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.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
As Hurricane Sandy pounds the East Coast, endangering as many as 60 million Americans, just days before Election Day, it is reasonable to worry about possible disruptions next Tuesday. States have a responsibility to protect their citizens, while democracies have a responsibility to hold fair elections. And especially after such a high stakes campaign, every voter who wishes to vote should be able to cast a ballot safely and comfortably. L.V. Anderson on Slate offers a thoughtful overview of the legal issues involved if areas are out of power, roads are blocked or polling stations are inaccessible. I hope, however, that Election Day goes off smoothly, with no postponements, no disruptions -- as it did in 1864 during the Civil War, as it did in 1944, during World War II.
The thicket of state and country regulations -- and the relative irrelevance of the federal government here -- reminds us that these are 50 state-by-state elections, thanks to the Electoral College. True, presidents have wide emergency powers, and Congress could enact an emergency law, but any decision about extending polling hours, postponing Election Day, or other improvisations will most probably be made by governors, state judges, secretaries of state, or even county election officials.
I wish I could say that I and my fellow Americans have total faith in the probity and professionalism of these civic leaders, and that I and my fellow Americans would trust that only health and safety issues will be at play. However, especially since the 2000 electoral deadlock, we have an epidemic of mistrust in America -- and, I regret to say, many political and judicial leaders who have earned that mistrust fair and square.
Legitimacy is one of the most precious assets a democracy can enjoy. I have long marveled at the speed with which Americans have gone and still go from fighting vigorously during an election, and then accepting the people’s verdict. In the nineteenth century there were actual reconciliation rituals, parades, special election cakes, to mark the shift from fighting for power to legitimizing the new powers. To me, the most powerful recent legitimizing tableau we witnessed was the scene of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Bill Clinton and Al Gore, all playing their parts magnificently in the 2000 inauguration, just weeks after the sloppy Supreme Court ending to the 2000 campaign.
I fear that this natural disaster could easily turn into a political disaster. I fear a wave of Election Day improvisations and accommodations will lead to a tsunami of recriminations and lawsuits. So my plea to state and country officials is: when in doubt, tough it out -- let Election Day proceed as normally as possible. Just as our juries are only supposed to convict when the evidence is overwhelming, electoral officials should only make changes when the need to is compelling. And just as I hope that partisans on the day after Election Day accept the overall decision without crying foul, I hope that partisans on the day after Election Day will not feel compelled to doubt any changes made due to the chaos wreaked by Sandy.
Could it be that despite all that tension and testosterone, that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney agree a whole lot more about foreign policy than they disagree? I learned from the debate that both candidates hope to stop Iran, contain China, support Israel, and magically conjure up a peaceful solution in Syria while seeing a flourishing Democratic Arab spring. I also learned that both candidates would prefer to speak about domestic issues than foreign issues, as they repeatedly segued into their economic and education programs, claiming that achieving a “strong America” is a foreign policy issue too. These shifts reflected the American people’s mood – this election is much more about domestic policy than foreign policy.
True, at heart Barack Obama is more an idealistic internationalist, preferring multilateralism and global cooperation, while Mitt Romney is a muscular isolationist, yearning for American autonomy and insisting on American strength. But these differences pale before the fact that it is difficult to assess any candidate’s foreign policy ideology – let alone how that candidate will act as president. Predicting how a president will function in foreign affairs is as reliable as guessing how first-time parents will act when their children become teenagers – lovely theories succumb to tumultuous unforeseen squalls.
Foreign policy is particularly elusive due to the unpredictability of foreign events, the mushiness in American foreign policy ideologies, and the often-constructive tradition of presidents abandoning their preconceptions once they actually start governing. Barack Obama himself is proof of the haziness here. To the extent that Senator Obama had a foreign policy vision in 2008 as a candidate – when he had as little foreign policy experience as Governor Romney has in 2012 – his presidency has frequently succeeded by forgetting it. As Obama boasts about getting Osama Bin Laden and approving the Afghanistan surge, and as Guantanamo Bay remains open, pacifist leftists are understandably wondering what happened to their anti-war, human rights hero. If Obama is correct that the Republican candidate’s newly moderate domestic policies reflect “Romnesia”; pacifist leftists could mourn many such “Obaminations.”
Ultimately, the convergence offered a welcome reminder, as this campaign intensifies, that America’s greatest foreign policy victories, including winning World War II and the Cold War, were bipartisan moments uniting the nation not dividing parties. Whoever wins will have to lead from the center, in both foreign and domestic affairs – moving from the theoretical clashes of the campaign trail to the necessary reconciliations of governance.
While polls show that those surveyed consider Mitt Romney the winner of the first debate with Barack Obama by landslide proportions, the vice presidential debate will probably be perceived as more of a tie. Democrats who went in primed to like Joe Biden will applaud his slash-and-burn aggressiveness. Republicans who went in primed to like Paul Ryan will applaud his wonky Boy Scout earnestness. In the end, this vice presidential debate, like most, will have little impact on the electoral outcome. But the big question this debate raised is one of debating dignity. Biden’s performance – and he was clearly performing – included smirking, scoffing, chuckling, and guffawing, although he seems to have mostly skipped the sighing which hurt Al Gore’s standing in 2000 when he debated George W. Bush.
The quest for dignity is as old as the republic. It reflects America’s more elitist and character-oriented republican roots, as well as the monarchical dimensions involved in executive leadership. Originally, the candidate’s virtue as expressed through his dignity was so cherished it was considered undignified for presidential candidates to run, they stood for election, as George Washington did. But the waves of democracy that transformed America also changed campaigning protocols, launching candidates into the hurly burly of the political process.
Of course, these restrictions apply more to presidents and potential presidents than vice presidents. And there is a strong counter-tradition – which Biden clearly embraced – of the Veep or Veep nominee as tough campaigner, partisan mudslinger, and hatchet man – or woman. In 1900, when William McKinley ran for re-election against the charismatic William Jennings Bryan, McKinley’s running mate Theodore Roosevelt fought hard against the activist Bryan. Roosevelt delivered 673 speeches to an estimated three million people, while Bryan’s 546 speeches reached approximately 2.5 million Americans. As Roosevelt denounced Bryan and the Democrats for appealing “to every foul and evil passion of mankind,” resorting to “every expedient of mendacity and invective,” McKinley remained presidentially above the fray.
Half a century later, Richard Nixon did the dirty work for President Dwight Eisenhower – and then expected his vice president Spiro Agnew to fight the partisan wars of the late 1960s and early 1970s against those “nattering nabobs of negativism,” reporters and Democrats. Most recently, in the 2008 campaign, Sarah Palin’s rhetoric was far harsher than Barack Obama’s, her running mate John McCain’s, or her opponent, Joe Biden’s.
Republicans are already encouraging a backlash against Biden’s antics. Whether this will become a broader phenomenon remains to be seen. But, even with all the handwringing over Obama’s passivity last week, Biden should have been more restrained. His behavior turned ugly not just undignified at the end, when Paul Ryan tried to conclude on a gracious note of respect toward the Vice President, and Biden kept clowning rather than rising to the moment. Although his position is modified by the word “Vice,” America’s number two leader should still act like a president.
Obama’s twelve-day gift to Romney
Barack Obama’s listless and hesitant performance in the first debate gave Mitt Romney a twelve-day gift. Until their next debate on October 16, we can expect a turn towardident more positive coverage of Romney and his campaign. The insta-polls suggest that Romney’s confident, upbeat, persistent point-making in the debate paid off – and the pundits agree. Words like “zombie,” “throat-clearing,” “downward glancing,” “disjointed,” “convoluted,” popped up in the post-debate reviews of Obama’s performance.
But just as Romney’s people went in hoping to recreate the Carter-Reagan debate, which shifted the winning margin to Ronald Reagan in 1980, Romney’s people should remember Walter Mondale’s victory over President Reagan in the first debate of 1984, and John Kerry’s victories over President George W. Bush twenty years later. Debates can be determinative but rarely are. Obama is perfectly capable of coming back. And the election remains close with sobering swing state math for Romney.
Yet while this kind of handicapping is what generates the headlines, the real headline should be that the debates once again worked. They offered substantive exchanges that focus much more on issues, statistics, and philosophy than the passing gaffes which reporters are forever seeking in their perpetual “gotcha” game. Not only did both candidates come across as smart, caring, patriotic individuals who love America and are trying to do their best, they shifted the campaign discussion from nonsense to substance. The debates, with each question triggering a tidal wave of details, invite looks at the candidate’s philosophies, their visions of government, their plans for the next four years. The silly sideshows from partisan extremists look absurd in contrast to the high level discussion Jim Lehrer conducted so well. It is hard after ninety minutes of such seriousness and intensity to return to questions about Obama’s birth or Romney’s riches. The questions and the answers got me – and I daresay most Americans – thinking about who is right and who is wrong, who will be more effective, what are they offering the American people – and what pressing issues remain unaddressed. And so, ultimately, while Obama did give Romney this twelve-day gift, even more important is that both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney gave the American people an even greater gift, at least ninety minutes befitting the majesty of the country and the needs to this moment.
Ronald Reagan campaigning in Columbia, South Carolina, on October 10, 1980, a few weeks before the only debate of the 1980 election. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Happy October, which every four years becomes debate month in American presidential politics. On October 3, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will debate domestic policy in Colorado. On October 11, their vice presidential running mates, Paul Ryan and Joe Biden, will debate in Kentucky. Five days later on October 16, voters at a town meeting in New York will question the two presidential candidates about any issues and on October 22 -- two weeks before Election Day -- Obama and Romney will debate foreign policy in Florida.
These debates -- which are more like side-by-side press conferences with some exchanges -- are usually the political equivalent of military service: long bouts of boredom punctuated by bursts of melodrama. Usually, they reinforce media narratives and voter impressions. But they have sometimes changed outcomes, particularly in 1980, when Ronald Reagan’s aw shucks, “there you go again” dismissal of President Jimmy Carter’s attacks triggered a Reagan surge -- and the largest last-minute switch in poll results since polling began in the 1930s.
Treating history as an authoritative tarot card rather than a subtle source of wisdom, Mitt Romney’s supporters have been touting that ten-point swing as proof that the Republicans will win. The 1980 moment appeals more broadly to Republicans as indication that a gaffe-prone, ridiculed, seemingly out-of-touch former governor can defeat an earnest Democratic incumbent afflicted by a sagging economy, Middle East troubles, and accusations that the twin pillars of his foreign policy are appeasement and apology not power and pride.
The 1980 debate should sober Obama and buoy Romney. In his recent book, The Candidate: What It Takes to Win -- and Hold – the White House, Professor Samuel Popkin, an occasional Democratic campaign adviser, recalls his failure coaching Carter in 1980. Playing Reagan in debate “prep,” Popkin echoed the Republican’s devastating anti-Carter criticisms. Popkin describes the kind of careful criticism Romney should launch against Obama, knowing that if the challenger is too aggressive he looks angry and insolent but if he is too deferential he seems weak and intimidated. Reagan, Popkin writes, “resorted to more subtle, coded criticisms that were harder to defend against. He appeared respectful of the office and the president, suggesting that Carter was hamstrung by defeatist Democrats in Congress.” This approach forced Carter to rebut the premise -- and plaintively claim he was strong -- or the conclusion -- by insisting Democrats were not defeatists. “Contesting one point left him tacitly conceding the other,” Popkin writes.
Obama’s caveat is in Carter’s reaction. Offended and embarrassed by the criticism, Carter ended the session after eleven minutes. Popkin as Reagan had pierced Carter’s “presidential aura,” unnerving everyone in the room. Trying to dispel the tension, Carter’s chief domestic policy advisor, Stuart Eizenstat, himself Jewish, resorted to ethnic humor by pointing to Popkin and joking, “You didn’t know Governor Reagan was Jewish, did you?” Popkin, who quickly replied “Well, Governor Reagan is from Hollywood,” realized that many of Carter’s people, including the aggrieved president, were unfamiliar with Reagan’s attacks because the majesty of the presidency insulated Carter from serious criticism or serious study of his challenger.
Of course, in an ideal world the debates would emphasize issue flashpoints not gaffe-hunting. In Denver, Romney should, Reagan-style, subtly question President Obama as to when he as president will take responsibility for the anemic recovery and lingering unemployment rather than scapegoating his predecessor. At Hofstra University, Romney should ask Obama to explain to the voters present and the American people how his increasing reliance on the heavy hand of federal regulations and big government does not reflect doubt in the traditional invisible hand of individual entrepreneurial Americans and the markets themselves. And in Boca Raton, Romney should prod Obama on the Arab Spring, asking him at what point he would concede that his policy failed rather than simply dismissing the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the murder of American diplomats in Libya, and other Obama-orchestrated disasters as “bumps in the road.” In response, Obama should emphasize his successes in halting the economic freefall, his faith in American ingenuity guided by the government’s occasional, competent, and gentle helping hand, and his muscular defense of American interests in hunting down Osama Bin Laden, boosting troops in Afghanistan, and reprimanding Egypt’s president for delays in defending America’s Cairo embassy. Meanwhile, reporters and voters should push both candidates to explain what sacrifices they will demand from Americans, where they will deviate from their party’s orthodoxy, how they will end partisanship, and what bold solutions they have to American debt, demoralization, and decline.
While such substantive exchanges would allow Americans to weigh the candidates’ dueling philosophies and records, it is more likely that the debates’ verdict will pivot around some theatrical moment. Since televised presidential debates began in 1960, when John Kennedy’s aristocratic calm contrasted with Richard Nixon’s sweaty, herky-jerky intensity, style has usually upstaged substance in debate reporting and debate perceptions.
It is too easy just to blame the press -- although broadcasters and reporters will be seeking “gotcha” moments when a candidate stumbles and “grand slams” when a candidate dominates. Moreover, American voters respond more to debate theatrics than polemics. The mass reaction reflects one of the realities of modern leadership, which too many academics ignore and editorialists lament: image rules, style counts, a successful president or prime minister must communicate effectively not just administer smoothly.
This season, as the American campaign peaks and the silliness surges, it will be easy to mock American politics. But the presidential campaign remains a remarkable effective and dramatic ritual that gets two individuals conveying their messages to a polity of 300 million people.