Wednesday, August 29, 2012

If running a business is now an electoral disadvantage, this isn't the America I thought I knew

The US elections ought to be determined by just one issue: the economy. The country has emptied its treasury and exhausted its credit. The national debt is now at a literally indescribable level: no superlative comes close to conveying what $15 trillion means. The overwhelming majority of Americans are worse off than they were 12 months ago, and will be yet worse off 12 months from now. This shouldn’t just be the only question at stake on polling day; it should be the only thing anyone is talking about at all. So what issues are dominating the campaign? Todd Akin, gay marriage, whether there is a racist undertone to attacks on welfare dependency, whether Mitt Romney is a stiff. As a visitor, I can only goggle in bafflement. From the point of view of Democrat strategists, of course, it’s clever politics. When 64 per cent of Americans say that they expect their standard of living to deteriorate under Obama, and when Romney has a 19-point advantage on economic competence, it makes sense to talk about anything except the economy. As a fair-minded GOP delegate from Idaho told me, ‘Now I now how they must have felt when we kept talking about Kerry’. Sensing that some Republicans were diffident about their nominee, Lefties tried to make the election all about Mitt Romney: he was a ruthless plutocrat, they said, a Montgomery Burns type who laid people off for pleasure. He’s also (whisper it) a devotee of some weird cult that baptises the dead. Will it work? I think – I certainly hope – that Democrats underestimate the extent to which creedal pluralism and mutual respect for religions is built into the American republic. Any faith can be caricatured by having its tenets stated in an exaggeratedly reductionist way. You might just as well say that Joe Biden and Paul Ryan are members of a sect whose devotees believe they devour the body of Jesus in the form of a wafer. Americans generally don’t think such things, of course, because they know that religious practices must be understood in the context of faith. Their history, their constitution, their natural good manners and their common humanity tell them to show due reverence to other people’s innermost convictions. When they consider Romney’s Mormonism, their first thought is not of theology, but of how his religion has made him behave: the way it made him give away his father’s inheritance, the way it made him work for others as a young missionary, the way it informs the charitable work of which he never speaks, because he understands that giving is a privilege, not a boast. Do Americans really believe that setting up and running a big business – a business which not only generated profits, but made capital available to other entrepreneurs – is a disqualification? If so, they are not the nation I thought I knew. 'Sobriety, frugality, industry and honesty seldom fail of success in America', wrote Franklin. Was he wrong? Who will win? It’s anyone’s guess. Every election since 1960 has been won by the candidate who was ahead in the Gallup poll 100 days before polling day (except in 1988). What did that Gallup poll show last month? A dead heat: 48 per cent each. Another handy rule is that the candidate who leads going into the conventions wins. Who led going into the conventions? Obama in four big polls, Romney in two, and one dead heat. On most issues, voters have made up their minds. There is little that can happen between now and November that will cause a major reassessment of, say, the economy or Medicare. Only a major geopolitical event – conflict between Iran and Israel, for example – might upset things. The one factor that is still in play is Mitt Romney himself. If, by the end of this week, he is seen as the unacceptable face of capitalism, he’ll lose; but if he can convince people that he is a hard-working, decent, respectable businessman, whose ability to read a balance sheet is more valuable than ever at a time like this, and whose choice of running mate shows that he has a plan to tackle the debt problem, then it’s his for the taking. Ann Romney has made the best possible start in Tampa. In an evening of uplifting speeches, hers was the most finely crafted, the most touching and the most effective. It’s the kind of thing that wouldn’t happen in Britain: our cynical media would tear its sentimentalism to pieces. But, listening from the floor to her artless description of the man she loved, I was quite moved. Before last night, I’d have put the odds at 75 per cent Obama, 25 Romney; now I’d say 55, 45. Who knows where we’ll be by Friday. Telegraph


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