In the Land of the Free

Christian Lorentzen

Mitt Romney has now joined Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis and Walter Mondale in the political void that awaits any rejected American presidential nominee who doesn’t care to linger into senatorial senescence. Dole appeared in adverts for Viagra. Dukakis has been a public transport activist. Mondale, in 2002, at the age of 74, ran an 11-day campaign for his old Minnesota Senate seat after Paul Wellstone was killed in a plane crash. He lost 49-47. Romney lost the state he governed, Massachusetts, 61-38 to Obama. He’s a ‘car guy’, not one to take the train, and it would be hard for a Mormon to hawk erection pills with a straight face. But Romney turned 65 in March and can now supplement his fortune with Social Security benefits. At a breakfast after the election he choked up and started telling campaign staffers which positions he’d have given them in his administration; now they stand to collect unemployment benefit or, more likely, become lobbyists. Paul Ryan, who dreamed of being Romney’s Dick Cheney, returns to Congress at the age of 42, and as long as his 90 per cent white Wisconsin district keeps voting for him, he has another three decades to try to gut Medicare, criminalise abortion and push gay people back into the closet. Ryan’s selection signalled that in all of Romney’s posturing over two decades there was only one message that mattered: you can trust us white guys to cut your taxes.

In the days after the election, right-wing pundits were reduced to saying that the electorate had been brainwashed by the universities or overwhelmed by voters who wanted, in Bill O’Reilly’s words, ‘free stuff’. Other conservatives complained that Fox News, the National Review and the Wall Street Journal editorial page had done their side a disservice by asserting that Romney would win (he may have believed them too: he didn’t write a concession speech). Everyone else was listening to the New York Times statistician Nate Silver, whose incessant poll-crunching put the likelihood of the president’s re-election around 90 per cent. With the right-wing commentators bluffing and everybody else ogling numbers, it seemed Americans had given up on the art of persuasion. The Republican campaign relied on coded forms of white resentment, withholding any meaningful agenda behind a smokescreen of pro-small business rhetoric. Obama supporters could say that he’d made America’s for-profit healthcare system a bit more humane, saved a couple of car companies, and would appoint more liberal Supreme Court justices, but on other points they had to hold their tongues. Guantánamo is still open, and Obama’s main alterations to Bush’s foreign policy have been to scrub off its veneer of recklessness and to innovate in the area of remote-control massacres (sometimes of American citizens) and killing men in pyjamas. Wall Street donors may have abandoned Obama, but that wasn’t because he’d meaningfully reined them in or increased their taxes. Even as unemployment numbers have stayed high, corporate profits have rebounded at a rate of 78 per cent since 2008. Obama has made a point of trying to balance the budget, which has meant – and will continue to mean – some degree of austerity for everyone but the rich. Wall Street backed Romney because he was one of their own. Obama has governed in the Clintonian manner of a neoliberal technocrat: his appeal to liberals is still mostly symbolic. And as the political scientist Fredrick Harris has argued, Obama hasn’t delivered much besides himself to African Americans. He’s allowed income gaps to widen, affirmative action to be eroded, schools to be re-segregated and social mobility to stall: ‘the Obama presidency has already marked the decline, rather than the pinnacle, of a political vision centred on challenging racial inequality.’ These aren’t reasons to prefer John Bolton to John Kerry as the next secretary of state, but they aren’t nothing.

Unless they pursue the annexation of Canada, the Republicans can no longer win national elections just by being the white guys. (Gerrymandering keeps them in control of one branch of Congress: Pennsylvania went for Obama and a Democratic senator while sending 13 Republicans and five Democrats to the House.) Their strategists now say they need to appeal to Latinos, women and young people, but like Canadians those constituencies are fond of the welfare state Republicans want nothing more than to dismantle. And how would an appeal to Latinos go: ‘We’ll cut your taxes while we deport your cousin’? When ideological purity and culture war yield Senate candidates who can’t stop themselves saying silly things about ‘legitimate rape’ and rape-inflicted pregnancies ‘that God intended to happen’, they may have outlasted their usefulness. But since Reagan, Republicans’ success in drawing their opponents to the right is undeniable.

George McGovern died on 21 October. He lost to Nixon in 1972, calling for a complete withdrawal of US troops from South-East Asia, a 37 per cent cut in defence spending, and an annual $1000 grant to every citizen (about $5500 in today’s dollars). The Democrats’ platform promised full employment, passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and ‘a comprehensive national health insurance system’. At McGovern’s nominating convention one of the floor debates was over a proposal to guarantee of $6500 ($36,000) in income for every family of four. At this year’s Democratic Convention these ideas would have sounded like fantasies.

After Hurricane Sandy, which gave Obama one last chance before the election to show the country how much more competent he is than Bush, Chris Christie, the union-busting governor of New Jersey and keynote speaker at the Republican Convention, became Obama’s biggest booster. This got him a hug from the local hero who’d always ignored him, Bruce Springsteen. A dream fulfilled, and Obama’s most fulsome bipartisan success. He’s unlikely to be able to arrange hugs between Nancy Pelosi and House Speaker John Boehner, Netanyahu and Ahmadinejad, or Bashar al-Assad and anybody. This month Obama flies to Burma, now a land of Pepsi-Cola, credit cards and change you can believe in. In Texas last week a young Republican formed an exploratory committee for a future run for statewide office. His mother is Latina, and he shares his name with his uncle and his grandfather: George Bush.