Steve Royston

US Elections: 10 Subjects Obama and Romney Won’t Debate

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It’s election time in America. The conventions are over. The nation’s heartstrings are still vibrating with the tears, the fears, the visions and the programs laid out like special offers in the great political supermarket. Something for everyone, and yes, the candidates are just like you and me, are they not?

Next up are the debates. Political debates in the US are mainly confined to elections, but common currency in my country, the UK, where the party leaders beat the life out of each other every week in Parliament.

Debates are a blood sport. We love a good scrap, and wait for the telling blows, the one-liners, the zingers, the sound bites. Take Lloyd Bentsen’s famous putdown of Reagan’s running mate, Dan Quayle, for example. When Quayle suggested that he had “as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency”, the crushing riposte was “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy, I knew Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”

Debates are ideal for the Twitter generation, because the format requires the candidates to frame their points in words of one syllable and in the least possible time. So the big picture rules, and usually the big picture obscures the inconvenient detail that lies beneath. Even when the candidates fire statistics at each other, there is little opportunity to dissect the meaning, source and relevance of the numbers being spat out.

In the end, what do we get? An impression of presidential (or in the case of my country, prime ministerial) qualities? A catastrophic gaffe that makes the speaker look like an idiot? An impression of trustworthiness (remember Nixon’s five o’clock shadow and sweaty face in his debate with Kennedy). The winner tends to be the one who tweaks the emotions of the viewers to the best effect – hope, fear and anger are the best currency.

The way the candidates handle the really awkward questions is usually the most instructive aspect of the debates. They will be prepared for anything, but that preparation usually involves coming up with diversionary tactics whenever the question – if honestly answered – is likely to produce a response unpalatable to the listening millions.

Here are ten propositions – if the moderator should put them to the candidates – are likely to be batted away, fudged or drowned by platitudes. I offer my comments on each – in case you come away with the impression that I am not a friend of America – with sympathy, and in the knowledge that many of the factors in play are common to my country and countless others.

That Presidents can do some good but a lot of harm.

Presidential manifestos are fantasies written for the gullible. The US Constitution is specifically designed to limit the powers of the president. What ’s more, one only has to look at Barack Obama’s impotence in the face of the Euro crisis, the determination of Congress to block any economic measure that implies increased taxation and the hasty amendment of the Democratic manifesto statement about Jerusalem’s status as the capital of Israel.

Presidents seem to find it easier to lead their country into disastrous and costly wars than to gain consensus over measures that will genuinely improve the outlook for the country in the long term rather than pander to an electorate addicted to entitlement.

The last president to deliver nation-shifting change for the better was Lyndon Johnson with his great society legislation. But his actions in Vietnam and Cambodia effectively evened the score between positive and negative. You could argue that Ronald Reagan was the midwife for the collapse of the Iron Curtain, but whether that event benefited ordinary Americans is debatable, as the paranoia over the communist threat was succeeded by the fear of the terrorist.

Yes, presidents can make people feel good, as did Reagan and Clinton. But without extraordinary conditions being in place, they can only mitigate and react to conditions and situations entirely beyond their control.

That the nation’s lifestyle is unsustainable.

America sustains its lifestyle through debt, careless consumption of resources and blind faith in its technical and managerial ingenuity. Too many cars, too many burgers, continuous improvement and the notion that life for each successive generation will be more comfortable and prosperous

The nation may be approaching self-sufficiency in energy, but that situation will not last.

The spirit of invention is still strong, but there are hungry competitors out there trying to steal its technology, and succeeding – China, Russia, and even its western allies.

Meanwhile, the country faces a health crisis through increasing levels of obesity. What’s more, the population is getting older, and will continue to suck the life out of the economy through ever-increasing consumption of social security dollars.

And vested interests – together with an unjustifiable fear of terrorism – are succeeding in maintaining the country’s bloated defence spending. Arms mean jobs, but ultimately the taxpayer settles the bill.

Fear of the unpalatable is postponing the inevitable. Americans will not listen to anyone telling them that the good life is going to get less good. For the foreseeable future.

That the US is no longer a secular society

If Mitt Romney is elected, it will be despite rather than because of his Mormon faith. Not because the constitution mandates a secular government, but because a large portion of the electorate votes with its prayer book. And Romney’s book is seen by many from the religious right as barely Christian, and by the irreligious as plain wacko.

The fact is that despite the strictures of the founding fathers, America can’t keep God out of politics so long as the majority believe in Him. And the difference over the past 50 years is whereas once that God was a matter of private belief, today He sits on everyone’s sleeve. And what politician would dare admit that he or she doesn’t believe in Him? Which is tough for all the Hindus, Bhuddists and atheists out there, because if they are true to their convictions, they will never get a shot at the White House.

As for Muslims, well, they’re one relative removed from terrorists, aren’t they? Or thus many ordinary voters would have you believe.

That “of the people, by the people and for the people” is a socialist ideal

The word “socialist” is so toxic in the mind of American electors that no presidential candidate would dare mention it in any other than deprecatory terms. It is the new communism. Yet the phrase coined by Lincoln at the Gettysburg address encapsulates a concept with which any self-confessed socialist would freely concur.

Even if you take the meaning of the word socialist to include ownership of the means of production, most Americans seem perfectly happy for the Federal and state governments to own airports, roads, bridges and dams, and to employ armies, fire departments and police forces.

In fact, the UK, the home of “socialised medicine”, has gone further than the US in privatising many of its previously state-owned assets, such as airports and air traffic control facilities. And the UK has no equivalent to those august state-owned American institutions Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac.

It would be unkind to say that if Lincoln returned to our midst, he might observe that today America has government “of the people, by career politicians, for the highest bidder”. But there, I’ve said it, and sadly it applies to every democracy in existence today.

That most Americans only care about foreign countries if their soldiers are fighting in them.

Yes, I know that “most Americans” is a sweeping phrase. But I call as my witness George W Bush, who was elected President despite being unable to name the president of Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state and central to the global political axis even when Bush failed his general knowledge test. Also, try asking the teenagers I met in a North Carolina mall not so long ago who thought that Paris was a city in the UK.

Less anecdotally, rare is the day when you can read a story in the New York Times about any foreign story earlier than the 16th page, unless it’s about Iraq, Afghanistan, international terrorism or a disaster – such as the Japanese tsunami – that might affect America’s economic interests.

Look at Obama’s manifesto, and you will see that the Democrats talk about America’s involvement with the world under the self-referential heading of “National Security”.

It’s hard not to conclude that for many in America – as the British Prime Minster Neville Chamberlain said about the Sudetenland when Hitler annexed it in 1937, Poland at the outbreak of World War 2 – the world beyond the US borders is “a far off country of which we know little”.

That patriotism has a dark side.

Not so long ago in my country, the national flag was in danger of being hijacked by the extreme right. If you flaunted the Union Jack you were in danger of being associated with the violent, racist thugs of the National Front. Even today  – the Olympic fortnight excepted – if you fly the flag above your home, your neighbours might think you’re a crypto-fascist.

The Brits never fell in love with the flag like America, where there are almost as many Stars and Stripes on display as people. The trouble as I see it is that there are two forms of patriotism – inclusive and exclusive. An inclusive patriot is someone who loves their country and glories in its diversity.

Exclusive patriots hide under the belief that their country is superior to all others and defensible in all things – summed up as “my country, right or wrong”. Worse than that, they exclude other ethnic groups from their sense of nationhood. For some in America, “true patriots” are white and Christian – all the more so as that section of the community feels threatened by their impending minority, even if they cling on to power and wealth disproportionate to their numbers.

And it is that dark side of American patriotism that is responsible for some of the least appealing aspects of its society – racism, xenophobia and religious bigotry.

That funding growth through debt will impoverish future generations

According to Dominic Lawson, writing in last Sunday’s edition of the UK Sunday Times, the US Treasury estimates that by 2015, the national debt will stand at $20 trillion. He went on to say that:

“Even this is on the heroic assumption that the American economy will grow at about 5% a year.

Here, too, the breakdown of tax payments is instructive: the most recent figures show that while the top 1% accumulated 16.9% of total income, it provided almost 37% of income tax. At the same time the bottom 50% took home 13% of all earnings, but paid 2.25% of the income tax bills. Roughly one-third of those who file US tax returns have no net liability at all; and since 2000 there has been an increase of almost 60% in the number of Americans who pay no personal income taxes.

This, of course, has been wildly popular. The consequence has been an ever more engorged national deficit — simple to fund, but only so long as the dollar remains the world’s reserve currency and not for a day longer.”

Later in the article he added:

“At a recent dinner with Tim Pawlenty, national co-chairman of the Romney campaign, I suggested the problem for America was that none of its political leaders was prepared to admit that unless they could find a way to cut public expenditure in half (including the monstrous $775 billion defence budget), the only budgetary alternative was to reintroduce millions of citizens to the idea of writing a cheque to the Internal Revenue Service.

The former Republican candidate for the presidency gave me a look which said, “You try running on that platform, pal”.

I rest my case. America is a debt drunkard, and nowhere close to taking the 12 steps.

That the biggest impediment to peace in the Middle East is America’s unconditional support of Israel

According to the US Census Bureau, in 2008 the number of US citizens identifying themselves as Jewish stood at almost 6.5 million, or 2.2% of the population. Few would deny that this ethnic group wields a disproportionate influence on US foreign policy.

Time and again, the candidates of both major parties compete to provide the blankest cheque of support to the state of Israel. This is not merely underpinned by ringing statements of solidarity, but by military aid currently worth $3 billion a year.

The candidates do not just fear losing the Jewish vote if they are anything less than 100% enthusiastic in their support of the State of Israel. They are also aware of the power of Jewish money that can tip the balance of influence in favour of the other side. Sheldon Adelson’s $10 million donation to the Romney campaign will certainly pay for a few ads.

Unconditional American support is not the only reason for Israel’s failure to achieve a lasting settlement with its Palestinian neighbours, but it sure as hell doesn’t help.

That the greatest catalyst for change is cataclysm

You would have thought that the financial meltdown of 2008 was sufficient catalyst for the nation to take a long hard look at itself, pull together and re-invent itself once again, as it did after the Civil War and the Great Depression. But no. If anything, partisan politics has increased during the Obama presidency, together with a visceral hatred from some quarters of the President himself.

If the near-collapse of the financial system was not enough to shock America out of its debt-fuelled complacency, what might? A nuclear confrontation elsewhere in the world, perhaps. Or, God forbid, the Big One – the predicted earthquake that will reduce much of California, home of the world’s eighth largest economy, to rubble.

Neither scenario is inconceivable. Nor are the potential effects of global warming on the US – storms more destructive than Katrina, flooding and drought on a biblical scale. And when they happen, they provide rare opportunities afforded by solidarity in adversity. And that is when a president can truly lead. Leaders can rarely get everybody to agree to an uncomfortable course of action in anticipation of something that may never happen, even if the likelihood is staring them in the face. The trouble is, the President of the US may prove no more able to influence the consequences than the President of Albania.

America must get real. Electors must accept that bold initiatives usually arise through circumstances beyond the control of any individual, even the most powerful in the world. At other times Presidents can mitigate, not initiate.

That real change comes from people, not governments

And finally, following on from the last proposition, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.

Franklin D Roosevelt would never have led his people to war without riding on the back of popular outrage following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. Governments react to popular sentiment. They rarely anticipate it, though they sometimes add fuel to the flames.

So if half the country believes in free love, common ownership of property and the abolition of the military, and the other half believes in Abrahamic moral values, survival of the fittest and nukes in every corn field, the result, pretty obviously, will be inertia – no change. Presidents can change the speed limits, encourage water conservation and splash zillions of dollars around to boost the economy, but no such measures will have the desired effect unless there is a genuine and widely shared conviction that they are doing the right thing. And that conviction will never carry the day unless it is the result of a groundswell of common emotion.

Presidents will never admit that they cannot change things. But I suggest that with American society as divided as it is on so many issues, to expect Obama or Romney to perform as most people – even their own supporters – hope, is utterly unrealistic, because it will be almost impossible for either of them build a national consensus on anything.

So there it is. On October 2nd, when the first debate begins, expect the candidates to puff, preen, say things they don’t mean, slap each other with verbal powder puffs and do their level best to convince the electors that they can make a difference. When in reality, the decision America will need to make is which of them will do the least harm. Making things better is largely down to others, and, most of all, to “we the people”.

America is a great country. Many things – though not all – that are good for America are good for the world. Most Americans I know are good-hearted, kind and believers in doing the right thing. I hope they don’t judge their leaders too harshly in four years’ time when they find themselves admitting that they couldn’t do. After all, even for Americans, “can do” has its limits.

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