The battle for the White House
Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill and an expert on U.S. politics and the history of American presidential campaigns. Sylvain Comeau recently approached Professor Troy for his thoughts on the current race between Republican nominee Mitt Romney and U.S. president Barack Obama.
American politics seem to be polarized between right and left. Which side will “get out the vote” most effectively?
The biggest problem both candidates are facing, at the moment, is that neither of them has really excited the American people yet. When you compare Obama in 2012 to Obama in 2008, he’s not going to get the same kind of vote, the same passion and enthusiasm. As for Romney, he hasn’t shown an ability to stir the nation. I believe this will be a vote characterized by a little bit of exhaustion, and a sentiment that “we’d rather have him than the other guy.” My fear is that we won’t have a winner; we will have the one who doesn’t lose. And at this point in American history, I think the nation needs a winner.
So the election will be won by default?
The winner will be the one left standing. Obama should have increased his lead in the polls by now, but that hasn’t happened. On the other hand, Romney should have been able to [capitalize] on the current high levels of anxiety in the country. He hasn’t. So both of them are more distinguished by their weaknesses than by their strengths so far in this campaign. And that’s unfortunate.
Does the incumbent normally have some kind of built-in advantage?
In American politics, that is usually the case. Name recognition, a certain conservatism among voters, fund raising, infrastructure; all these are huge advantages. Also, in the last half-century, the only sitting presidents to lose the White House were the ones who faced very serious challenges in the primaries, before getting the nomination. This year, Obama got the nomination in a cakewalk, so historically, that means the odds are much more in his favour. On the other hand, the economic numbers are pretty weak.
How would you evaluate Obama’s first term?
It would not be controversial to say that it has been a disappointment. But that was inevitable, considering the incredibly high expectations surrounding him, and the set of problems he faced. It has been a very sobering first term. It’s interesting to note a certain convergence between the policy decisions of the Bush and Obama administrations. Bush responded to the initial housing crash and financial crisis by stimulating the economy by pouring in hundreds of billions of dollars. What did Obama do? The same thing. Bush locked away suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, a policy which Obama promised to eliminate; that never happened. The president who tracked down and eliminated Osama Bin Laden was not Bush, it was Obama. What do we learn from that? The world looks very different from outside the Oval Office, compared to inside. Outside the Oval Office, we emphasize the differences. But once in office, there is a lot of similarity [between administrations] when it comes to key government ideas.
Obama inherited many of his administration’s key economic challenges from the Bush administration; will that hamper his chances, or will the voters take that into account?
Obama’s narrative is that he inherited all these Republican problems. He applied Democrat solutions to them, the economy has improved, and we will have improved health care now. The Republican narrative is that those problems were the result of both party’s policies, going back to Reagan and then Clinton, and that we have to take a long term view in order to understand how this mess developed.
What role will health care play in this election?
The Democrats are coalescing around health care as a new American right, and that plays well for Obama. In order to win, Romney has to mobilize the Republican base against universal health care. He has to help them overcome their doubts about him, by making them realize that they need him in order to overturn the health care reforms.
Do you think the bullying incident involving Romney will come back to haunt him during the vote?
So far, Romney appears to be a Velcro candidate: all kinds of negative stories have stuck to him. He has allowed the Democrats to define him by these negative reports. He needs to reintroduce himself to the American public, and to focus on basic issues such as the economy and health care.
What about his “silver spoon” image, in which he is said to be responsible for layoffs at companies where he worked, and to favour tax policies that benefit the rich?
During a time of depression or recession, it is very difficult for a super-wealthy person to succeed in American politics. And yet, [Franklin Roosevelt] pulled it off. How did he do it? He was able to turn his aristocratic air into a jaunty, breezy self-confidence that transcended class barriers. He turned a negative into a positive, and that’s what Romney has to do. Romney has to make the case that his skill set in business is not about outsourcing and destroying American jobs; he has to show that they’re exactly the kind of skills needed to lead the country into a healthy 21st century economy.
Has Romney deliberately positioned himself as a far-right candidate? For example, he said that he would eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, and oppose gay marriages.
American candidates have a tendency to swing to the extremes of the right or left during the primary debates. Campaigns tend to bring candidates back to the centre, but Romney hasn’t really shown that ability yet. So his challenge will be: can he recalibrate and go back to the centre without appearing to be inauthentic? If he only plays to the right, he will not win.
How will his choice of Paul Ryan as vice presidential candidate change the campaign?
Ryan is an experienced congressman with a strong ideological record. This choice shows that Romney is not afraid to run with someone who is articulate, energetic and ideological. This was a bold way of defining the Republican ticket.
Was it a gamble, picking a running mate who is favouring big budget cuts for medicare, and is considered a fiscal hawk?
No matter who he picked, it was going to be someone who is more of a deficit hawk and more fiscally conservative than the Democrats — but picking someone like Ryan defines it very clearly. And I think Romney recognizes that Ryan is not afraid to fight and can articulate his vision — he won’t just sit there and absorb blows.
Romney could have made a “safer” choice. Did he feel that he had to do something, since he has been behind in the polls?
Yes, I think he needed to make a move that shows that this is not business as usual; that was equally important for the morale of the troops as it was for the campaign. This choice also means that the rest of the presidential race will focus on more substantive issues than where Obama was born or what Romney did to the family dog.
Do you think Obama’s handling of the financial crisis, including the unpopular bank bailouts and the ballooning deficits, will hinder his chances?
There is a gut feeling [among the American people] that not enough was done, and yet too much debt was taken on. Also, there is an impression that his decisions are too closely tied in with the philosophy of the Democratic Party, yet he dealt with the crisis in much the same way as Bush. So there are a lot of contradictory, mixed feelings when it comes to the financial crisis.
Do the Republicans face any challenges in this election associated with the fact that the last Republican president, George W. Bush, was not a popular figure when he left office?
I think Obama wants to cast Romney as Bush II — and even Republicans understand that the baggage from the Bush administration persists. Romney has to show — without disrespecting Bush, because some Americans still support the former president — that he is a true Republican, an effective Republican, a competent Republican, and that the Republicans have the answer.
Do you believe that any third-party candidates could dilute support for either of the main party candidates?
Six months ago, I could have speculated about all kinds of people. Today, it doesn’t look like any serious third party contenders are emerging. This is definitely the kind of election in which a third party candidate could have made some noise and possibly done some damage, but so far, that doesn’t seem to be the dynamic. On the Republican side, during the nomination process, the third party phenomenon played itself out. They gave a lot of room to a lot of voices, some of them quite extreme, and ultimately, those were defeated. On the Democratic side, the power of the Obama myth, and, frankly, his status as the first African-American president, means that it’s not viable for anyone on the far left to contend with him.
Since Reagan, every sitting president has presided over a ballooning deficit and national debt. Will that continue to colour both the campaigns and the terms of future presidents?
Reagan tried to start a conversation about deficits and limits, but even he failed. He only succeeded in limiting the growth of government. There has been an addiction to government spending and deficit spending, and no politician has had the power, the courage or the standing to really take on this problem. There have been government commissions and lots of good ideas are out there, but what it really take is leadership, and guts. It is a toxic mix of special interests trying to protect their turf, and politicians who are more concerned with the next election than with long term solutions.