things never change – The 2012 Presidential campaign in historical perspective.”

For more than 200 years, candidates have campaigned for the highest office in the land, debating the major issues facing the country, capturing the attention of the voters, and reflecting the will of the people.

Presidential elections are the centerpiece of American democracy, as citizens go to the polls every four years to choose a new leader.

Professor Troy will take us through a fascinating political journey through American history, reflect on both the Obama and Romney campaigns, and postulate what might come to pass this November.

A native of Queens, New York, Gil Troy is a Professor of History at McGill and a Visiting Scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

He is the author of several books, including History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008, Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s and Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady. He comments frequently about the American presidency on television and radio, and has published articles in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe and USA Weekend.

Details: RSVP/Pre-Register: August 27 – October 19, 2012

Admissions: $15 (includes light refreshments and one non-alcoholic beverage)

Date/Time: Tuesday, October 23, 2012 6:00 PM to 8:00 PM
Location(s): MOITI (Boston Fish Pier),
212 Northern Avenue, East Building I, Suite 300
Boston, Massachusetts, 02210
U. S. A.
View map
RSVP/Pre-Register: August 22, 2012 to October 19, 2012
Admissions:
General $15.00 USD
Equivalent to $14.56 CAD charge per ticket.
(includes hors d’oeuvres, one non-alcoholic bev)
# of tickets
Web link: http://giltroy.com/
Contact: •  Event Registrar
Phone: 1-800-567-5175 x. 7684
Email: event.registration@mcgill.ca

•  Boston Alumni Branch
Email: boston.alumni@mcgill.ca

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Toronto Star 10-11-12

SAUL LOEB/AFP/GETTY IMAGES US President Barack Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney participate in the first presidential debate last week. (Oct. 3, 2012)

The fact that the first U.S. presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney changed the campaign narrative so dramatically reflects just how volatile the American electorate’s feelings are in 2012.

Before the first debate last week, reporters seemed ready to declare Romney’s campaign dead — more than a month before election day, Nov. 6. But after nearly 70 million Americans watched Romney dominate and Obama retreat, most pundits and many polls declared the race on again — and extremely close.

This abrupt plot reversal also confirms what should be any American patriot’s and any westerner’s fear regarding this campaign — that neither candidate will win this electoral contest; one of them simply will not lose. To face its many economic, political, diplomatic and structural challenges, the United States needs a strong, effective leader with a clear, affirming mandate. But the current president, enduring high unemployment and an anemic recovery, is facing voters with his negatives at historic highs for electioneering incumbents. And his challenger, handicapped by public skepticism and a divided Republican party, is going into the election with his popularity at historic lows for any major party nominee.

The huge television audience for the debate showed that Americans recognize this election’s importance and their own doubts about both candidates. Americans like falling in love with politicians. Obama’s 2008 Hope-and-Change euphoria was not only about Barack Obama’s eloquence and political pixie dust; it was about Americans seeking redemption through inspiration. Unlike the Canadian prime minister, the American president is both head of state and head of government, concentrating tremendous power and symbolism in one office. And the American story is one of high ideals and great faith in tomorrow.

A visit to the Tower of London the day after the debates reinforced this notion. Until the modern era, much of British history, with its succession wars between relatives, was a story of ruthless power struggles motivated by greed, jealousy and ambition, illustrated by beheaded queens, a Bloody Tower, the Traitors Gate. American mudslinging in campaign commercials, pamphlets and speeches does not measure up. American rhetorical daggers and blackened reputations are simply no match for severed British heads impaled on a stick.

Moreover, underlying most U.S. political campaigns — including this one — are fundamental questions about what Americans believe, how they see themselves and who they want to be.

During the debate, the two candidates kept clashing over the nature of American government.

Romney said: “In my opinion, the government is not effective in — in bringing down the cost of almost anything. As a matter of fact, free people and free enterprises trying to find ways to do things better are able to be more effective in bringing down the costs than the government will ever be.”

Obama then affirmed his belief that “the federal government has the capacity to help open up opportunity and create ladders of opportunity and to create frameworks where the American people can succeed.” Invoking the great American martyr, Abraham Lincoln, Obama said his predecessor “understood” that there are “some things we do better together.”

Romney and Obama are not extremists. Romney acknowledged the need for collective action, taxes, even government regulation — unlike his party’s fanatics. And Obama toasted the free enterprise system — unlike his party’s fanatics. Nevertheless, within their narrowed spectrum, serious philosophical differences that would translate into policy differences remain.

Amid this background, Barack Obama’s great debating failure was not in looking down so frequently, as many commentators complained, but in not helping Americans look up enough. Since his inaugural address, when two wars, a possible depression, and terrorist threats weighed down his once lofty rhetoric, Obama has been a more leaden leader than anyone anticipated when he was elected. The challenges are indeed sobering. The needs are pressing. The divisions are increasing. And the crises seem to be proliferating.

Throughout these next three weeks of high-level, first-rate, tough political combat, the memories of the first debate will be upstaged and its impact diluted. Romney and Obama will meet for two more rounds, one in a town hall forum with voters and one final confrontation on foreign policy. But the challenge for each will remain — can Obama provide a vision for a second term that inspires and can Romney offer a rationale for his election beyond not being Obama? Even amid all this trouble, the United States remains the great dream factory of the world, and Americans still want to believe.

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and the author of eight books, including Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama.

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OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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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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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