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Wrong turn for the right

October 29th, 2011

That’s the title of my column in Thursday’s Fin, over the fold

Wrong turn for the right

On the standard political calculus, US President Barack Obama ought to be facing a crushing political defeat in November 2012. US unemployment rates are above 9 per cent and the economy seems headed for a renewed recession. No president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has been re-elected with such appalling economic numbers.

Obama’s own misjudgements, on both policy and politics, have made matters worse. Obama carried over much of Bush’s economic team, notably including Timothy Geithner and Ben Bernanke. As a result, many Americans blame him for the highly unpopular bailout of the banks under the Troubled Asset Recovery Program (TARP), which was actually undertaken by Bush.

In fact, after introducing a very limited stimulus package, Obama dropped the ball on economic policy, devoting his first year in office to securing the passage of his signature policy, a health care package which has proved highly unpopular. The pledge to repeal ‘Obamacare’ has been a central element of Republican campaigns.

Obama retreated further after the Democratic losses in the 2010 Congressional elections, accepting the view that the result implied a mandate for austerity. His attempts at reaching a ‘grand bargain’ with the Republicans failed in the confrontation over the debt ceiling, which brought the US to the brink of default, and to the humiliation of a downgraded credit rating.

It was only with the announcement of his jobs bill (doomed to defeat in Congress) that Obama has shown willingness to take even symbolic action against unemployment. Yet despite all these misjudgements, and the lack of any sign of improvement in the economy, Obama is widely favoured to win in 2012, and is tied in opinion polls with his presumptive opponent, Mitt Romney.

The seeming inevitability of Romney sums up the Republicans’ problems in challenging Obama. Romney is the antithesis of a conviction politician. As governor of Massachusetts, he introduced a health care reform on which Obama’s was based. On hot-button issues like abortion, climate change and immigration, he has taken so many positions that it is doubtful even he knows which he really believes.

But the only serious candidate in the field, former Utah Government Jon Huntsman is utterly unacceptable to the base. Although a hardline conservative on most issues, Huntsman recognises the reality of climate change, and accepted an ambassadorial position from Obama. As a result, his poll numbers have never escaped single digits.

The nomination process has become a futile search for ‘anybody but Romney’. At least ten actual or potential candidates, from Donald Trump to Sarah Palin to Rick Perry have filled this role at some point, before pulling out or flaming out in one way or another. Romney has led throughout, without ever drrawing more than 35 per cent support.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, the rising star among conservative intellectuals, has offered the following scathing assessment

Romney is improbable, but his rivals are impossible, and so he will be the nominee … Republicans have only themselves to blame for his inevitability. Romney owes his current position to two failures: the Bush era’s serial disasters, which left the Republican establishment without a strong bench of viable national politicians, and the Tea Party’s mix of zeal and naïveté, which has elevated cranks and frauds and future television personalities to the party’s presidential stage.

Underlying this process is the intellectual collapse of the US right, symbolised by its inability to accept the reality of climate change, and, before that, the desperate attempts to pretend that all was going well in Iraq. From intellectual dominance in the 1990s, the right has been reduced to anti-intellectual appeals to tribal loyalty. With a weak economy, these appeals have been sufficient to keep the Republicans competitive, but their underlying weakness is plain for all to see.

The same collapse is well under way Australia. The rightwing commentariat, along with the associated network of thinktanks, has adopted both the fact-free style of their US counterparts and the fantasy world created by the Tea Party.

The process has been completed by the ascension of Tony Abbott. Disdaining the seriousness exemplified by John Howard and Malcolm Turnbull, Abbott happily says whatever will please his audience, no matter how little factual basis his claims may have.

This works well enough against an unpopular and divided government, and may get him elected. Nevertheless, Abbott’s own limited popularity suggests that the Australian people see him as, at best, the lesser of evils. In the long run, conservatives will pay a high price for their abandonment of reality, in Australia as in the United States.

John Quiggin is currently the Hinkley visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.

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  1. PeakVT
    October 29th, 2011 at 12:50 | #1

    “a health care package which has proved highly unpopular.”

    The rest of the piece is fine, but the above is unfortunate. The most important bits of the PPACA aren’t even in effect. But I bet that about 1% of Australia readers are aware of that, so most of them will get the impression that the law has affected people’s lives to a great degree. That’s not the case. If the law is unpopular, it’s because the media has been telling people that they should dislike “Obamacare”. The most visible part of the law that is in effect – allowing adult children to stay on their parents’ insurance until they are 26 – is quite popular.

    BTW, Kaiser’s latest polling says 43% against, 41% for, and 16% undecided.

  2. Hermit
    October 29th, 2011 at 13:47 | #2

    A scenario that intrigues me is if conservatives win the next round round of elections but it becomes apparent their ideas were dead wrong. Generic issues are tax, bailouts, self harm prevention, healthcare and climate change. Suppose in year 2014 conservatives held most high office world wide but it became apparent climate change was not only real but a serious global threat.

    The possibilities range from denial, resolutely maintaining the high carbon policies or some kind of face saving change of course. The possibility of recanting or admitting a mistake seems remote. That is neither Tony Abbott or Rick Perry are likely to say ‘I was wrong about climate change’. Same goes for the other issues. Since conservative ascendancy seems likely I think we are in for troubled times. In Australia this includes this dumping of moderate independents like Oakeshott and Windsor.

  3. Sam
    October 29th, 2011 at 14:01 | #3

    “In the long run, conservatives will pay a high price for their abandonment of reality, in Australia as in the United States.”

    Yes but in the long run.. I certainly hope you’re right, but the electorate can stay irrational for longer than the environment can stay solvent.

  4. Donald Oats
    October 29th, 2011 at 14:14 | #4

    While we are on about the rightwing’s abandonment of reality-based politics: one of the doyens from Australia(n)’s Culture Wars in the noughties, Sir Geoffrey Blainey, is the feature in an article about how he sees global warming as people “giving science the benefit of the doubt”. The implication being, of course, that science is actually wrong on AGW; to wit, his example of how (he claims) most scientists in the 70′s believed the Earth was cooling, and then 20 years later they believe it is warming—supposedly, this (apparent) contradiction means science was wrong then or is wrong now. Aside from the strawman—scientists believing it was cooling—science is so successful because it is an accumulation of knowledge, built upon well-tested evidence that has gone before. History, Geoffrey Blainey’s main claim to fame, can of course run counter to scientific principles, and I think that GB has fallen for the trap of thinking that if he does it, then everyone one else practises it too. Bah!

    Our Australian media and the rightwing conservatives are a motley fugue indeed!

  5. Donald Oats
    October 29th, 2011 at 14:16 | #5

    Second Try (HTTP error on prev try)

    While we are on about the rightwing’s abandonment of reality-based politics: one of the doyens from Australia(n)’s Culture Wars in the noughties, Sir Geoffrey Blainey, is the feature in an article about how he sees global warming as people “giving science the benefit of the doubt”. The implication being, of course, that science is actually wrong on AGW; to wit, his example of how (he claims) most scientists in the 70′s believed the Earth was cooling, and then 20 years later they believe it is warming—supposedly, this (apparent) contradiction means science was wrong then or is wrong now. Aside from the strawman—scientists believing it was cooling—science is so successful because it is an accumulation of knowledge, built upon well-tested evidence that has gone before. History, Geoffrey Blainey’s main claim to fame, can of course run counter to scientific principles, and I think that GB has fallen for the trap of thinking that if he does it, then everyone one else practises it too. Bah!

    Our Australian media and the rightwing conservatives are a motley fugue indeed!

  6. iain
    October 29th, 2011 at 16:11 | #6

    Huntsman is in with a great chance…for 2016.

  7. Freelander
    October 29th, 2011 at 16:40 | #7

    I read a paper some time back, forget who wrote it, but the paper showed that the Obama limited stimulus plan did little if anymore than counter the contractionary fiscal policies of the state governments. Overall, the stimulus and the state contractions cancelled each other out. Little wonder then that the stimulus plan had little apparent impact. That said, without the plan, given the prisoners dilemma moves of each of the states to contract, the US almost certainly would have had a great depression out of the GFC. Much of the pain of the Great Depression was caused by each country trying to do what might have been best for itself at the expense of others by begger thy neighbour trade policies. Of course, that is what the unenlightened would have each country do when it comes to Climate Change. Leave everyone else to fix it while we simply keep spewing greenhouse gases. Hard enough to learn a lesson and apply it in the same context, let alone in a new one.

  8. Jill Rush
    October 29th, 2011 at 17:58 | #8

    The problem for politics in both Australia and the United States is that those on the right see any sign of accommodation to their views as a sign of weakness and as a result it spurs them on to further action. While the left would like consensus there is no way that the right will provide it as they are not looking out for the best policy for everyone but the best policy for themselves and their mates. The only future they see is one where they are rightfully ruling.
    The Obama Administration and Kevin Rudd’s Government made the mistake of not taking the opportunity to change the public administration leadership. Howard on the other hand had no problem doing this and it was successful. Unfortunately the Gillard Government has withdrawn funds from the process of reworking the public service.

    The concentration of power in the hands of Canberra Apparatchiks who are a rather ruthless lot of 20 somethings, with little in the way of life experience and no knowledge or understanding of anything other than their next career move, which if it happens fast enough will leave a vacancy for the next Apparatchik to come in and clean up – before moving on – so that no-one in Canberra ever gets to clean up after themselves. I have observed a remarkable similarity to the home situation. How many 20 somethings bedrooms are tidy?

    Tony Abbott is a blokes’ bloke and it appears that the Republicans are looking for someone similar. Judging by the U tube I saw of Romney the other day he is unintelligible, whereasTony Abbott’s parrot phrases are alarming.

    As long as the education system works well, the right will be left behind and in diminishing numbers. However, if people are determined to be wilfully ignorant then poor long term decisions will occur. As long as the right hide behind their academically dreadful Institutes then there is a danger that instead of moving forward chaos will reign. Especially if the media remains so poor in a lot of its work. The Murdoch Empire feeds us a form of propaganda worthy of Pravda. The key element will be how this is addressed in both countries.

  9. Damien Miller
    October 29th, 2011 at 21:39 | #9

    Surprised you didn’t mention Cain, who seems to have set the Tea Party ablaze.

  10. Fran Barlow
    October 30th, 2011 at 10:25 | #10

    {the only serious candidate in the field, former Utah Government {or} Jon Huntsman}

    {The same collapse is well under way in Australia.}

  11. Jill Rush
    October 30th, 2011 at 15:46 | #11

    Saw Obama being interviewed and saying he wouldn’t get interested until they were down to the last one on the island. Drew a huge laugh and sums things up nicely.

  12. BilB
    November 7th, 2011 at 06:20 | #12

    Hermit @ 2,

    I don’t know about Romney, but Abbott has the ability to do 180 reversals of position with total denial that he ever moved in the other direction, if it means that he maintains control. That is a very different phenomenon to Julia Gillard’s fluctuations on Carbon Pricing methods.

    In Gillards case there was always acceptance of the need for Climate Action, just the method was situationally variable.

    In Abbott’s case it will require miraculous enlightenment with all of the Hallelujah and Lord Praising that that would require, but perhaps in the more sober Catholic Liturgy, for the COALition to embrace Global Warming. Also in Abbott’s case any Climate “Action” would be undertaken in the Howardian Drought Relief format where there would be funds available to engage Climate Action but with so many strings attached that only a Gordian Knot specialist would ever attempt to partake. In the Abbott Coalition the important thing is to LOOK like one is performing, when in fact one is doing anything else but. ie policy costings, policy details, budgetry details,,,,,,,,,,,,,.

  13. BilB
    November 7th, 2011 at 06:30 | #13

    Very poignant observation, Jill Rush.

    “I have observed a remarkable similarity to the home situation. How many 20 somethings bedrooms are tidy?”

    I suffer this distress with my offspring, and there does not appear to be any solution that would not leave me in gaol.

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