Mitt Romney admitted to the new social truth in America when he remarked that had his parents been Mexican he’d have a better shot at the presidency. That the United States is a changed country, demographically, from the one that white men of Romney’s generation grew up in became manifest in the last presidential election and will do so again.
Republicans who argue that the Hispanic vote is less than 4 percent of the electorate in eight swing states must not be counting Florida. Romney’s select audience at a secretly filmed, private event in May in Boca Raton applauded a story from a fellow diner about Senator Marco Rubio’s parents telling him that if he went to school and worked hard then one day he, too, would be successful. They followed the political script that promised the Republicans would be supported by good immigrants who believe in the American way—i.e., success as exemption. But maybe not enough Hispanic voters will forget the Republican Party’s anti-immigration rhetoric and its angry opposition to Obama’s support for the Dream Act, by which undocumented immigrants who arrived in the US as minors would be given a way to qualify for permanent residency.
Yet the Republican Party seems unable to concede that its ticket hasn’t much chance of winning the Latino vote. “If the Hispanic voting bloc becomes as committed to the Democrats as the African-American bloc has in the past,” Romney said at Boca Raton, “why we’re in trouble as a party and, I think, as a nation.” However, his appeal to his base that evening comes across in the Mother Jones video as an injured sense of personal whiteness, confusion that his being the candidate of rich and right-wing and male whites hasn’t made him more respectable and convincing to the nation as a whole.
Romney derided Obama’s charm as his only foreign policy, asserted that the Republican ticket could capture women, and added that college kids feel let down by Obama, too. He predicted that Obama’s campaign would be an “attack of one American against another American.” The president will attempt to divide the country “by going after those who have been successful.” He was calling in the tribe, shrugging off the likelihood that he won’t be able to reach that 47 percent of the American electorate that is going to vote for the president “no matter what.” He put his own faithful at around 45 percent of the electorate.
This descendant of white men who went into exile in Mexico in order to practice polygamy will always be remembered for his claim that 47 percent of Americans have been corrupted by their dependence on government. They are “victims, who believe that government has a responsibility” to take care of them, that they are “entitled” to health care, food, and housing. Moreover, this 47 percent doesn’t pay income tax, so “our message of low taxes” won’t register with it. He said he had to reach “the 5 to 10 percent” in the middle. In the derision following the release of Romney’s dinner speech, several sources pointed out that among the 47 percent who don’t pay taxes are the elderly and military personnel and that the relief was granted them by Republican administrations. Meanwhile, the old words scored no targets. The significance of the subsequent debate over Romney’s 47 percent was that he’d played the race card and it had failed him. It has lost most of its force.
The political language about victims who feel entitled to government help, do-nothings whose dependence on government only increases the tax burden of decent, hardworking people—these are among the coded phrases that have been used in past elections to conjure up the threat of a resentful black urban population. But the days when George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton ad could scare whites are gone.
So, too, is the era of the Democratic leadership’s despair at research that told them that if the party continued to be identified with the interests of black people then it would lose out big in the long run. Though the US remains a highly segregated society, perhaps most white people do not consider it an insult to their status anymore to be among black people. The chronic, global nature of the economic crisis has something to do with it, but Obama’s presidency mostly accounts for the sea change. No derogatory image about race that the right can come up with can compete with a photograph of Obama as chief executive, the First Lady by his side.
Obama’s ascendancy began with the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Fredrick Harris contends in his recent The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics.* Twenty years later, Jesse Jackson brought in waves of unregistered black voters, making the solid black vote crucial to the coalition politics that elected Carol Mosley Braun Illinois’s senator in 1992 and finally Obama as the first black president. He is not the spokesman for black people; his race is not an issue in this election, in spite of crazy proxy subjects like his birth certificate; neither are black people in the dock as the source of social pathology.
But in another, very sinister manner, race is still at the center of American politics, in Republican efforts to suppress Obama’s supporters, to keep black people in particular from the polls. Romney may talk as though he’s surrendered that 47 percent, but Republicans are purging voting rolls and throwing up other obstacles in states where they hold governorships. Activists have expressed alarm that Democrats aren’t fearful enough for the ballot as an instrument of democracy, as bloggers say, but if people in the street believe the Republicans capable of anything, let us ask what the White House is preparing for.
The Republicans are expert at dirty tricks, but 2012 is not 2000 or 2004, because America has not forgotten Bush. Then, too, the right wing is mistaken in continuing to view what used to be called the Silent Majority as if it were as ideological as the party platform. The great tribunal, the American people, may not want to credit liberalism as a positive force in US society, but, on the whole, they welcome the legacy of the Sixties. They do not want to turn back the social clock, especially not the middle class, or anyone striving. They like informal America, to wear jeans, to have sex, to cohabit, and maybe not to marry. Though a large percentage of Americans go to church regularly, the majority do not. A majority also support same-sex marriage. They want health care. Because most households need two incomes, they accept the liberation of women, even if economic equality may mean domestic trauma for some men. If a Yale student got pregnant, how many families would urge her to have the baby? The history of the disenfranchised is bitter, so much so that it has long been a mystery why so many Americans who could vote do not. In 1940, when the rest of the world faced great dangers, of the 91,600,000 eligible US voters, only 49,815,000 turned out.
Though Romney, like every Republican contender since Nixon, is counting on white nationalism—even if this isn’t what courting the blue-collar white ethnic vote has been called—it won’t work for him anymore either. The Republican Party cannot revive the old atmosphere of the Solid South, and postmodern Yellow Peril hasn’t brought greater cohesiveness of US citizenry. Romney warned his frustrated Florida dinner companions that undecided voters like the president; Republicans were allowed to talk freely in their own company, but had to be careful how they spoke of Obama before independents. White nationalism is seen as retro and is distasteful, especially to white students.
Because they have not noticed that they have been reduced to another interest group, Romney’s constituents at the dinner sounded like the “victims” they scorn. “Why don’t you stick up for yourself?” “Why is it bad to aspire to be wealthy and successful?” So it is true that the Tea Party has hijacked the Republican Party and taken it even further back in time than the Reagan era. With its headquarters in Wisconsin and chapters in every state, the John Birch Society is still remarkably active on the margins of political life, a sign of how out of step the Republicans have become with a changed America. The American majority is not with them and everything is not permissible in defense of white nationalism, after all. We may have to wait years for another black president, but the vicious obstructionism of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and Romney’s rhetoric in Florida about “entitlement” to “food” and his boast that his election would signal the return of investment capital show how harmful to the country’s future the blackmail of white nationalism can be.
Romney’s kind control the country’s wealth, but they cannot get back in charge, psychologically, and this induces a kind of mania in people like John Boehner and the Koch brothers, because power in America is real, and presidential power most real of all. Such white folk cannot forgive Obama for winning in the first place. He sits astride the engine of federal power and patronage—a bookish black man whose elegant family has been sleeping and eating in the quarters where Reagan cracked patrimonial jokes about welfare queens.
In Florida, Romney was wistful about the Reagan–Carter election, when the hostage crisis riveted national attention. Back then, Republican candidates didn’t doubt that their party was attuned to the mood of the general electorate. Now some Republican candidates like Scott Brown are distancing themselves openly from Romney’s theater of the nominee as an empty shirt. Wet-eyed, smiling, and characterizing Obama as a job killer, Romney’s performance during the first debate made for better television than the president’s asides about taxes on corporate jets and companies that move factories overseas. Romney was free of his party’s social platform for the evening, free to say anything about taxes.
It won’t be enough of a boost in the long run. Commentators could have misread what was going on when they pronounced Obama off his game in Denver. The seriousness with which Obama holds his office and his humility that even White House influence on economic growth has limits make him seem vulnerable. But we have been here before, with Obama’s supporters wild that he doesn’t slam the other guy, really put him in his place, and get over the notion—that is not reciprocated—about welcoming all sides to the table of national policy discussion. “The personal character of the President is the rock upon which the Opposition is wrecked,” Carl Sandburg tells us people were saying in 1864.
Lower, meaner, duller campaigns there have been, but never one in which so many issues were treated with such studious avoidance by the presidential candidates of both parties. We have not heard Obama and Romney speak a significant word about Afghanistan—what went wrong and for what reasons, how America will leave and what can be learned from our failure. Obama goes on the assumption that US soldiers will not be harried on their way out. Romney would like to us to stay and fight harder, but the situation is so comfortless that he has chosen to be mostly silent. A comparable standoff has muffled all discussion of the environment and pollution.
The plainest difference is over taxes. Obama has gone back to his pre-2011 stance, and now says again that he would raise taxes on the top 2 percent. He will (he means) if he has a congressional majority that lets him. Romney, for his part, promises to lower taxes on the very rich. He asks his supporters to trust a plan he is not at liberty to reveal, which will square the reduced revenue with a balanced budget, and bring both into line with his vow to increase defense spending beyond what the Pentagon asks for.
Each of the candidates holds a peculiar distance from his party. Romney is a moderate Republican who evacuated his former positions as he came to realize that there are no more moderate Republicans, and that no principle mattered so much to him as the improvement of his chances of becoming president. So he is running away from his past, but if he runs fast enough or far enough to catch up with the radical right, he loses the votes in the middle that he needs to get elected. His statement, in the primaries, that he hoped illegal immigrants would have the honesty to “self-deport” is just one instance of the verbal and logical knots that his double posture has tied him in—inescapably, as it seems. Obama is similarly dissociated but for a different reason. He holds himself above party, and shows a marked disdain for most politicians, including Democrats. This comes out in his frequent Reagan-like appeals against Washington and “Congress.” He seldom speaks against “the Republicans.”
Whatever surprise may come in October, the last three months have laid out a stark contrast between the temperaments of the candidates. Romney, on this basis alone, deserves to lose; and many people now think so who began with deep misgivings about the president. Romney deserves to lose because his personality has revealed so unreliable a surface that no exertion of normal ingenuity can guess what lies underneath. It is also true that the party he represents has ceased to be a collective rational agent for working on the problems of the modern world. The videotape of Romney’s May 17 fundraising monologue, in which he said he could safely write off the 47 percent of the electorate who took no responsibility for themselves and paid no taxes, gave striking evidence of a moral derangement shared by the candidate and his party.
Democrats naturally publicized the video. What was not much talked of was the fact that this expression of contempt betrayed a complete misunderstanding of democracy. In a country dedicated to government by the people, you are not free to disregard the beliefs of half the people concerning the cause of their discontents. Their ideas about how to solve their problems may be wrong, but their report of their own sufferings can never be categorically dismissed. Obama understands this, and his broad and euphemistic use of the phrase “middle class,” though it does no service to truth, at least obeys the imperative of including in his charge the fortunes of all the people.
Obama’s version of American democracy is, and maybe always was, as vague as it is broad. In a speech in Virginia on September 27, he put it this way:
I believe in what we’re calling a new economic patriotism, rooted in that belief that a strong economy starts with a strong middle class. And I don’t pretend that the path that we need to be on is gonna be quick or easy. It took more than a few years to get to where we are, and it’s gonna take more time to get us out of this mess that was created by some of the same policies that my opponent’s now proposing. But our problems can be solved, our challenges can be met. We’ve still got the best workers in the world, the best universities, the best scientists, the best—we got the best stuff. We just got to bring it together, and—listen, if you doubt it, just understand: there’s not a country on earth that wouldn’t trade places with us right now.
Obama here is dealing in the most innocuous slogans and sound bites his voice can wrap itself around. The concern is to stay ahead by staying safe. Nothing said in the above vein will help to create the support of public opinion that he will need in 2013. Nothing about this best-in-the-world presentation even begins to move the country toward a sober understanding.
It is sometimes said that Obama’s reliance on tranquilizing abstractions does no harm; that he merely reflects the medium in which all politicians must work. How wrong that assumption is—how possible it remains to expound a significant issue with candor, when the will and talent are there—we were reminded by Bill Clinton’s nominating speech at the Democratic convention. In a few strokes, the former president made the case for Obama’s reelection:
At least on this one, Governor Romney’s been consistent. He wants to repeal the savings and give the money back to the insurance companies, reopen the donut hole and force seniors to pay more for drugs, and reduce the life of the Medicare Trust Fund by eight years. So now if he’s elected and does what he promised Medicare will go broke by 2016. If that happens, you won’t have to wait until their voucher program begins in 2023 to see the end of Medicare as we know it. But it gets worse. They also want to block-grant Medicaid and cut it by a third over the coming decade. Of course, that will hurt poor kids, but that’s not all. Almost two thirds of Medicaid is spent on nursing home care for seniors and on people with disabilities, including kids from middle-class families, with special needs like Downs syndrome or autism. I don’t know how those families are going to deal with it.
Clinton did not assume that his audience was bored by policy or that they would find unmannerly a polemic that uses facts as evidence. In one sentence—“I don’t know how those families are going to deal with it”—he showed what it is to convey sentiment without ostentation.
The October 3 debate yielded no such demonstration from Romney or Obama. Both candidates were assertive and articulate; neither was tripped up by anything the other said; but it was generally felt that Romney “won” by looking straight at Obama and showing himself eligible and unintimidated. For the incumbent to prevail at an anxious time, he must induce people to think that his achievements are of critical value, and that his opponent by undermining them would harm the country.
Obama, in the debate, spoke for the Affordable Care Act without urgency. He did not challenge Romney’s pointblank denial that his tax plan favors the rich—wrongly trusting the audience to see for itself that you cannot simultaneously assert “X” and “Not X.” Obama was satisfied not to disagree with Romney on the future of Social Security. Nor did he press him about the meaning of his remarks in Boca Raton on the 47 percent. Yet Obama clearly believes that political democracy cannot survive in the face of extreme and widening economic inequality. Unless he finds a way of saying so without embarrassment, his largest differences with Romney will seem to the uninformed a matter of recondite details.
If Romney turns things around and wins, the result will be a disaster for the United States and the world. The Romney advisorate on foreign policy is dominated by neoconservatives who pushed for the Iraq war and instigated the Bush-Cheney torture and rendition policies. In domestic affairs, as the shuffle to conjure up revenue without taxes indicates, Romney projects a commonwealth whose end forgets its beginning.
On the other hand, if Obama does win, there are immediate hazards that should not be hidden by feelings of relief. The US is now close to a confrontation with Iran, from which Obama has built himself no plausible escape. His tactic of choice in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere—assassination of terrorist suspects by drone missiles—has come to be resented as a weapon of state terror by the very people the president says he aims to protect. The result has been a dangerous increase in anti-American feeling.
Finally, regarding the constitutional system over which he would preside, Obama’s only idea about working with an intractable majority in Congress seems to be that his reelection will “break the fever” of the opposition. This notion of a postelection change of heart by his enemies is a curious conceit. Yet Obama has indeed affirmed that the fever will break, in a speech in Minneapolis in June, and again in an interview with Michael Scherer in the September 10 issue of Time. So, his plan is that the Republicans will come around. But what hints of this can we see in their recent conduct, or in the candidates they are running in 2012? It is part of the serenity of this president that he tends not to prepare against reversal and come out ready with Plan B. It showed in the summer of 2009, as the Tea Party sprang up, and in the summer of 2011, as he sat on the White House patio with John Boehner. We are in for a rough ride.
Kwame Anthony Appiah
Political memory is a strange thing. Administrations are often credited with initiatives that were really undertaken by their predecessors. New Yorkers remember Rudy Giuliani as the mayor who dramatically increased the number of police officers. Actually, it was one-term mayor David Dinkins who hired those seven thousand new cops, providing the forces that Bill Bratton, Giuliani’s chief of police, mobilized so effectively. For that matter, it was Jimmy Carter who set in motion the process of deregulation for which Ronald Reagan is remembered. And it was the Carter-appointed Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volcker whose tight-money policies brought inflation under control.
The problem is that if the wrong person gets the credit, we learn the wrong lesson. The GOP, with Reagan, becomes the party of prosperity; economic growth, people suppose, must come at the cost of rising inequality—a whole catechism unspools. To be sure, Democrats can be beneficiaries of memory mismatch, too. In the wake of the leveraged buyout and real estate corrections of the early 1990s, the imposition of financial controls helped shore up the banking system, but in the short term it helped create the credit crunch that was one of the reasons George H.W. Bush lost the 1992 election. (He also incurred much more blame for raising taxes than Reagan did for producing the deficits that made the tax increases unavoidable.) Had things broken differently, the start of the 1990s bull market could have ended up on Bush’s ledger.1 Responsible centrist Republicanism might be more fondly remembered in the GOP.
The US, unlike England, doesn’t have a soft spot for losers (except, perhaps, when they decide to make asses of themselves on reality TV). But this isn’t the main reason that one-term administrations tend to be scanted in our political imagination. A second term allows presidents to manage their legacy and see some of their policies through to fruition. Second-term presidents know this is their last shot. For better or worse, they have less reason to worry about current public opinion. More than before, they can do what they think is best for the country—or at least what they think will leave the historians thinking well of them. Although they may have less clout with Congress, they can carry through those first-term policies that need time to mature, and dial back those they regard as unproductive. Whether this is a good thing or not, needless to say, depends upon the judgment and values of the president in question. Our moment presents us with two clarifying test cases.
Today’s most pressing foreign policy issue centers on Iran’s nuclear ambitions and, in particular, the proposal to derail those ambitions by means of a military attack. This is a measure that many experts conclude could actually accelerate Iran’s process of developing nuclear weapons.2 It could also lead to regional war, posing untold risks for ourselves as well as for the inhabitants of the Middle East. Romney’s bellicosity about Iran is not encouraging. Nor is the fact that he has turned, for foreign policy advice, to the architects and advocates of the Iraq war; indeed, one of his most outspoken advisers is John Bolton, who has vigorously argued that “preemptive military action,” the sooner the better, is the only workable option in dealing with Iran. Here, there is a clear contrast to be drawn with Obama. But perhaps as significant, a seasoned second-term president is in a better position to resist the call to dubious battle.
On the domestic front, a core concern is whether the Affordable Care Act will be carried out or—through a variety of means—undone. The struggle for something like universal health care has gone on for more than a generation. The current package of reforms is far from perfect. But what it needs is improvement, not dismantlement. If Mitt Romney does what he has promised, reform will be gutted before it has a chance to prove its value. Remember that we already live in a country where—in a reversal of the long historical trend—the life expectancy of the poor is in decline.3 A second Obama term means that congressional efforts to reverse reform would come up against presidential veto power.
I say, “If Romney does what he has promised.” One might prefer to suppose otherwise. Many sane Republicans, watching their candidate on his forced march away from the center—and then his swerve in the first debate—assume that the prudent, successful businessman, the manager of Bain and the Winter Olympics, won’t actually set out to do the more extreme things he is promising. But presidents are, in some measure, prisoners of their commitments, of the things they have said they will do. What matters, unfortunately, is not what is in his heart but what promises he has made in his public record.
If Obama becomes a one-term president, it will chiefly be because the economic recovery remains weak. How long will the enfeeblement last? Depending on what happens in Europe and China—and, of course, on a host of other imponderables—there are plausible scenarios in which the American economy pushes through its current period of deleveraging and rebounds significantly over the next two or three years. Such a development might vindicate the ability of government to manage the economy with instruments other than regressive tax cuts and reflexive deregulation. Or it might be taken to establish the opposite. It depends if the credit goes to President Obama—or to President Romney.
Oxford University Press, 2012. ↩
Reagan’s tax reforms actually increased marginal tax rates on just under a quarter of the population. See Alan J. Auerbach and Joel Slemrod, “The Economic Effects of the Tax Reform Act of 1986,” Journal of Economic Literature, Vol. 35, No. 2 (June 1997). ↩
William J. Broad, “News Analysis: How to Help Iran Build a Bomb,” The New York Times Sunday Review, September 30, 2012. ↩
Sabrina Tavernise, “Life Spans Shrink for Least-Educated Whites in the US,” The New York Times, September 21, 2012. ↩