Thursday, 15 November 2012

Thoughts on the US Election

Barack Obama has been duly re-elected president, winning the Electoral College by 332 to 206, and the popular vote by 50.6% to 47.8% (with the rest going to minor candidates).

The result was closely in line with the projections of the poll aggregators, so no one had any right to be surprised by it.  And yet much of the Republican Party seems to have been genuinely shocked.  A host of Republican pundits predicted a Romney victory - "I am now predicting a 330-vote electoral landslide" (by which definition the actual result was an Obama landslide").  Romney's campaign agreed that he was ahead.  Now, media pundits don't necessarily say what they think - they are writing to please their readers as much as to inform them.  And even pessimistic politicians need to present a reasonably confident demeanour during elections, so as to maintain enthusiasm among party workers and donors.  But Romney's campaign tactics in the final weeks - his cautious approach to the last two debates, and his decision to campaign in Pennsylvannia on the day of the election - seem to suggest that his campaign really thought he was going to win.

So how can they have been so wrong?  To win the election, Romney would have had to overcome not the 2.7% margin in the popular vote, but the 4.7% margin in Colorado, along with lower hurdles in Virginia, Ohio and Florida.  You deserve to be wrong if you make a projection based on reports of enthusiasm at Romney rallies and how many yard signs you've seen, but most of the Republican analysts were looking at raw polling numbers much the same as everyone else's.  What they did with them was different - they thought turn-out would be much higher among Romney supporters than Obama's.  One non-partisan polling organization - Gallup - agreed with them, so they've got some excuse.  But if your interpretation of what's happening is well away from the consensus, and if the consensus turns out to be right, you have to wonder whether you've overestimated your own competence.

The demographic breakdown of votes cast is interesting - Romney did as well among white voters as did GHW Bush against Dukakis.  But whites are no longer a large enough proportion of the electorate for that to be sufficient.  Since the demographics shifts are going to continue, the Republicans need a new strategy.  It's always a pleasure to offer advice to a defeated foe, so here's mine:

1) Ditch Bush.  You can't stop the electorate blaming Bush rather than Obama for the USA's economic difficulties, but you can stop them expecting more of the same from the next Republican they elect.

Republicans are convinced that Obama is woefully incompetent.  I really can't understand why they think so, but if they want people to take them seriously on the subject they need first to face up publicly to the fact, obvious to much of the electorate, that GW Bush was a disastrously bad president.  He failed to prevent the 9/11 attacks, then he invaded Afghanistan to follow up his demand that the Taliban must "hand over the terrorists" but failed to catch the most important terrorist, Osama Bin Laden, whom he'd said he wanted "dead or alive".  He invaded Iraq because it hadn't complied with demands to rid itself of "weapons of mass destruction" and the weapons turned out not to exist.  He had no sort of exit strategy for either war, with the result that the war in Iraq lasted officially for nearly nine years, and the war in Afghanistan is in its twelfth year.  And he destroyed the USA's reputation for respecting human rights by adopting the torture of suspects as a routine practice.  Meanwhile on the economic front he exploded the budget deficit by cutting taxes and expanding Medicare benefits, then steered the USA and the world into the worst financial crisis for eighty years.  And he indulged in government by crony, most visibly in the case of FEMA and its feeble response to Hurricane Katrina.  Against this litany of disaster, Republican charges against Obama are vanishingly small beer.

Politicians in the UK have learnt to disown their former leaders - Labour in particular have moved sharply away from Tony Blair, who shared in some of Bush's folly.  It's really not that hard.

2) Ditch vote-losing rhetoric that's not part of your core message.  The primary system forces presidential candidates to appeal first to their own parties, which makes it harder to occupy the centre ground when it comes to the general election, so Republican leaders need to get started now on persuading their members that Hispanic immigrants are as much a part of the American Dream as anyone else, and that women are entitled to the same sexual autonomy as men.  The examples of Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock should make it easy to persuade the Neanderthals to keep their prejudices to themselves.

My understanding is that the Republicans' core believe belief is in low taxes and small government, and that it's a popular notion in the USA.  So concentrate on that.

3) Get out more.  Republicans have their own version of reality, not just when it comes to opinion polls.  Fox News is helpful to them if it attracts converts, but damaging if it hides the truth about what's happening in the USA from the Primary electorate.  A political party should have its own values, but not its own facts.

Meanwhile, what should Obama be doing?  All the talk is of a "fiscal cliff" - at the end of the year the "Bush Tax Cuts" will expire, and there will be an automatic cut of about 0.25% in federal spending.  The raw effect will be roughly to halve the budget deficit (fiscal multiplier effects will make the actual deficit reduction smaller, as they have when European governments have attempted to reduce their deficits).  But in reality, it's not a cliff, it's a slope - the effects will be gradual.  And they'll cause more pain to Republicans than to the president - why should he care if taxes go back to Clinton-era levels?  And most of the Democrats' favourite programmes are protected from the spending cuts.  And unlike most of Congress, Obama doesn't have to worry about re-election any more.

I think this is what Obama planned all along.  The Republicans have engaged in unprecedented levels of obstruction in Congress, so once the Democrats lost their super-majority in the Senate, Obama found it very difficult to get any legislation passed.  He has responded by extending the use of executive powers, and by exploiting the Republican's weakness - their lack of contact with reality which caused them to believe that they would win the recent presidential election. So he made short-term compromises, attracting much criticism from his own side, in order to get a budget deal which suits him this side of the election - the Republicans assumed they would have the presidency and a Senate majority by now, so they thought it didn't much matter what they agreed to.

Having won his gamble on re-election, all Obama has to do now is sit on his hands.  Income taxes will go up, and he can then offer Republicans proposals he actually likes to reduce them again.  Here are some suggestions from me:
- a carbon tax, in return for revenue-neutral reductions in income taxes.  The tax would be levied on all fossil fuels at a level corresponding to an independent scientific estimate of the global economic cost of carbon dioxide emissions.
- phasing out agricultural subsidies, in return for revenue-neutral reductions in income taxes.  Obama has always supported agricultural subsidies, but then he's always cared about re-election.  He's free now to do what's right.
- legalizing marijuana, and taxing it, in return for revenue-neutral reductions in income taxes.

I can't say I'm confident that Obama will propose any of these things.  But I'd love it if he did.


  1. Trivia: s/core believe/core belief/.

    On that issue: I'd like to believe you, but its a large party, and another part of the core belief is clearly social_conservative/white/fundy_christian/scared. I hope they can ditch that and go back to the small govt bit.

    Nice to see you proposing revenue neutral carbon taxes.

  2. I wouldn't be so sure Obama doesn't care about re-election. I suspect he owes Bill Clinton a bit for his campaigning efforts and he owes Hilary Clinton a bit for playing ball so well over 2 administrations. It's likely Hilary will want to stand at the next election, so Obama needs to make sure he doesn't scare away the electorate during the rest of this term.