Wrong turn for the right
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.