Griffith University Centre for Governance and Public Policy Seminar Series Roundtable
4 May 2012
Moderator: Dennis Grube
Below is a brief summary of the very entertaining debate on the US Presdiential Race 2012 between President Barack Obama (Democrat candidate) and Mitt Romney (Republican candidate) presented by the above experts. For further details kindly contact the experts themselves. Don’t forget to vote in the poll below. For Griffithstudents reading this – you are always welcome to attend CGPP seminars and GAI seminars.
Dennis Grube (DG): The Republican primary race has seen many varied characters competing for the top ticket, how should we interpret this race and its impact on the Presidential race?
Zim Nwokora (ZN): The primary race in both political parties (Republicans and Democrats) has been the subject of much study. Based on my research, and forthcoming book, I capture two types of races: Imposition and Rupture. Imposition often sees a strong candidate at the beginning hold their lead at the end. There may be slip ups and dips but generally the candidate holds through. Rupture sees a strong candidate at the outset be overcome by an outlier – sometimes through momentum during primaries, slips of the originally strong candidate or events beyond their control. Imposition candidates tended to be more dominant in Republic party – which has a traditionally homogenous group that gets behind the candidate and a strong culture of inheritance. Who ever came close to winning the primary last time (i.e. Reagan to Ford, Bush I to Reagan, Dole to Bush I, McCain to Bush II) will have their turn. Democrats, with a strong heterogeneous base, tend to have more Rupture campaigns – it takes a lot of primary contests for such a different mix of people to support one candidate. This Republican campaign was remarkably different because it was a Rupture campaign. Rupture campaigns can become difficult Presidencies because there are many ‘bases’ within a political party that have to be cajoled and consoled even after the President has won. This can mean having people in the White House and in the Cabinet – to bring the party together rather than because that is who the President wants. Obama had some of this in his early Presidency and Romney will if he wins.
John Kane (JK): The Republican party is not as homogenous as they like to appear – the difference in the past there was a strong elite that was able to stifle the socially conservative group within the party. This has slowly changed over the last couple of primary races, combined with the emergence of the Tea Party, to produce their present heterogeneity.
DG: How much will the domestic context play a role in this race – what is the current feel for this Presidency?
Wesley Widmaier (WW): We can be brief and take it back to the Civil War! If we examine the development of US politics marked by moments of crisis and transition we see 20th century shifts from 1929 crash result in use of egalitarian Keynesian economics; which by the 1960s shifted to more technocratic rules, individual based economics (low taxes, minimal government interference) and then after 2009 Global Financial Crisis (GFC) we have been left with a crisis in the US that has seen political response not go down the austere path of Europe, but progress to stimulate the economy has been halting and slow. The President had to fight Congress to (slowly) inject stimulus but without appear to be taking credit it – to avoid the Tea Party dynamics. Obama has had to “campaign in poetry, govern in prose” (Mario Cuomo), but this had led to Obama failing to provide a political vision for his response to the economy. His personal preference – technocratic focus and interest – has meant less poetry when it has been needed. Moreover, Obama campaigned on the ‘hope, dream, change’ message – he could bring blue and red states (and Congressmen) together. But Hilary Clinton’s primary campaign message in 2008 turned out to be right – you have to fight, fight, fight to get things pass the Republicans. Obama’s efforts, with healthcare, for example saw a year wasted and Nancy Pelosi in the end just having to drive it through Congress. The classic example was the Gore-Bush race in 2000: Al Gore said ‘we (government) ran the economy really well didn’t we? George W. Bush II said ‘you, the American people, ran the economy well’. Obama needs to get back to the political story for the economic fundamentals.
ZN: But isn’t it also possible that Obama has also been dealt with some really bad cards and he has made the best out of an awful economic situation he inherited? How could he have bettered the ‘opposition strategy’ taken by the Republicans in both Houses? A strategy that was decided upon even before the inauguration of President Obama.
DG: What about the foreign policy dimension of the campaign? How much will this play domestically?
John Kane (JK): We know that foreign policy rarely plays in domestic election; theUnited States is no different. What is perhaps a little different in US is the way the character of the individual is built out of the foreign policy debate during Presidential elections. Republicans are tough; Democrats are soft. Mitt Romney has already tried to test this by opposing Barack Obama on Iran– he would be tougher; on China– he would be tougher and so on. But Barack Obama has changed the narrative here for he is, essentially, a realist with the credentials of one: he got out of Iraq; he successfully ordered the raid on Osama Bin Laden exercise; he has used US drones for Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia (more than Bush II); and he is drawing down from Afghanistan. When understanding what is soft and hard – the traditional view is Pentagon (defence department) equals hard foreign policy and State Department (foreign policy affairs department) equals soft foreign policy. Interestingly this perception rarely changes from administration to administration (regardless of Party) with Pentagon, for example, attracting higher spends than State Department. But here, Obama has sought to soften the edge with greater political and financial investment in the State Department in contrast to Bush II, who mainly devoted time and attention to Defence and Intelligence. But spend on Pentagon is still higher than State. Plaudits are also due to Hillary Clinton for her transformative work in the State Department – restoring its profile and funds – both of which were damaged under President Bush II. The view that Democrats are weak on foreign policy will not hold with Barack Obama – he has used both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ mechanisms to achieve foreign policy gains. This means that the foreign policy issue in this campaign will be somewhat neutralised, and the characters of Romney and Obama will be shaped by their different approaches to the economy.
DG: Who will win and why?
WW: The fundamentals are all wrong for Obama. They lend more to a Romney win. Obama is perhaps more popular than he should be but I think Obama will win.
JK: I honestly don’t know. Wes is right that the structures are not in Obama’s favour. There is a strong racist undertone that led to the rise of the Tea Party – this is the elephant in the room – which could affect the outcome this time. Women (in reaction to the Republican primary) and Latin Americans (in reaction to the Republican position on immigration) generally favour Obama more than Romney. But if Romney appoints a Vice-President nominee such as Marco Rubio, this could affect these leads. I think Obama might scrape through.
ZN: Definitely a close call. Three issues that will dominate the race: 1) perception matters more than reality when it comes to the economy. Obama needs those economic growth to keep going up – no matter how small; 2) Incumbency can be a weakness; 3) Obama is a very good campaigner. I think he will squeak through.