Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University, and the author, most recently, of
The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction, (OUP) and
Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: George Washington to Barack Obama . His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN. His website is giltroy.com. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall by Oxford University Press.
The reaction to Ahmadinejad's 2009 visit to the UN. See a pattern here? Credit: Flickr/David Shankbone.
In his recent speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad joined the general pile on against the American presidential campaign. Trying to mock American democracy, he asked “Are we to believe that those who spend hundreds of millions of dollars on election campaigns have the interests of the people of the world at their hearts?” Well, I argue, the answer is “yes.”
Without millions of dollars spent in political campaigns, it would be impossible for candidates to communicate with the people -- and make their case that their vision is indeed best not only for Americans but for others throughout the world. Ahmadinejad said that “Despite what big political parties claim in the capitalistic countries, the money that goes into election campaigns is usually nothing but an investment.” Here, he is correct. The money is an “investment”; an investment in the democratic process.
I am not naïve. I know that too many plutocrats hold too much sway over the American political conversation. I know that too many politicians spend far too much time dialing for dollars rather than politicking with the people. Still, it is hard to take advice from a political hooligan who used violence to secure his own re-election, which a majority of the Iranian people seems to have opposed. And it reflects a lack of proportion in the rhetorical world of the UN, that Ahmadinejad would be tempted to take a very legitimate criticism that raises important questions and dilemmas regarding the mechanics of the American campaign and use it to try delegitimizing American democracy and America itself.
This tyrant’s tirade should remind us to view our current frustrations with the current campaign in context. Yes, there is much that could be improved in the campaign. Yes, the debates we are about to witness will pivot far too much on theatrical skills rather than political messaging. But we should not take the magic of the campaign for granted. This includes the power granted the people to change course, the efforts the President of the United States and his opponent are investing in communicating with the people, and the stability, peace, harmony, and order underlying what has been and will probably continue to be a non-violent, surprisingly efficient, deeply democratic exercise involving tens of millions of voters either validating the incumbent or gently but firmly replacing him, with no tanks in the streets, no thugs manipulating results.
Barack Obama in Columbus, Ohio, on September 17. Credit: Obama for America.
[This piece was originally published in the Globe and Mail.]
America’s presidential campaign is turning surprisingly substantive. True, tomfoolery also abounds, with Democrats mocking Mitt Romney’s rendition of God Bless America, and Republicans questioning Barack Obama’s patriotism. Nevertheless, Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney are offering a dramatic electoral choice, rooted in conflicting visions of government’s role in American life. Even Mr. Romney’s recently revealed comments at a fundraiser, dismissing 47 percent of Americans as too dependent and too hostile to him, reflect this divide.
Mr. Obama recognized this twist in his acceptance speech, saying: “I know that campaigns can seem small and even silly.” But, he insisted, Americans “face the clearest choice of any time in a generation.” This sentiment was one of the few Obama points echoed in Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan’s acceptance speech.
Although the candidates disagree about much, they keep debating government’s size and reach. Mr. Ryan, whose selection sharpened the two campaigns’ contrasts, described the choice as “whether to put hard limits on economic growth or hard limits on the size of government, and we choose to limit government.” He added: “After four years of government trying to divide up the wealth, we will get America creating wealth again.”
Mr. Romney, who only mentioned the word “government” three times (to Mr. Obama’s 10 mentions), said Americans “look to our communities, our faiths, our families for our joy, our support, in good times and bad.” In the fundraiser video, Mr. Romney’s resentment of Big Government was palpable; as the gaffe flap has grown, he has tried to shift the focus to the question of who gives and who gets in modern America.
Mr. Obama’s response to this anti-government rhetoric has been withering. “Over and over, we have been told by our opponents that bigger tax cuts and fewer regulations are the only way; that since government can’t do everything, it should do almost nothing,” he said. “We don’t think government can solve all our problems. But we don’t think that government is the source of all our problems -- any more than are welfare recipients or corporations or unions or immigrants or gays or any other group we’re told to blame for our troubles.”
Ridiculing years of Republican calls for tax cuts, during booms and busts, Mr. Obama joked: “Feel a cold coming on? Take two tax cuts, roll back some regulations and call us in the morning!”
In that same spirit, Mr. Obama’s most effective non-spousal surrogate, Bill Clinton, who upstaged the president at his own renomination party, challenged Americans to “decide what kind of country you want to live in. If you want a ‘you’re on your own, winner take all’ society, you should support the Republican ticket. If you want a country of shared opportunities and shared responsibilities, a ‘we’re all in it together’ society, you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden.”
Many Americans root this debate in the 1980s backlash against the 1960s Great Society “every problem requires a big government program solution” approach. When inaugurated in 1981, Ronald Reagan declared that not only was government not the solution to the problem, government was the problem. Fifteen years later, Mr. Clinton declared the era of big government over. But Americans have been debating this question for much longer.
The American Revolution rebelled against heavy-handed government and executive authority. The country’s first governing plan, the Articles of Confederation, so feared government that the central authority lacked any real power. The constitutional counter-revolution of 1787 offered a limited government compared to Europe, but a more vigorous government compared to the revolution’s initial, impotent entity. “We the people” formed the government, with power divided into three branches, each with checks and balances over the other.
This divided governing plan was not enough for some. Ten amendments to the Constitution, mostly restricting the state while guaranteeing more individual freedoms, quickly emerged. The original plan remained so restrictive that a 16th amendment was required in the early twentieth century so Congress could impose a national income tax.
As government expanded, following the centralization of the Civil War in the 1860s, and then with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal responding to the Great Depression, America’s individualistic, entrepreneurial culture also thrived. American leaders consistently sought to provide just enough government to keep up with changing Western conceptions of what basic services a state should provide.
Today, governmental services that most Republicans and Democrats take for granted -- such as Social Security guaranteeing old-age pensions (and which Mr. Romney included in his 47-percent remark) -- would surprise America’s founders. Still, Republicans retain more of the evolutionary skepticism, while Democrats retain more of the Constitution’s political activism.
To use a presidential campaign to revisit this debate takes one of American democracy’s most sacred acts, voting, and consecrates it further, rooting it in meaning and substance, even amid all the charges and counter-charges, the silly ads and the daily candidate squabbles.
Mitt Romney shaking hands with supporters in Belmont, MA, on Super Tuesday. Credit: Flickr/BU Interactive News.
Mitt Romney “stepped in it” we are being told, with hasty remarks trying to slam Barack Obama as an appeaser as the horrific events in Libya and Egypt unfolded. “Romney’s Libya Response Fuels Foreign Policy Doubts,” Bloomberg news proclaims. In our rush-to-judgment gaffe-oriented media culture, reporters are having a grand old time finding Republicans mumbling about Mitt’s meltdown and his “Lehman moment.” The next step, of course, will be to rummage through the historical closet, and find other campaign-ending gaffes. Expect to hear “presidential historians” on the network news pontificating about Gerald Ford’s premature, rhetorical liberation of Eastern Europe from communism during the 1976 presidential debates -- thirteen years before the Soviet Empire crumbled; about Jimmy Carter’s invoking of his teenage daughter Amy’s expertise when talking about nuclear issues four years later; and about Michael Dukakis’s ride in a tank which made him look more like Snoopy fighting the Red Baron than a man prepared to be Commander-in-Chief.
These recent memories build on the modern journalistic addiction to “gotcha” journalism, as well as the more longstanding tendency to explain campaign losses and wins by dramatic turning points. Campaigning history is filled with such moments -- Henry Clay’s Alabama letters taught advisers explaining his 1844 loss to discourage candid candidates; James Blaine’s silence when he was introduced by the Reverend Samuel D. Burchard, who called the Democrats the Party of “Rum, Romanism and Rebellion” on the eve of the 1884 election, had future candidates paying more attention at campaign events, to avoid being “Burchardized” -- and many party bosses trying to keep candidates at home away from any campaign risks. Campaign grand slams having included Franklin Roosevelt’s flight to Chicago to accept the nomination in 1932, putting to rest fears that he was too handicapped to act assertively, while advertising that his “New Deal” for the American public involved a new leadership style not just bold programs, and Ronald Reagan’s “There-you-go-againing” of Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Ironically, pundits and pols are doing the same thing they accuse Romney of doing -- rushing to pronounce final judgment amid a changing and chaotic situation. Historic, devastating gaffes, like Limburger cheese, often need time to become truly pungent -- and sometimes, seemingly devastating gaffes, become like bubble gum, stale and discarded surprisingly quickly. For example, according to polls and focus groups at the time, most viewers watching the debate did not react immediately to Gerald Ford’s 1976 statement that “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe.” Reporters, however, pounced. In the Ford Library, Bob Teeter’s tracking polls show the gaffe problem growing with each turn of the news cycle. By contrast, during the 1980 campaign, Ronald Reagan terrified his advisers and delighted his deriders by suggesting that trees caused more pollution than cars and that Vietnam was a “noble cause.” Lo and behold, not only did Reagan win, but he helped changed the American conversation about Vietnam. Had he lost, these two statements would have loomed large in the why-Reagan-failed narrative, instead of functioning as sidebars to the main story.
So let’s hold off on predicting, barely 24 hours after Romney’s remarks, just what impact his reactions will have -- especially considering that this crisis still has the potential to make the Obama administration look terrible. If Romney ultimately loses, the first comparison I will make of this stumble will be to John McCain’s hasty suspension of his campaign -- which he then quickly rescinded -- in 2008 as the economy tanked. The comparison might be apt as a moment that reinforced other moments, which built into growing, accumulated doubts about a candidate.
Ultimately, however, for now, I would say that this latest Mitt mess points to a broader, surprising, phenomenon we are seeing this campaign. Obama and the Democrats have robbed Republicans of the GOP’s decades-long edge on national security and foreign policy issues. The lingering fallout from the George W. Bush years, combined with Barack Obama’s success in presiding over the demise of Osama bin Laden and other terrorists killed by drones, has resulted in polls showing Americans having more confidence in the Democratic candidate than the Republican candidate on foreign issues, even as Romney usually takes the lead in confidence on economic issues. Romney’s misfires in London and over Libya only exacerbate the problem, but the twist is interesting -- and potentially extremely significant. For now, however, we all have to do what we are loathe to do and await the people’s verdict before pundits and experts start pronouncing one way or another.
Clint Eastwood at a Take Pride in America rally, 2005. Credit: U.S. Government.
All of us are having a grand old time laughing at Clint Eastwood’s all too breezy escapade in Tampa, where the veteran actor and national political rookie showed that he could never say goodbye to the GOP audience, blasting President Barack Obama any which way he could, as the teleprompter light flashed furiously. With the Hollywood icon now In the Line of Fire politically, journalists, pundits, bloggers and academics are mocking his performance, suggesting that rather than propelling the Romney-Ryan ticket forward with the magnum force of his celebrity, the Eastwood thunderbolt backfired, showing him to be a lightweight.
Clearly, as an academic, I resent the near absolute power Hollywood celebrities seem to have in our universe, and the fact that grace is gone, dignity sacrificed, and substance a thing of the past. Even Mitt Romney’s actual acceptance speech seemed more soundbite-driven than lyrical or statesmanlike, with his one-liners reminding me of the revelations in 1988 that Michael Dukakis’s speechwriters actually wrote addresses with the soundbites they hoped reporters would cull already highlighted in the candidate’s text.
But when I read the attack on Eastwood’s “truthiness,” snickering at his slam that the nation did not want to be governed by lawyers but by a businessman even though Mitt Romney went to law school, I started wondering whether we of the chattering classes were misreading the moment. Mitt Romney may have a law degree, but we all know which candidate is the one accused of being able to “argue everything and weigh both sides,” and which one is “the businessman.” Just as in 2000, most Americans preferred George W. Bush’s periodic assaults on the English language to Al Gore’s beautifully-sculpted paragraphs because Bush’s bumbling sounded more authentic, I started wondering about the real political effect of Eastwood’s antics on the audience that counted, the American voters. In a perfect world, actors would stick to their scripts and celebrities would stay in Hollywood without venturing into the Washington -- or other grownup matters. But our political culture walks a tightrope between the popular and the absurd, between that which should work -- and that which actually does.
Clearly, the sudden impact of Eastwood’s riffs was impressive. The convention goers laughed and cheered. Let’s wait for the polls and see if it is possible to discern whether millions of Americans were indeed the beguiled, charmed by Clint’s mix of comedy and politicking, which now goes down easier in the Jon Stewart-Stephen Colbert age of blurred boundaries. Or whether Clint Eastwood truly now is among the unforgiven, a celebrity who overshot, who embarrassed himself and those who sought his help by failing to remember that Hollywood heroes are fictional not real.