The Romney Challenge

by Gaurav - Nov 7, 2012 01:57 AM +05:30 IST
The Romney Challenge

Full disclosure: Even though Mitt Romney was not my favourite candidate, I prefer him over Obama for being, well not Obama

Also please read my previous post on American politics

Today is the day when Americans (the real Americans that is* ) decide who will be their next head of state and owner of the hope diamond**. Even though Barack Obama, the incumbent is still the favourite, the race has considerably tightened in recent weeks, which might be the most sense this, anything but conventional, race has made to yours truly.

Convention dictated that Barack Obama, facing anti-incumbency, presiding over a weak economy still not recovered from 2009 recession, a high unemployment rate exacerbated by dispirited populace dropping out of workforce,  deeply unpopular legislation in form of Obamacare, and facing criticism over mishandling of economy, had an herculean task before him.

That however didn’t happen, at-least initially. Obama was helped by protracted Republican primaries.  Mitt Romney, the eventual Republican nominee, was deeply unpopular with conservative activist within Republican party who viewed him with suspicion for his past deviation from conservative path (ironically just four earlier he was the conservative candidate against John “maverick” McCain), in his quest Romney was threatened by many ‘not Romney ‘candidates from ‘vanilla’ former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty to ‘cowboy’ present Texas Governor Rick Perry, to ‘controversial’ former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, to ‘colourful’ Herman Cain to social conservative Rick Santorum. However not any one of them could overcome Romney’s vastly superior groundwork and fundraising, laid since his last run in 2008, finally paving the way for Romney’s candidacy.

However there were two fallouts, one this nomination by points rather than knock-out didn’t warm the conservative activists to the idea of Romney candidacy. More importantly this allowed Obama campaign to define Romney.

Obama campaign faced a very fundamental and seemingly insurmountable dilemma. In US, contests where incumbent is running for re-election are referred to as referendum elections, the idea being election are referendum on incumbent’s record. In case of Barack Obama, this was an issue because well there was no good news to spread, there was no morning in America, no satisfactory rejoinder for “are you better off now than you were four years ago”.

Luckily for Obama, modern politics is art of manipulating the narrative, and very early in the election cycle Obama campaign decided to make it a choice election, to pretend as if Obama is not the incumbent and contrast him with Romney.

Obama was better positioned here. Despite unpopularity of his policies, he was personally popular,  to some extent a result of halo effect of being first African American president, to some extent American public blaming George W Bush for the recession, and to a large extent, helped by a biased media.

Even then there was a problem, as Governor of Massachusetts, Romney had governed as a moderate, frequently compromising with democrats, so it was not possible to cast him as an extremist southern like George W Bush. There is no problems with fact that a little (or in this case a lot) spinning can’t solve.

Thus even as Romney was finding his footing in the arena, Obama campaign launched attacks from three fronts,

First which was mostly under the radar but most insidious, was stoking the religious sentiments, particularly among evangelicals, against Mormon church to which Romney belongs.

Second, cultural, in form of inane “war of women”, with American women told that denial of free contraceptives by Catholic universities to middle class thirty year old woman was tantamount to situation in handmaid’s tale

The most important front was the trusted class warfare, Obama campaign portrayed Romney as a greedy, out of touch, fat cat 1%er whose sole agenda was to turn middle class American to Soylent Green and feed to his fellow plutocrats (I exaggerate but not much). In contract Obama was (once again) saviour of the hard working Americans, who will lead them back to prosperity using Green energy and unicorn flatulence (again I exaggerate, but not much)

This three pronged attack caught Romney campaign on the wrong foot, and started a summer of flailing for them. Romney campaign tried to claw back, but much to dismay of conservatives, Obama maintained a consistent (if not comfortable) lead.

So script for Obama’s successful re-election was set, or so it seemed. In a twist worthy of Hollywood Pot-boiler, Obama was upstaged by Romney in the first debate. Romney domination over Obama was total, while Obama looked uncomfortable, Romney was at ease. This was Romney’s first introduction to common  Americans and far from the image of a out of touch plutocrat image projected by Obama campaign, he came across as amiable but sincere, a man, in short who could be trusted.

This fundamentally changed the dynamics of the game. In matter of days Romney was running neck to neck with Obama, the conservative base was now energized and previously safe (for Obama) states seemed competitive.

However even as Romney was making a renewed pitch, a very surprising October surprise intervened, Hurricane Sandy, it froze the campaign forcing Romney to tone down his assertiveness, more importantly it allowed Obama to present himself in favourable light thus catching his slide.This is how the situation remains.

Now unlike most of the people I don’t put much stock in the election forecast, elections especially tight ones are complicated, and can be affected by turnout in the battleground states, planetary alignment or a butterfly in Shanghai.

What interest me more is the repercussion of the either Romney or Obama win. But first a word of caution.

The amount of chatter surrounding Presidential elections may mislead people into thinking that winning election is all what it takes for party to implement its agenda, but in reality that’s not even half of it.

America has a divided system of government, President as the head of executive has the power to implement the government agenda, but he can’t enact it, the power of enacting or legislating it is in hands of Congress divided into bicameral  chambers as Senate and House Of Representative. Unlike India, where all the votes are on party lines, there is usually a lot of cross voting, dependent on sentiment of common Americans. Generally speaking unless there is a crisis American public doesn’t approve of big deviation from status quo, which is why it is difficult to push through drastic and permanent changes through the legislature.

If Romney wins, it will be a big boost to conservative movements, it will have seized the initiative, but from that it will be a protracted battle in the legislature and final outcome will depend on not only the composition of both chambers but also the public sentiment.

However if it is Obama who is victor, conservatives wont be able to  enact any conservative agenda, their task for next four years will be to prevent Obama from pushing liberal agenda,  that will be dependant on their retaining the lower chamber i.e. House Of Representative,  and somehow wresting upper chamber i.e. Senate from Democrats.

But to do that they will have to prevent Obama from seizing the control of narrative, unless the result is very close, Obama and his allies in media will like to appropriate the result as mandate for transformational changes. If conservatives don’t want this to happen, they will have to refocus the debate back to the faltering economy and put Obama on the defensive.

The most crucial difference this election will make in appointment of Supreme Court judges, who unlike India are appointed for life time, and hold a lot of power in bringing fundamental change, their appointment therefore is almost once in generation opportunity to influence the course of politics over several years.


President, Captain Mal Reynolds Appreciation Society, CRI Chapter
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