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America's ideological election

Published:Sunday | September 9, 2012 | 12:00 AM
President Barack Obama speaks to delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, last Thursday.-AP PHOTOS

Ian Boyne, Contributor

"When you pick up that ballot to vote, you will face the clearest choice of any time in a generation ... the choice you face won't be just between two candidates or two parties. It will be a choice between two different paths for America. A choice between two fundamentally different visions for the future."
- President Obama, Democratic National Convention.

Politicians are known for not talking straight. But when American President Barack Obama made the foregoing statement at his Democratic National Convention (DNC) last Thursday night, his analysis could not be sharper. I have said it before, and both the recently held Republican National Convention (RNC) and the just-concluded Democratic Convention have confirmed it: This is America's most ideological election in decades. It's not small-stakes issues which are being decided in November.

As Obama said on Thursday night: "Over the next few years, big decisions will be made in Washington on jobs and the economy; taxes and deficits, energy and education, war and peace-decisions which will have a huge impact on our lives and our children's lives for decades to come." It was significant that of all the excerpts that the Obama handlers could have pre-released, it was those highlighting the two choices facing America which were released, showing that the Obama campaign understands that this is an ideological election.

In his adrenaline-raising, hard-hitting and highly cogent speech to the DNC on Wednesday night, former President Bill Clinton also put the fundamental issues facing the American people in ideological terms. "My fellow Americans, you have to decide what kind of country you want to live in. If you want a 'you're-on-your-own, winner-take-all, you should support the Republican ticket. If you want a country of shared opportunities and shared responsibilities - a we're all in it together society - you should vote for Barack Obama and Joe Biden."


The Republicans are also clear that this is an ideological election, and they have unequivocally staked it in those terms. Republican vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan told the RNC that "the choice is whether to put hard limits on the size of Government, and we choose to limit Government". Says Ryan Lizza in his August 6, 2012, New Yorker piece on Paul Ryan titled 'How Paul Ryan Captured the GOP': "The current presidential campaign centres on the debate about the Government's role in the economy."

President Obama made a statement on July 13 which has outraged Republicans: "If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. Somebody invested in roads, bridges. If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen." That was absolute blasphemy to Republicans, who deify the market and private initiative. Ryan, whose main philosophical influence is that notorious philosopher of selfishness, Ayn Rand, is the Republicans' chief ideologue. Ryan has said, "The reason I got involved in public service, by and large, if I had to credit one thinker, it would be Ayn Rand."

The Republicans are charging that Obama and his group of "liberals and Leftists" are creating dependency and are believers in Big Government, while the Democrats are maintaining, as Clinton put it on Wednesday, that: "We believe 'we're all in this together' is a far better philosophy than 'you're on your own'."

So don't just put down this election to whether Obama was able to grow the economy sufficiently and make Americans feel safe, or whether he can do in the next four years what he never did since 2008. This American election is about ideology. It is about which philosophy, which vision should guide the American people over the next few years. Paul Ryan is very clear about that. Michael Crowley, in his Time magazine article on 'The Big Idea Guy' (September 3), quotes Ryan as putting the issues in clearly ideological terms and putting down any merely pragmatic opposition to Obama.

Showing that he is faithful to his (ironically) atheistic guru Ayn Rand, who said in 'Atlas Shrugged', "Accept the fact that the achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose in your life," Ryan said in 2009. "It is not enough to say that President Obama's taxes are too big or the health care plan doesn't work for this or that policy reason. It is the morality of what is occurring right now and how it offends the morality of individuals working towards their own free will to produce, to achieve, to succeed that is under attack."

sluggish economic growth

Make no mistake: There are some practical, concrete things to be considered and decided on in this election. Some 4.3 million private-sector jobs have been lost since the January 2008 peak. Also, since 2008, 3.6 million Americans have been added to Social Security's disability insurance programme, which is seen as concealing the level of unemployment in America.

Economic growth in America has also been sluggish. The president projected a 3.2% growth in 2010 and 4.0% in 2011. The actual out-turn was 2.4% and 1.8%, respectively. Unemployment was projected at 6%; it's now 8.2%. Well-known Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, in a Newsweek cover story (August 27), 'Hit the Road, Barack: Why We Need a New President', cites as reasons to send Obama packing this November: "(In terms of) debt to revenue, that number has leapt from 165% in 2008 to 262% this year ... . Among developed countries, only Ireland and Spain have seen a bigger deterioration."

So the Republicans are bawling about irresponsible Big Government and Obama's taking Americans into an unsustainable future. Ordinary Americans are feeling the pinch, which naturally the Republicans are seeking to exploit. But this is where the brilliance of the Democratic political strategy was manifested at their recently concluded convention. The Democrats took the wind out of the Republicans' sails by openly acknowledging people's pain and the fact that there is a disconnect between the administration's efforts and what people are feeling on the ground.

Clinton, in his masterful, compellingly logical and forceful speech, was forthright and connecting: "I know many Americans are still angry and frustrated with the economy. Though employment is growing and even housing prices are picking up, too many people don't feel it." This was brilliant strategy.

Then he recalled his own experience of working on a recovery which was slow - but which eventually proved effective and rewarding. The implicit message being, just give Barack another term and be patient, you will eventually feel the recovery. Clinton recited the jobs saved and created under Obama. In his evidence-based speech, Clinton said in the past 52 years, the Republicans have been in power for 28 years and the Democrats for 24. What have been their job records?

The Republicans created 24 million private-sector jobs while the Democrats created 42 million. This was to smash the Republican propaganda that the Democrats are not good for job creation.

consumer confidence

The US Conference Board's consumer confidence index is usually a reliable indicator of how an incumbent will do in an election. In her piece 'It's the Stupid Global Economy', Time columnist Rana Foroohar (September 3), says since 1967 that index has perfectly predicted presidential elections. Every time the index is below 95, an incumbent has lost the election. Today's consumer confidence level is down to 66. Yet President Obama is leading in many polls.

A poll from the authoritative Pew Research Center in July shows that 48 per cent of voters believed President Obama would do a better job of improving economic conditions, compared with Mitt Romney's 42 per cent. Some Americans seem to understand the impact of the global economy on America and the mess that Obama inherited from the Republicans.

Besides, Americans might be the quintessential free-spirited libertarians, but polls have shown, including a CBS News/New York Times survey, that more Americans favour spending more on educating and infrastructure - which Obama favours - while raising taxes on the rich and businesses to pay for it.

In that poll, fewer than half (37 per cent) favoured lowering taxes and cutting government spending.

Says Foroohar: "Americans overwhelmingly want the government - the government! - to do more to help the financial situation of the middle class."

At the DNC, the Democrats surgically took apart the Republican narrative. They addressed every major contentious issue. Joe Biden, no intellectual like Clinton, was nevertheless very powerful, very moving in exploiting the nationalism and

America's ideological election security obsessions of many Americans.

"Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive," he said in one unforgettable statement, to thunderous applause. He unpacked Republican propaganda about Obama: that he was weak, indecisive, reckless on national security and foreign policy. He showed Obama as fearless in tracking down and killing bin Laden and he appealed to liberals by speaking up for immigrants, gays and the pro-choice lobby.

Obama also showed up the foreign-policy naivety of Romney who talked, incredibly, of Russia being America's number one enemy, a piece of idiocy that must have embarrassed Robert Kagan, if he is still advising him.

Incidentally, on foreign-policy issues, Republican arguments against Obama are absurd, and hopelessly weak. Obama has proved to be more muscular in foreign policy than expected, tougher than he has been projected, carrying out brazen drone attacks against enemies that Bush would have been roundly condemned for by the liberal American press. He has talked cooperation and consensus-building, but not at the expense of American power and assertion in the world. In that regard, Condoleezza Rice's overrated RNC address was an intellectual scandal for a Stanford foreign-policy professor.

Anyone who wants to read a thorough assessment of Obama's foreign policy positions and record since 2008 should get the just-released (2012) book, Bending History: Barack Obama's Foreign Policy, by prominent foreign policy scholars, Martin Indyk, Kenneth Lieberthal and Michael O'Hanlon. Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are two of the most inexperienced teams in foreign-policy ever.

Importantly, culture war issues such as gay marriage, abortion and religion have not gained traction in this election. However, whether independents have been convinced by the DNC, God only knows.

Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist. Email feedback to and