Monday, 15 October 2012

Two Futures for America

In 2008, an electorate wide eyed with the sort of enthusiastic earnestness only Americans can affect, propelled Barrack Obama into the White House. In 2012, after four years of grandiose promises of “hope and change” running up against the realities modern government and a recalcitrant economy, that idealism has subsided. The 2012 Presidential election will be fought in a spirit of dispassionate realism.

This is something for which we should be grateful.  The last time two candidates were divided by such a wide gulf in terms of their vision for America’s future was 1964, when Barry Goldwater, a Republican with libertarian views, ran against LBJ. Goldwater carried only six states. Today there is less harmony in the electorate. Like the candidates, America itself is divided by an unbridgeable chasm on the direction in which America should be going. Better that Americans choose their path with their heads rather than their hearts.

Romney and Obama disagree on almost every area of policy. More so than anything on the issues at the centre of the election: the economy and the size of the state.  A Romney administration would be one that rolled back the frontiers of government. There would be lower taxes; drastically lower spending on just about everything but the military; and a balanced budget amendment to the constitution would also be on the table. Romney has also pledged to repeal (at least part of) Obama’s healthcare reforms. Nor is the rest of the welfare-state safe. Social Security and Medicaid, the healthcare program for the poor, would see deep cuts, while Medicare, the much beloved but completely unsustainable healthcare program for the elderly would be turned into a voucher scheme.       

Unsurprisingly, Obama disagrees with all of the above. Obama has presided over a fiscal stimulus program that has seen government spending reach levels unsurpassed since the Second World War; he has bailed out the car industry; and his healthcare reforms constitute an enormous rebuff to the power of the market in favour of the power of government. Though he too wants to reduce the deficit, his plan involves higher taxes and fewer loopholes for the wealthy, and less draconian spending cuts than Romney’s. His positive program, involving modestly higher spending on education and infrastructure hardly sets the world alight. Ironically, Obama has become the candidate of continuity and gradual progress, while Romney is the candidate of radical change - though, perhaps not of hope.

In other key areas the candidates are similarly divided. Romney wants a ban on gay marriage, and abortion in almost all circumstances. Indeed, Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate, has co-sponsored a number of anti-abortion bills in the House of Representatives. Most ominously, the appropriately nicknamed “Let Women Die” Bill, which would have allowed hospitals to refuse women abortions, even when necessary to save their lives. Another, the Ultrasound Informed Consent Act, would have required women to be given a mandatory ultrasound involving an invasive vaginal probe before allowing an abortion to take place. Obama, on the other hand, put an ended the out-dated ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy on gays in the military, and, after much vacillation, came out in favour of gay marriage. He has also signed into law legislation that makes it easier for women to sue for equal pay, and his healthcare reforms mandate that birth control should be offered to women at no extra-cost.

On foreign policy, Obama has sought to build bridges with those nations that were left out in the cold during the Bush era. On taking office he ‘reset’ relations with Russia, and he has attempted to position America at a distance from Israel, while reaching out to the Arabs. Neither policy has been successful. Romney, by contrast, intends to brand China as a currency speculator on his first day in office; he is more hawkish with respect to Iran; and he has already offended much of the Arab with his comments during his recent trip to Israel. Such an aggressive approach will do even more to damage America’s international position.

Perhaps the one area of policy that the two candidates agree on is the environment and energy. Both candidates essentially propose to change little. However, this is not a position converged upon through a shared perspective on the issues, but ankle-deep agreement on one goal: to get the economy moving. In an ideal world, Obama would like to do more to encourage renewables, and curb CO2 emissions. However, over the past 5 years there has been a boom in oil and gas, which has had more to do with technology and the market than government policy. Obama is loathe to put at risk one of the few healthy sectors of the US economy through burdensome legislation and taxes. For Romney and Ryan, the issue of climate change is simply too far down their agenda to matter.

The choice, in short, is between big government and small government. This may seem nothing out of the ordinary. However, with the rise of extreme movements such as the Tea Party, the candidates’ positions have become exaggerated caricatures of those that have been put forward in recent decades, with little common ground between. Once implemented, policies like Obamacare or the voucherisation of Medicare will be costly and difficult to reverse. This election, therefore, will determine the character of the US state for decades to come.  

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