I have seen the future – and it stinks. In fact, I have seen it several times over and its twin pillars are the rapid onset of amnesia and mendacity on the part of candidates, which is reaching its apotheosis in the 2012 American presidential election. The first time I saw it was Liverpool Liberals’ “pavement politics” in the 1960s, where David Alton and his chums realised that the purpose of elections was, well, to get yourself elected. Standing on principle was contra-indicated. My next clear manifestation was seeing Bill Clinton at work, radiating concern and empathy with the poor and underprivileged even as he began the continuing task of dismantling the New Deal. Even while John Smith was still leader of the Labour Party, Gordon Brown and Tony Blair came over to New York to see what Clinton was doing and: “Lo! They saw that it was good.” New York Labour Party members remonstrated that Clinton had no principles and would sell his grandmother to win votes. Blair replied: “But he wins elections.”
And so to now. Barack Obama has his faults – many – but Mitt Romney deserves the President’s apt coining of “Romnesia” to describe his acrobatics. It is part of the American political tradition to tell each separate audience what they want to hear, but more sophisticated politicians are “economical” in the breadth of their stated positions. They only tell segmented groups what they want to hear to avoid contradicting themselves, and use sweeping platitudes for larger audiences.
Romney epitomised that with his speech to mega-rich ultra-conservative donors in Florida denouncing 47 per cent of the voters as tax-guzzling drones. No one is accusing Romney, who thinks that Iran is landlocked and connected to Syria, of sophistication. But it is amazing to consider how many of those 47 per cent will vote for him, and for tax breaks for those who are much richer than they are.
Underneath it all is the sound of the dog whistle. When John Sununu, former New Hampshire Governor, attributed Colin Powell’s support for Obama to their shared race, it could have been a mis-speaking – like Romney’s 47 per cent, a thought in the minds of the campaign, but best not expressed publicly. However, cynics might see it as a cunning attempt to make race an issue – not least since Sununu, of Cuban Arab but Christian origins, has previously suggested that Obama is not really an American. Opinion polls suggest that 40 per cent of whites support Obama, but that drops to less than 20 per cent of whites in the former Confederacy. Even in the rest of the country, a significant percentage of whites could be motivated to vote for anyone against a black candidate. Evangelical Christians and Roman Catholics who – with some justification – consider Mormons to be a non-Christian cult are prepared to overlook Romney’s actual faith and vote for him. But then lots of them think that Obama is a non-Christian Muslim anyway.
It is a dangerous strategy. It might well bring out the white racist vote, but it might also motivate the minorities and the progressive fringe, which have not always been so enthusiastic about the President’s record, to turn out for Obama. The Republicans have been preparing for that contingency with a farrago of claims of widespread voting fraud, for which they have initiated voter identification laws in many states. Although the few proven cases of fraud tend to involve Republicans, laws demanding voter ID target the poor, the old and minorities, who are less likely to have driving licenses, for example.
To complicate matters, at the time of writing, a combination of one of the worst tropical hurricanes to hit the north-eastern states, running into an Arctic storm system from the north, promises huge disruption and devastation to millions of people. It is perhaps symbolic of the detachment of American politics from reality that there is almost no discussion of climate change in the election or in connection with the monster storm. With such tight margins, the disruption to election arrangements in the Obama leaning north-east and the effect on public confidence of the government’s responses could be significant. Obama is likely to be efficient, but less likely to score in the public relations war against an opposition that would happily blame the storm on his socialist policies. This election is so close and local administrations so partisan that it might well be decided in the Supreme Court again – with predictable results.