Finally, the 2012 general election in the USA is over. Even for a die hard such as myself the sheer expanse and intensity of this event is exhausting and, results aside, it’s a major relief. Our attentions can turn back to issues of importance rather than the grand and heavily disingenuous courtship between government and people that every cycle seems to get a little longer and a lot more expensive. There’s plenty to be said about the nature of the campaigns and the easily criticised system of electioneering and funding and all the rest but it would be nicer to now look forward.
Obama emerged the undisputed winner, which to myself at least was a very pleasing thing and we can only wait to see how he approaches his second term. The key interest there will be to see if he maintains his cautious approach of the first term, or rather takes the gloves off, having personally nothing to lose at this point, and aggressively pursues those unattained goals. One would hope the latter, as the cautious approach didn’t go a particularly long way the first time round.
From the start of 2009, that initial pledge to work in a bipartisan fashion was torn to shreds by a Republican opposition who rapidly adopted a mission to ensure that Obama would not see a second term in office. The first two years were a fairly stuttering affair, and though arguably the administration was successful in averting further economic catastrophe, this success wasn’t sufficiently translated into real improvements in the lives of the average American. The resulting Tea Party movement was co-opted by harder leaning Republicans who in step with Fox News went about lambasting the efforts and intentions of the president.
The result was heavy losses in the House of Representatives at the mid-terms and a further two years of legislative gridlock and increasing dissatisfaction amongst the people over the concern that government was becoming less and less a functional mechanism. Though the House was retained by the GOP, with four clear years ahead there is a strong expectation that Obama will be able to take this obstacle on in a less tender manner.
What is of greater interest to me however is the crossroads at which the Republicans now stand. Despite the spectrum of American politics being noticeably more to the right in general than in the UK, there are plenty of parallels to draw between the dire straits the Tories found themselves in during the late 90’s and where the Republicans are now. Beyond that the overall strategy has resoundingly failed, that the voting public rejected the vitriolic display of far right sentiment seen in the past four years, there are some deep and concerning factors for them.
First, the Republican party has only won the popular vote in one of six of the last elections, in 2004 when W. Bush still relatively narrowly defeated Kerry. The last convincing popular victory was in 1988 when H.W. Bush hammered Michael Dukakis in the electoral college. We should all be only too familiar with the infamous events of 2000 when W. Bush lost the popular vote to Gore and barely swung the electoral college after nefarious circumstances around the Florida recount gave that state to Bush. The problem here is that the demographics of the USA continue to shift towards more ethnic minorities who have in the past decade strongly favoured Democratic candidates. The popular vote is only going to get harder for the Republicans and there is only so much time left for the inconsistencies of the electoral college to give them a reasonable chance.
So much as Euroscepticism was the major stumbling block for the Tories, hardline xenophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric in the Republican party could spell the end for them. They desperately need to find a way to appeal to those minorities through finding their moderate views again. Cameron and his compassionate conservatism did eventually see the party back from the wilderness and into power, however tenuous, and it seems clear that taking the middle ground is always the key to political success. It’s how Labour surged to victory in 1997 and it’s probably the only way forward for Republicanism.
Moderation of course shouldn’t just apply to areas like immigration. Though Romney did perform poorly amongst minorities, the other area he suffered in was with women, most likely through his party’s rather odious positions on abortion rights and other social issues like equal pay and homosexuality. These views were only reinforced by the parties collusion with the financially and socially conservative Tea Party movement which was itself over-hyped by a conservative media seeing to draw attention to any point of dissatisfaction amongst the people over the new liberal administration. This lurch to the right has patently failed.
The Democrats should have lost this election. At no point in the last 40 years has an incumbent held on to power with unemployment above 7.5% and going into the final days of this election it remained close to 8%. Romney is naturally a moderate politician, as seen in his days as governor of Massachusetts, and should in theory have been perfectly positioned to take power. But after months of a primary battle which saw him re-tailor almost every one of his natural positions in order to appeal to a more hardened base, he had very little space to manoeuvre.
In the immediate wake of the election outcome, various conservative pundits have suggested he was too moderate and this a rather scary thing. It seems far more likely that it was his shift to the right that disengaged those important voting blocks and handed a genuinely unlikely victory to Obama. With voices on the right already calling for a reaffirmation of conservative values, they seem to have entirely missed the point. Like the Tories, by rooting out or hushing up those hard elements they could conceivably find their feet.
Incidentally, aren’t we now watching the Tories lose theirs again? With a petulant little wing of the party now rearing it’s ugly anti-EU head, we can already see the extent to which it is politically hazardous. The consistency of these issues in sending conservative politics into the wilderness is startling and for the sake of a healthy state of American governance, which is important for the rest of the world, it’s about time the message was heeded.
Moderate, and quickly. It couldn’t be said with any certainty that this will happen, as with the House still under Republican control they still possibly have enough clout to, for the time being, remain an obstinate political force. But if for the next two years they remain an immovable object against what should be a determined administration, the perception of overall ineffectual governance will shift towards themselves as being the problem and they will suffer for it at the next mid-terms. Where they would go from that point is very hard to say and so all the more reason for some real introspection.