Thursday, 8 November 2012

A relief for Europe - but will gridlock persist?

Anxious Europeans have been able to breathe easier the past two days, after Tuesday’s reelection of US president Barack Obama. But the relief has much more to do with the defeat of Mitt Romney than with Obama himself.

Europe isn’t the only place feeling relieved because of a dislike for Romney. Outside Israel, there probably wasn’t one country on the globe that was excited about the prospect of a Romney presidency.

The Republican candidate's dangerous rhetoric seemed almost guaranteed to launch a war with Iran which no US allies would have been keen to sign up to. He had described Russia as America’s “greatest geopolitical foe” and had spoken of China as if it was the evil empire, promising to “get tough” with them in a way Obama hadn’t (although he never provided details about what that would mean). Latin America recoiled at his extreme anti-immigration rhetoric, and Africa was less than excited about his promises to cut US overseas aid.

In Brussels, there is a sense that long-stalled bilateral issues that were waiting until the resolution of the election can finally be taken off the back burner. There is (perhaps naïve) hope that a second-term Obama can show up to the UN climate summit in Doha next month with a reverse-course on the US intransigence in taking action to combat global warming. Negotiations on a US-EU free trade deal can now begin. Most importantly – fears that Europe was about to see a return to the trans-Atlantic tensions that marked the George W. Bush era have now been allayed.

That being said, European politicians are under no illusion that this reelection will suddenly give them the Barack Obama they thought they were getting in 2008. There is hope that now that he does not need to worry about reelection he will be freer to “let his conscience guide him”, as one European diplomat put it. But Europeans understand that the situation remains the same as it did before the election. With a Republican House of Representatives and a filibuster-enabled Republican minority in the Senate, the recipe for gridlock in Washington remains unchanged. On climate, for example, Obama cannot sign up to an international deal to reduce emissions which he knows a Republican congress will reject.

GOP bubble burst

However, there is a possibility Republicans will change their tune now that they do not have the all-important goal of preventing a second Obama term looming over everything they do. In 2010, after the Republican takeover of the congress, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said the party’s “top polical priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term.” He wasn’t kidding. Republicans stymied anything that the president might have agreed with, even if it was bills that they themselves had previously supported or even crafted.

A humbled Republican congress, which no longer has the prize of unseating the president foremost in their minds, may now be willing to allow legislation to pass and end this dark two-year period of American politics. This past congress was the most unproductive in US history.

Clearly the Republican Party has a period of soul-searching ahead of it. They can come to one of two conclusions:

First, they could decide that the reason Mitt Romney was so thoroughly defeated was because he wasn’t a “real” conservative. They can take the lesson that the party needs to tack even further to the right, and needs to nominate a true conservative like Sarah Palin or Rick Santorum, rather than nominating a former moderate like Romney and making him pretend to be a “severe conservative” (as Romney himself phrased it) in order to win over the base.

The other conclusion they could draw is that it was the fact that they forced Romney to pretend to be a “severe conservative” that was the problem. If they had just allowed Romney to run as the same Romney who was governor in Massachusetts, they wouldn’t have alienated women, Latinos and young people and would have won the election.

Of course anyone of sound mind can see which conclusion is the right one here. But I’m not at all confidant that it is the latter conclusion that they will come to. There is already a narrative emerging on Fox News that where Republicans went wrong was not being faithful enough to their core conservative convictions. And they are blaming the “liberal media” for stealing the election and bamboozling the American public.

But really, it is Fox News that is the problem here. Republicans were shocked by the loss, which was on evidence in the embarrassingmeltdown experienced on Fox News during their coverage of the election on Tuesday night. The alternatate universe they had constructed for themselves suddenly came crashing into reality, and the result wasn’t pretty.

The conservative media in the US exists in a self-contained feedback loop. Right-wing talk radio feeds in to Fox News, which feeds back to radio, which feeds to the right wing blogs. The consumers of conservative media watch and read only these outlets, and they emerge with a completely divergent idea of reality. As Bill Maher noted last night on MSNBC, “Republicans have to start getting their information from some place other than Fox News. They were shocked by this election. They only talk to each other. And they were rudely awakened last night."

Can Republicans reform?

If Republicans can get out of their bubble and decide to accept the second explanation for their loss – that they have moved too far to the right – they would do well to take some lessons from Britain’s Conservative Party.

By the late 1990s the Tories had become a toxic political brand in the UK. Tony Blair had led the Labour Party in a shift to the right. “New Labour” occupied a space in the middle that gobbled up much of the electorate and relegated the Tories to the margins. The only way the party was able to escape from the political wilderness was by moving to the left. When David Cameron became party leader he led a campaign to shed the “nasty Tories” image the party had acquired. He embraced gay marriage, gave a landmark speech about understanding youth crime (dubbed by the media as his “hug a hoodie speech”) and worked to include minorities in his shadow cabinet.

The tactic worked. The Tories were voted back into power in 2010 – a feat analysts said would not have been possible were it not for Cameron’s efforts to move the party toward the center. But the party was still so toxic from its nastiness in the 1990s (opposing gay rights, social welfare and harping on ‘family values’) that they still weren’t able to obtain an absolute majority – having to unite with the Liberal Democrats to form a coalition government.

It takes a long time for a party to shed a nasty image, and I wonder how many years of damage the Republican Party has done to itself. I don’t know anyone my age who would vote for a Republican presidential candidate. Granted, I’m from the Northeast so that skews things a bit. But to people of my generation and from where I’m from, the party really is toxic.

Ironically, it was George W. Bush was tried to bring the party toward the center in the early stages of his campaign in 2000, with the invention of “Compassionate Conservatism”. The thinking then was that the party had to win back centrist voters after Bill Clinton’s successful move of the Democratic party to the right (the “New Democrats”).

But that Republican strategy quickly went off the rails, unable to stand up to the strong influence of the US hard right. The 2000 campaign quickly became overloaded with social issues. The 9/11 attacks morphed what had been intended to be a domestic presidency into a neo-con orgy of warmongering. By the time of Bush’s reelection bid in 2004 the party had become obsessed with terrorism and the three G’s – gays, guns and god. Obama's win in 2008 gave rise to the bizarre Tea Party movement - whose pretense to being about smaller government masked the fact that these were the same old social conservatives, but in funny hats.

The party has moved further and further to the right since then. At this point, were the Republican Party to be in Western Europe, it would be considered a far-right party. Democrats, by comparison, would be more toward the center-right in continental Europe. The center-left, as it exists in France and Germany, is just not present in any position of power in the United States.

Republicans are right when they say that the United States is fundamentally a center-right country. But the problem for them is, the Democrats now occupy that space. They as a party have moved far to the right of where the country is as a whole.

There are plenty of Republicans who are unhappy with the current state of the party, who were mortified by the spectacle of the Republican primary in this race and want the party to expunge the tea party lunatics. But there are just as many ‘lunatics’ on the other side who will not go quietly, and they still a force to be reckoned with. A logical outcome of all this might be for the party to split into social conservative and economic conservative halves. The social conservative part is large enough that it needs to be represented in US politics somehow. But the fact that an extremist element has taken over the entire party, a party which represents one half of the American political spectrum, has led to dysfunctional politics.

It will be interesting to see how the Republican Party will react to this defeat.

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