Supportive ———————————- >
If you were planning a trillion-pound, sixteen-year indoctrination program to turn out the next generation of our society, which column would you build it around?
The present school system is built on fear. Fear of exams. Fear of Ofsted. Fear of failure.
All this fear can only output blank generations capable of being obedient.
Yet the world has changed since the modern school was conceived in an industrial Britain. Then the economy needed homogenised, obedient workers and pliant, eager consumers. Today the mass-customisable planet demands innovation.
Education policy must, then, topple Column B. Only then can students be free from the fear of failure.
Gerard Depardieu lumbered around the stage of a provincial Russian town, brandishing his new Russian passport, before being bundled into a traditional regional smock. Hours earlier, he had dined with President Putin. Russia was embracing an exile, driven to their country by punitive state legislation. Or so they would like to have us believe. The arrival of Depardieu was undoubtedly a coup for the government, a sign of the new appeal of Russia to those disillusioned with the West, a sign of their legitimacy as a world power. Eighty years earlier, a series of Western intellectuals had come to fete the Soviet Union and engender it with a similar validity. Yet the gulf between the visits is more than simply chronological. The “fellow-travellers” saw the USSR as an attempt to create a new civilisation; Depardieu and the modern celebrities who fawn on dictators around the world see low taxes and the loosening of an oligarch’s purse-strings.
The collapse of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s was heralded as a triumph of democracy, free markets and free elections liberating the long-suffering people. In reality, the chaotic nature of the decade led to many countries returning to more authoritarian leadership, or merely retaining Soviet-era apparatchiks in power. They invariably became incredibly wealthy and ran corrupt and abusive states. The Turkmen leader, Saparmurat Niyazov, renamed himself Turkmenbashi, Father of the Turkmen, and became known for his personality cult – he had a gold-plated statue of himself erected in the capital, Ashgabat. It revolved to always face the sun.
If Turkmenbashi was the apotheosis of venal Central Asian dictatorship, he set an example for others. Islam Kamirov has ruled Uzbekistan since 1989, becoming notorious for a series of alleged human rights abuses, as has Ramzan Kadyrov, the Chechen warlord who ascended to the presidency from the ruin of the wars there. Kamirov and Kadyrov, as well as the Putin-Medvedev duumvirate, have played host to a number of American and European celebrities, often singers performing at exclusive concerts. Their defence when questioned about the allegations against their patrons is often ignorance, a sense that politics interferes with artistic freedom, and therefore can be overlooked. The irony of citing such rights to perform as an excuse for appeasing governments such as Putin’s is evident in the aftermath of the Pussy Riot case. However, the artists represent a new global citizenry, an elite whose fame has transcended national boundaries, and are therefore free to do the same. The supranational nature of football is an example: the Dagestani club Anzhi Makhachkala has persuaded world-class players to join them, despite their location in a volatile region of the country that requires the players to make a thousand mile commute from Moscow to play, through the wealth of a local oligarch.
It is now far simpler for wealthy individuals to choose their nationality and residence. However, the contrast between this and the intellectuals who pledged their support to Stalin’s Soviet Union is noticeable. Authors may have been flattered – their books were placed in libraries and scholars discussed them in public – but this was merely securing the bargain. Those who lent their support to the USSR saw it as the future, a new civilization in the process of attaining enlightenment and perfection. They invested a secular faith into the project; modern fellow travellers are more likely to pay lip service to an individual for their personal gain. Apologies are forthcoming when their actions are noticed – Hilary Swank donated her fee to charity after appearing in Chechnya for Kadyrov’s birthday – but the motivation is plainly financial. Russia has a flat income tax rate of just 13%, and Depardieu moved there shortly after President Hollande announced a new 75% top rate for France. Many also seek the privacy of a new nationality, away from prying media attention.
Moreover, the status of those who are able to transform their national identity, and move freely, is notable. If one has sufficient wealth, it is possible. If not, one is stranded, no matter their need. When the Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky claimed political asylum in Britain, there was no detention centre and debate over status. He was accommodated, his wealth and position overriding any concerns. For your average asylum seeker, the flight for their lives could hardly be different. A two-speed system has been created, whereby national borders are erased to ease the lives of the wealthy, whilst limiting the opportunities of the global poor. Russia’s tax rate benefits only a tiny minority of the population; Depardieu’s citizenship lends needed credibility to Vladimir Putin’s regime. Either way, as in the 1930s, we all suffer from the transcendence of social norms by a global elite.
Is fear an aid or hindrance to radical political change? Josh Allen surveys the evidence.
Few subjects are supposed to provoke more fear in the hearts of the ruling class than the spectre of radical change wrought through revolution. However need this be so?
The premier revolution of the modern era occurred in the Russian Empire in late 1917 – an event which in turn shaped much of the 20th century. And yet, after the initial spasms, did much really change internally within Russia? Need the bourgeois have trembled?
The first decade of the USSR’s existence was a game of 2 halves. First came fear engendered by the Civil War. Then in more settled circumstances, came the creativity that characterised mid-’20s Russia, giving us constructivism, method acting and cut-up film-making. All within an atmosphere that was punk 50 years before The Pistols.
After this creative interregnum however, returned an intensification of fear, as the advent of Stalin’s leadership instigated a climate of terror: the NKVD, GULAG and show trial, all came to sustain and legitimate the regime-lubricating the wheels of industrialisation with blood. Was this fear and tightening of the state’s grip really a logical stage in the evolution of the revolution or a counter-revolution?
On the social front, the draconian Stalinist legal code re-criminalised homosexuality, abortion and divorce. In the class room, the regime returned Russian educational praxis to a version of the traditional tsarist model. The virtual ban on changing job, place of employment or residence meant that serfdom was back in style, only this time with no hope of “redemption” after paying an additional tax for 25 or 30 years.
By the close of the 1930s the official ideology of state with its iconographic portraits of striving workers, buxom women and fetishisation of electricity and tractors as symbols of modernity appeared to have restored orthodoxy. The entire Soviet people toiled for their red tsar under the benevolent gaze of the holy trinity: Marx, Lenin, Stalin. The father, the son and the omnipresent holy ghost. Order had returned to the Russian Empire.
Switching our focus from the tundra to Tuscany in the late 1370s, and fear is sweeping through the oligarchic mercantile elites of Europe. In Florence, the Manchester or Shenzhen of the 14th Century, members of the minor craft guilds not recognised by the municipality seized control of the guildhall and raised their banners over the means of production, distribution and exchange. They proceeded to nationalise the grain industry, raise welfare benefits by 300% and to abolish all personal titles other than “citizen”. By the middle of 1382 however, all of their changes had been rolled back.
Following the seizure of power, the leaders of the minor guilds – like Stalin and his supine cadres 550 years later – found it both expedient to maintain and indeed reinforce some of the traditions of the old magnate class. Coming to power during an economic slump is never easy, however the government of the minor guilds compounded this problem by trying to meet the debt obligations of the previous regime and instituting draconian punishments for those who did not work. The lesser artisans of Florence were left wondering what had changed, so did not ride to their nominal representatives rescue when in 1382 the Butcher’s Guild, loyal to the old regime, seized the guildhall and massacred most members of the revolutionary government, securing the rapid restoration of the old regime and in time, the emergence of the Medici family as a bulwark against future disorder and challenges to the status quo.
The fear amongst radicals that revolutionary change might prove short-lived is frequently addressed as a topic of concern in radical left-wing circles. However, it also concerns those on the right. Marx famously wrote of Napoleon the III’s destruction of the Second Republic in 1852, ‘history repeats itself first as tragedy then as farce’. He was referring to the grotesque parody of the First Empire’s (brief) achievements reflected in the ineffective and ill-thought out vanity projects and serious dubious plebiscites, focus groups and assemblies, that compromised Louis Napoleon’s ever more tenuous grip upon both France and reality.
However, the same applies to the incredibly mediocre performance that was Thatcherite Britain. The Conservative Party’s mid-1970s conversion to to neo-liberal economics gave it a revolutionary agenda just as radical as that of Militant Tendency. Despite the best efforts of Keith Joseph to brand Thatcherism ‘neo-victorianism’, since that time there has been nothing conservative about the Conservative Party.
The appalling social effects of social, political and economic Thatcherism and the corrosive effect of life in a neo-liberal world upon individuals and their relationships with each other, are well-known, well-documented and well-lamented amongst left-wingers. What is considered less often is whether the Thatcherite revolution fundamentally changed anything. Or, in fact, whether British Thatcherism and the neo-liberal movement worldwide is merely an intensification and perfection of existing trends. Much as tsarist orthodoxy found its highest expression under the supposedly atheistic and socialistic Stalinist USSR.
Thatcher and her political fear she inculcated led to the waste, inefficiency and eventual collapse of state industries. However, let us consider three of Britain’s most successful companies: Serco, First Group and – before their collapse in 2002 – Jarvis Construction. All 3 have grown through extensive state support, which has enabled them to thrive. Serco and other outsourcing companies have come into existence solely because of government policies which favour private delivery of services, create a market, which has now gone global that did not exist before.
It’s hard to see how successive governments, both Labour and Conservative, have acted differently from their predecessors of the immediate Post-War era, who tried to encourage growth in the car or chemical industries. Likewise First Group’s business model, as we have seen in York, relies almost entirely upon exploiting state subsidies and extracting the maximum profit for the least return to service users. A model, so successful, that recent acquisitions have exported it as far as Australia and the USA. Jarvis Construction, prior to overreaching itself, made a killing from rail privatisation and public sector building contracts worldwide.
How does the policy of recent governments differ then from those prior to the late ’70s? Whereas once the government championed British Aerospace, the General Electric Corporation and the British Motor Company, firms which provided skilled, reasonably secure well paid jobs in good conditions for hundreds of thousands, now they encourage and subsidise service providers which seem to profit from the general atomisation of our population and society, under the white heat of capital.
Conservatives and indeed liberals should fear the pace of change that they have unleashed, because it is, by its very nature, destabilising. It is in this whirlwind that those of us who seek to challenge the status quo might be able to seek lasting change without falling into the mires that have ensnared radicals in the past. The essence of driving effective change must be to seek out organic variant of the change we want and encourage them to blossom.
At grassroots level we should seek to build through our students’ unions or our local authorities the sort of better world we want to see – be this through start our own letting agency to challenge ineffective privately run ones or getting the parish council to collectively buy energy for our town or village, so as to reduce bills for all. Such small acts are not a plea for introspective quietism, rather an assessment that if a revolutionary situation materialises then we shall be better placed to capitalise upon it if society already has the buds of a free and equal society.
As the President returned inside the Dome of the Capitol on Monday afternoon, shortly after the concluding his second inaugural, he paused on the top step to survey the scene below. As he looked out over the historic monuments of Washington, and the hundreds of thousands who filled in the gaps in between, he said quietly: ‘I’m going to look one more time. I’ll never see this again.’
Those two sentences tell you a lot about Barack Obama. They reveal just how acutely aware he is of his place in history; not just in his election and re-election, but also in his legacy. This speech was meant not just for America and for the world, but also for posterity. In no uncertain terms, the President cast off the chains of the electorate and embraced the liberalism that many long suspected he truly held.
In this sense, it was the speech many of his supporters have long been waiting for: bold, brave and genuinely ambitious. It vindicated those who, throughout a dispiriting first term, leapt to the President’s defence, saying that eight years are better than four, and that progress only comes with an appreciation of electoral realities.
This was Obama unleashed and more focussed. Free from the fear of the whims of the populace, and more savvy to the intransigence of his opposition, he laid out his agenda with a striking clarity and a better sense of the command of the bully-pulpit of the presidency.
By linking Stonewall to Seneca and Selma he aligned the gay marriage debate with civil rights and women’s suffrage. The impassioned and full-throated support of gay equality stood in favourable contrast to his somewhat calculated support last year. On this issue, history is only trending one way, and Obama wanted to make sure he was on the right side of it. If there is any passage that this speech will become known for, it will most likely be this one.
The reference to gun-control was quiet but unmistakable. Should Newtown slip from the collective memory, as surely it inevitably will, then its inclusion here may be judged by future generations as little more than the closing of a rhetorical device. But at this time no one doubted what the President meant. He stressed the cause of action over inaction, without sending the more sensible wing of the Republican Party – at least some of whom will be needed to pass any meaningful gun-control measure – reeling into a fit of overblown Second Amendment bluster.
Perhaps most gratifying to his liberal base was his defence of the welfare state, rejecting outright the pernicious myth that Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid are there only to help the lazy, or to drag America into lethargy. He stood up for the groups that are too easily targeted and gave voice to those rarely heard and whose cases are seldom made.
Some fear that this ideological entrenchment may cause problems when the time comes to fight over the deficit. They may be right. But Obama’s position shows he is willing to fight for what he believes in, and circumnavigate compromise with conservatives if necessary. Indeed, the fact the speech has so angered the Republican Party can only be a good thing, for whilst there is an intellectually coherent argument to be made for conservatism, the current Grand Old Party is certainly not it.
If anything was obviously lacking, it was that instantly quotable line. There was no, ‘We have nothing to fear…’ or: ‘Ask not what your country can do…’ But then, as one fictional President remarked on the latter, Kennedy really screwed his successors with that one.
In history’s pages, of course, rhetoric is one thing and achievement quite another. In his first term, with a cool head and calm demeanour, he navigated the tricky waters of foreign policy, passed his signature healthcare bill, and pulled America back from the brink of economic disaster. On Monday he laid out an ambitious plan for his legacy. If he fails to match his words with legislative accomplishments, history will rightly judge him harshly; but if he succeeds in fulfilling the great promise that he has set for himself then his place in history will be most certainly be assured.
Debate season is finally over and it has not been kind to Barack Obama. It matters very little that he scored victories against Mitt Romney in the second and third debates, because the damage had already been done in the first.
That initial contest shattered the President’s best laid plans. Millions of dollars were spent over the summer on defining Romney as an embodiment of the extremities of the modern GOP in the hope that the weak incumbent could overcome an even weaker challenger. The execution was flawless and, up until October, the plan seemed to be working perfectly as Obama eased into a small but significant lead.
Then Moderate Mitt turned up. The man on stage in Denver bore little resemblance to the cold-hearted caricature so omnipresent in Obama’s attack ads. Mitt was reasonable, Mitt was sensible, and, most of all, Mitt was plausibly presidential. Obama, taken aback by this new Mitt, was stunned into one of the most lacklustre performances of his career. In those ninety minutes the whole race was turned on its head.
In national polls ever since, Romney has either been statistically tied or slightly ahead. Some Republicans are now arguing their man is going to win in a landslide, so great is their momentum. One went so far as to claim the Republican is going to get 305 electoral votes. Amidst this chatter, fans of the President are getting decidedly nervous, and some are hitting full-on panic mode.
They shouldn’t. Here’s why.
Firstly, the bleed that started when Romney sliced up Obama in the first debate has now been staunched by the President’s two strong showings since. Movement within the polls is necessarily small because of the unusually low number of swing voters up for grabs in this cycle and Romney’s debate bounce has almost certainly peaked.
Secondly, more likely than not this is Republicans trying to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. People like winners, and if Republicans can talk up their chances of victory enough – if they can make people believe the momentum is truly behind them – they hope that voters will jump on their bandwagon. In the chaos of the last weeks of a general election campaign – and by virtue of the media-world which we inhabit – there is little time for measured reflection. Journalists, always keen for a story, will happily churn out whatever line is fed to them, often not taking the time to realise they are acting as extensions of the campaigns. Thus the quotes from any ‘senior source’ need to be treated with a very liberal dosing of salt. Playing the media is a profession now, and some of these guys have got really good at it.
Finally, the Electoral College still favours Obama. The race is, to all intents and purposes, down to seven states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio and Virginia. Of these, Obama only has to win Ohio and Nevada to propel himself to the magic 270. Nevada is relatively safe territory for the President and in Ohio polling generally gives Obama an edge. Lower than average unemployment and a resurgent auto-industry helped Obama’s numbers remain stable as the race tightened nationally in the aftermath of the first debate.
It is a risky strategy for the President, and Team Obama embraces it with reluctance. Whereas four years ago Obama had any number of paths to victory, this time around nearly all his eggs are in the Ohio basket. On the other hand, Romney cannot win without Ohio and, with his well-publicised advocacy of allowing Detroit to go bankrupt, Romney faces an uphill battle there.
It is therefore the President who remains the favourite, albeit a slim one. Republicans may be ebullient, and not unreasonably so, for this race is now firmly within the margin of error, but as it stands, geography may yet see the President through to his second term.
What do you make of Nick Clegg’s apology to current students for raising, rather than scrapping, tuition fees?I couldn’t even listen to it – had to turn the radio off in the car half way through. He’s the biggest let-down since the third series of My Parents Are Aliens. Maybe slightly bigger.
The York Conservatives are the biggest political group on-campus. What do you make of this and why do you think this is?We live in austere times. Politics today in Britain is maybe the kind of thing that appeals to the kind of people who are right wing. The Left’s maybe feeling pretty disenfranchised right now (I know I am). These are some potential reasons.
Which political club (York Labour Club, York Conservatives, Lib Dems, Greens, STAR etc) on-campus would cater most to your political affiliation?None, party politics at this level is pointless. Party politics at national level, is also, in my opinion, rather pointless.
What do you think York Politics is missing?Energy and youthful vim.
Generally speaking, do you tend to find York students left-wing or right-wing?A heady mixture of both. Each are vocally represented among the people I encounter.
How would you describe your political attitudes?I love democracy. I hate the three party system and first past the post. I’m liberal in my head, heart and gut.
If you voted in the last general election, how did you vote?LibDem (awkward).
Which elements of the new campus are most exciting to you? (Eg VBar, York Sports Village, new Langwith.)
Sports village would be a riot I’m sure, but I recently bought a tremendous loyalty card for swimming at another local pool, so my loyalties are of course elsewhere.
Are you happy with your department so far?English department has been a-okay thanks. I have a dreamy supervisor, and have enjoyed it mostly.
What do you enjoy most about York?It’s beautiful and relaxed and friendly.
What advice would you give to new students about York life and academia?
Don’t worry about it, do your best and be your happiest.
Two weeks ago, Barack Obama was pulling away. The election that was supposed to be a photo-finish seemed to be slipping slowly – but surely – away from Mitt Romney. In nearly every key swing state the President had established small but significant leads, most beyond the margin of error. Victory was moving towards the inevitable.
Then came last Wednesday.
If Barack Obama fails to gain a second term, Wednesday 3rd October will be why. Republicans, Independents -even Democrats – all overwhelmingly agreed that Romney won the debate convincingly. Romney was slick and articulate, Obama, to the dismay of his devotees, appeared old and tired. In fact, put quite simply, he looked like he didn’t want to be there.
It was bad, and Team Obama knew it. Ten minutes before the end of the debate his top aides were already on a conference call, figuring out their next step. Their boss had taken a battering from a rival who had found the perfect moment to come good. The fact that Axelrod et al. didn’t turn up to the spin room for over half an hour points to the severity of the situation.
Shortly after the debate Obama gathered his closest advisors for the briefest of debriefs and went for dinner with his wife. He knew that Romney had got the better of him. Asked whether Kerry – who had played Romney in the practice debates – was at fault, Obama quickly responded in the negative. This was his fault, the blame was all his.
In the aftermath, Democrats expected the polling to be bad. Their expectations were met and then some. On Wednesday, for the first time in the general election period, Romney pulled ahead nationally in an average of all the major polls. 0.7% may not seem like an insurmountable lead – and it’s not – but for Democrats who had been getting increasingly comfortable as their guy pulled ahead, it was an unnerving number.
At time of writing, the momentum seems to be going only one way. Romney has eliminated Obama’s lead. Statistically they are now tied. Obama’s eighteen-point lead amongst women has closed to a one-point one. The Hispanic vote is down and Republican enthusiasm is up. As David Plouffe might put it, it is bed-wetting time for the Democratic faithful.
Such a capitulation on national television would throw most people into a prolonged period of soul-searching. Short of that, they would nonetheless have their confidence rocked and their self wracked with doubt.
If we are to anticipate the remainder of the election therefore, it is probably worth considering how Obama bounced back. The next day he shone with the charisma that so characterised his 2008 campaign. He attacked his opponent in the way he had failed to do the night before, mocking his attacks on Big Bird and burrowing at his very credibility by calling him everything short of a liar. The man on the debate stage in Denver and the man on the campaign trail could not have been more different. But as David Axelrod noted of his boss, ‘he doesn’t brood – he reacts.’
Thursday evening, Joe Biden took on Paul Ryan in the Vice Presidential debate. Generally the VP debates are all but irrelevant. This one wasn’t. Biden had to show-up and make the case for his boss. Fortunately, he did.
Much ink will be expended on whether or not Biden smiled and smirked too much. Conservatives – the most debased (and, thus, most politically astute) sort – will draw comparisons between Al Gore’s overly arrogant performance in 2000 and Biden’s this year. This point may be fair but ultimately unimportant. Biden’s job in the debate was not to win independents, which compromise an unusually small percentage of the population this year, but to fire up the base. The movement in the polls against Obama since his poor debate showing have not been because of Democrats deserting him. Rather, it has been because Republicans, suddenly filled with a belief in their candidate, have become increasingly enthusiastic about their nominee’s prospects. Democrats, by contrast, are deflated.
Joe – loyal, working-class Joe – took the fight to Ryan. We will have to wait for hard numbers to see how his performance played out amongst the more general population. Crucially however, he may have been able to stop the bleeding and slow Romney’s momentum.
The next presidential debate is on Tuesday. Expect Obama to put in a big performance. Although rarely does it seep through to the public, the President is fiercely competitive. At his regular basketball games, those who are perceived to be going easy on him aren’t invited back. What is more, he holds a genuine contempt for Mitt Romney, a man who he believes to not be good enough for the top office. He knows he fell short in his first battle. He will not let it happen again. He will take the fight to Romney with every nerve and sinew.
Obama is not done yet. Just await the comeback.
The dust has finally settled. The glossy and extravagant, and increasingly irrelevant, national conventions are over and the campaigns are moving into the home stretch. Yet in the aftermath of the past two weeks, one nagging question remains: Why was President Obama’s speech so decidedly average? A man who announced himself on the world stage with lofty and sparkling rhetoric managed to give an address last week that was as tepid as it was pale.
It did not help, of course, that he had two tough acts to follow. His wife, Michelle, easily the most popular Obama in America, dazzled on night one of the Convention, and on night two, Bill Clinton, the Daddy of the Democratic Party, came home to roost and stole the entire show. ‘Give the kid another chance,’ Clinton seemed to say, as he ripped into the Republicans with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. The verdict on Bubba was nearly unanimous: he had delivered one of the best speeches of his political career.
But that does not explain why Obama was so flat. Yes, Michelle and Bill were good, and they set the bar particularly high, but this is a man whose life has been defined by clearing bars of seemingly impossible height. Indeed, you cannot, at least today, get into the Oval Office without the capability of rising to the big occasions. This considered, the President’s speech was baffling.
It should be said, in fairness, it was not bad speech per se. As we have come to expect from Obama, and his chief wordsmith Jon Favreau, the speech was strong on eloquence and easily passed the cadence test. On paper, its musicality was obvious, albeit not overwhelming.
But context matters, and so does delivery, and this speech ended up being mediocre by the President’s own standards. It was plain and, more importantly, it was thoroughly forgettable.
One wonders then, what was the President playing at? Campaigns are hand-to-hand fights, conducted through candidates and willing surrogates. This speech was not an accident, it was intentional, it had a purpose; it is just difficult to discern what that purpose was.
Having dwelled on it for a couple of days, the best I can make out is this: the President’s speech was a safe speech. It was the sort of speech you give if you know you are ahead. The rationale may be astute: too much hope, too many lofty promises, and Obama would have gifted his opponents a window of attack.
Instead, Obama tempered hope with reality, acknowledging 2012 is not 2008. But by being steady and statesman-like, he quietly knocked the ball onto Romney’s side of the court. It is the Republican who is behind in the race to 270, even some of his most senior strategists concede this, so it is he who has to change the race in the remaining two months.
Dazzle, Obama did not, but quietly effective, he may turn out to be.
Earlier today Mitt Romney officially announced that Paul Ryan, a Congressman from Wisconsin, and a man most famous for his radical 2010 budget, will be his Vice-Presidential nominee. Here are some hard and fast thoughts, ordered vaguely and submitted without eloquence or style (for which I apologise).
Firstly, Romney’s selection is unusually bold. Conventional wisdom held that, after the disaster of Sarah Palin in 2008, Romney, the cautious businessman, would pick a boring, white guy. Tim Pawlenty and Rob Portman were two of the favourite amongst many of the talking-heads by virtue of their staggering dullness. Ryan may be white, but he is not boring.
Instead, Romney seems to have acknowledged that his strategy of making this election a referendum on President Obama may not be enough. This is a statement of intent on Romney’s part, and an attempt to shake-up a campaign that has been slowly but surely drifting towards the incumbent.
Ryan does not suffer from the same vacant mind that shines from Sarah Palin’s every word. A policy-wonk before he is a politician, his intellect is formidable and impressive – even the President says so – and whilst many disagree with the vision he sets out for the country, he is nonetheless admired across the political spectrum for the sharpness of his mind.
His ideas on how to bring the United States back to fiscal health are radical and politically brave. The Left see Ryan as a man intent on shredding the safety net that catches the weakest in society; the Right adores him for his belligerent advocacy of fiscal conservatism. Romney had previously tentatively endorsed Ryan’s 2010 Budget but he is now inextricably bound to it. What this means will be determined in how the narrative is shaped over the next few weeks.
Team Obama – who have gained a reputation for the ferocity and speed of their response – will likely relish the chance to take on Ryan. For all his considerable intelligence he is also a relatively unknown entity outside of the political bubble. Even in Wisconsin he does not have the state-wide name-recognition that a Senator or Governor does. As they have done to Romney, the Obama campaign will seek to define him on their own terms. The man who ‘wants to end Medicare as we know it’ will be one likely line of attack, and a particularly potent one in pensioner-heavy states like Florida, which is crucial to a Romney victory.
Ryan does have his upsides, obviously. He is young, dynamic and (for a politician) good-looking. More importantly is his ability to explain complicated ideas in simple terms, an invaluable skill for any modern politician. Romney has had a problem connecting with blue-collar voters, Ryan connects easily.
Ryan’s blueprint for fiscal health also brings into focus America’s ballooning national debt. Whilst much of the blame for fiscal recklessness should probably lie at the feet of George W. Bush (an assertion Ryan would not dispute) Obama will be an easy-target just by being in office at a time when the national debt has continued to expand. The stimulus – arguably one of the reasons why America, unlike much of the Western world, currently has an economy which is growing – will be attacked fiercely.
Unlike Romney however, Ryan has barely any private sector experience. Flipping burgers in McDonalds notwithstanding, he has spent almost his entire career inside Washington, a message at odds with Romney’s private sector fetish. Moreover, Ryan has yet to properly endure the glare of the national spotlight. His vetting by the Romney camp will have no doubt been thorough, particularly after what unfolded four years ago, but the media has fresh meat to get its teeth into, so expect a vicious trial by press.
Finally, the justification behind Romney’s choice has generally pointed towards the hope that a ‘reset’ button can be hit on an election that was slipping away from the Republican. Interestingly, this was a similar rationale behind the selection of Sarah Palin four years ago. She was picked for being a ‘game-changer’ – we all saw how that panned out.
Ryan is very different from Palin in many ways, but the outcome could be similar. Defined in the right way by the Obama campaign and Romney’s decision could quickly look foolish. Vice-Presidential nominees tend not to provide big gains, but they have the potential to be very damaging.
Either way, this election suddenly got a lot more interesting, but it remains to be seen just what sort of impact Paul Ryan will have.
This weekend marks 100 days until Election Day here in the United States, and this arbitrary milestone invites us to take stock of where we are and how the race currently stands. In so doing, it is necessary to get away from the talking-head punditry that incessantly – and often inaccurately – drives the day and get our feet onto firmer ground.
For starters, we need to acknowledge that this is an election taking place in a country that is deeply polarised. According to aWashington Post analysis, the traditional swing-voters that tend to decide most elections compromise only 9% of the electorate. Most Democrats and Republicans are already firmly in their corner and are very unlikely to move before November. This is not a volatile race prone to significant daily fluctuations, but rather a very steady one, with gains almost certain to be incremental at best.
With this in mind, we can ignore much of the daily cable chatter, as well as sites like Politico and Huffington Post. Whilst much of what these outlets offer is interesting – at least to a political junkie – it is also largely irrelevant. Only when a single story maintains media attention for a sustained period of time – Romney’s Tax Returns, being a good example – does it start to contribute to an overarching narrative and seep through to the voter on the street, and even then the effect is minimal. People believe what they want to believe.
To get a more accurate sense of how the electoral landscape looks it is helpful to turn to those who put their faith in the power of numbers, not punditry. Of these, the New York Times’ Nate Silver, author of FiveThirtyEight.com is perhaps the best. An economist by training, Silver shot to (relative) fame in 2008 when his election model predicted 49 out of 50 states correctly in the presidential race, missing only Indiana which went for Obama by 0.9%. He also correctly predicted the outcomes of all 35 Senate races that year too, thus establishing himself as a man to be listened to.
So how does he see that state of play this year? As of time of writing, Silver gives Obama a 65% chance of victory in the fall, against Romney’s 35%. This is Romney’s best figure since late June and shows he has gained some ground in recent weeks. Nonetheless, Romney’s lead in Florida – a state he must win to have any chance of being elected – is delicate, and well within the margin of error. What is more, Ohio, the state most likely to be the ‘tipping point’ in November, is leaning increasingly towards Obama. If Silver’s calculations are accurate, and they are about as accurate as anyone working in the US right now, then the President holds a significant lead, and in an election unlikely to change dramatically, this leaves Governor Romney facing an uphill battle.
However, there always remains the possibility that unforeseen circumstances could yet turn this race on its head. If Europe fails to get its house in order and proceeds to drag the US back into recession, the President, fairly or unfairly, will have to shoulder the blame. Then again, if the American economy turns out strong jobs figures in September and October, as it did in the early months of this year, then the President will almost certainly pull away to victory on a late surge of approval.
Romney may capitulate and be forced to release more than two years of his tax returns. He faces increasingly loud calls from Republicans, not to mention Democrats, to do so. But while the Governor is many things, he is not stupid. He must have calculated that releasing the information would be more damaging than not doing so. (The current theory is that Romney lost so much money in the 2008 crash, that he was able not to pay any tax – or at least, a very, very low rate of tax – on his 2009 earnings.) The chances are, therefore, that he will not waver from his current position of adamantly refusing to release more.
Finally, even without Europe collapsing or Romney capitulating, the televised debates, the rules of which were announced on Wednesday, could potentially tilt the balance. Romney may have an edge in this area, being well-drilled from a prolonged primary season where he took part in no fewer than nineteen debates. Obama, by way on contrast, has not debated since October of 2008. Then again, it all comes down to it on the night, and with the second debate taking place with a town hall format, Romney’s inability to connect to the average voter may be exposed in front of an audience of millions.
This said, the impact of the televised debate is generally over-hyped, and both candidates will look to escape unscathed rather than score a clear victory. In such a hostile and polarised political environment a knock-out punch is near impossible, but a glaring error could prove costly. More likely than not, the debates will teach us little new and will serve only to harden the lines on either side of the political divide.
For the majority of the country that has already decided which way they are going to vote, the next three months will only act as an example of how broken American politics is, as both sides spend hundreds of millions of dollars trying to win over a few hundred thousand voters in ten key battleground states. Those who have not made up their minds will more likely drift, with reluctance more than enthusiasm, into one camp or the other, and probably only then in the final few weeks.
The state of the race is stable and 2012 looks set to plod along towards its inevitable and momentous conclusion.