Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser

Article

Newt or Mitt? Both know where abroad is
The Times - January 23rd 2012

There is a time in all American presidential election campaigns when we outsiders, and probably many Americans too, scratch our heads and wonder why on earth the world’s only superpower still runs its elections as if this were the early 19th century, when horses and buggies were needed to trundle from state to state. We also typically wonder, as we gaze in shock and awe at the candidates, how America could possibly have become so successful with the crazy political system it has.

Yet this year, with the Republican Party’s contest turning into the Newt-v-Mitt show, it could be time to be a tad more positive about the whole thing. It promises to produce an argument about the right things, and between people who need not alarm us meak, easily-scared, foreign surrender-monkeys.

            The primaries do take an amazing amount of time, and swallow up an amazing amount of money, although since most of that money is spent on buying advertisements in the media, and staging events that we film or report on, I suppose we should be grateful, even if just in solidarity with our American comrades. Yet one thing this contest should remind us of is that the very slowness of the process is pretty salutary in a country in which quick judgments and the power of money can otherwise combine for ill rather than good.

            For although the state by state roadshow, with its “retail politics” of walkabouts and town hall meetings, gives the impression of being antiquated, in fact of course it is television and the internet that really drive this process. Events where not enough people show up are cancelled ruthlessly, whatever the retail insult, for they look bad on TV.

So imagine what might happen, in an America where money talks and the media amplifies the sound, if Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi were to run for president. In a quick, nationwide, European-style campaign he might well win, thanks to his media power, his money and his easy, populist charm. Nothing is impossible in America, but the slow grind of the primary campaign makes the rise of a Berlusconi much less likely.

Thus it is that virtually all the Republican candidates who strike Europeans as fruitcakes—Michele Bachman of Minnesota, Rick Perry of Texas, Herman Cain of pizza with spice on the side, Sarah Palin of Fox News—have either fallen by the wayside or been deterred altogether from running. There is still the ultra-religious homophobe Rick Santorum, and the rather rum libertarian Ron Paul, but both came in far behind Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney in Saturday’s South Carolina vote.

            Now, some might find Mr Gingrich a bit hard to stomach and Mr Romney a bit hard to believe in, and both of these things are true. Nevertheless, both are well-grounded, serious politicians who know where abroad is.

My personal anecdote about Mr Gingrich is that I found myself sat next to him at a dinner, at which he was guest of honour, at the Davos World Economic Forum in 1998. Asked to give a speech he flatly refused, insisting that everyone around the table say instead what they had learned from Davos, during which he got quickly bored and started handing me notes about what the West should do about then-President Suharto of Indonesia. This was rude and not a little odd, but still, the Bachmans, Perrys and Palins of his party would have thought that Indonesia is a city in Indiana and Suharto a trial-lawyer or country music star.

Even more important is the point that the South Carolina result should now mean that both the Republican contest and the real election fight with Barack Obama in November, will focus on issues that are important not just in America but also the whole of the West.

Mr Gingrich’s basic campaign line is about the role of government and Mr Romney’s is about the role of capitalism. Mr Gingrich argues that citizens should be sovereign, be the centre of society, and that any power they give to government is just on loan, whereas he claims the Obama model, as epitomised by his health-care law, centres power on government, permitting bureaucrats to define what people are allowed to do. Mr Romney’s line wobbles about rather a lot, but he seems to want to revive and rehabilitate free enterprise, in tune with the old saying that “the business of America is business”.

Naturally, these issues are over-simplified, and especially in the primary campaign they are skewed to appeal to the conservative voters who are the Republicans’ base. But they are nothing if not fundamental. In our debt-ridden slump, we in Europe too know government must spend less but also want it to do more, to ensure that capitalism works to our societies’ benefit rather than to its cost, but we are not sure how. And we are desperate to revive growth and rekindle enterprise, even as we grumble about inequality and step between the “Occupy” tents.

Who would we vote for? Mr Romney looks safe, sensible and practical, but a rich former businessman who after a year of campaigning still hasn’t worked out how to be candid about his wealth and his low tax bill hardly inspires confidence. And Mr Gingrich, for all his 20 years experience in Washington, still comes across as a rather arrogant blow-hard, even if with a sharp brain behind it.

So I suspect that the European vote, and that of your columnist, would still incline strongly towards Mr Obama, as it did in 2008. Yet there is a long, some say interminable, way to go and a real argument to be had. The economy will be at the heart of it, but also the enigma of Mr Obama is how unconvincing this brilliant campaigner has proved as president. Making health care near universal, his central promise in 2008, ought to have won him popularity but it hasn’t, and not just because Mr Gingrich will call him a socialist for having done it.

Americans, even a surprising number of Democratic voters, seem unconvinced that the cost of it is worthwhile when the economy is doing badly. More government is a hard sell in tough times, with the debt so large. But so is no government, when everyone wants action. It is a surprise to say it, but this year’s debates, whether Obama v Romney or Obama v Gingrich, could actually be worth listening to. They might even be inspiring.

 


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