By Paolo von Schirach
February 9, 2012
WASHINGTON – The confused and fractious Republicans appear terminally incapable of getting their act together, as the latest contests in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri won by comfortable margins by conservative Rick Santorum show. By now it is pretty obvious: a large chunk of the rank and file GOP activists really do not like nor trust centrist Mitt Romney, while they foolishly look for a real conservative that would incarnate every possible sacrosanct principle and ideological bias they hold. In the end they may find one. Right now it looks that this champion may be previously overlooked Rick Santorum.
Santorum will never get elected
But, while I find it hard to believe that Santorum will be nominated, I can be bold enough to state that he will never get elected. I just do not see millions of independents going for someone who seems to be better versed at preaching than at dealing with public policy. The believers may indeed like both the righteousness and the delivery. But, as they are a minority even within the relatively small universe of Republican activists, I doubt that there are enough of them in America to propel former Senator Santorum into the White House.
Romney is a weak candidate
But if Santorum does not get the nomination and bruised Mitt Romney is after all the man, he is looking weaker every day. How can a candidate with such lukewarm support within his own party have the aura of inevitability that will get millions of people, including many who voted for Obama in 2008, vote for him? Of course, as always, much will depend on the mood of the nation in the crucial two or three months preceding the elections. And, if something real bad happens and Obama becomes vulnerable, Romney may get lucky.
Four more years for Obama
Still, barring unforeseen events, as the pitiful economy slowly improves and with the enormous power and prestige of incumbency working for him, at this stage I would say that we should expect four more years of Barack Obama. And this will not be good for America. I say this without any partisan animosity. It is just that Obama is not capable of fashioning a new national consensus around what America desperately needs, and that is vigorous and convincing pro-growth economic policies.
Republicans: no deal with Obama
This may not be entirely his fault. I suspect that a large segment of the Congressional Republicans would rather see America sink than do a deal with Obama that might benefit him politically. And I also believe that this Republican animosity against this president is so visceral and so irrational, in part I suspect based on non confessed racist prejudice, that it cannot be watered down. (Remember that there is a sizable minority of Americans who really believe that Obama should not be president because he was not born here, while many others truly believe that he is a Muslim, and therefore “illegitimate” as a Christian nation could not possibly have a non believer as president).
Fairness is the wrong theme
On the other side of the divide, Obama is now locked in as the president who will fight for the struggling middle class and for the poor. He has firmly embraced and has been indulging in truly anti-rich populism. Bad enough if this is were just a gimmick to get him re-elected. But I suspect he believes what he says and this is truly unhelpful. By saying that America’s main problem is “fairness” Obama shapes the national debate around the wrong theme.
Don’t get me wrong, fairness is a real issue, just like the need to extend health care insurance a couple of years ago was a real issue. But as much as health care should not have been picked as “the“ national priority, while the US economy was in a real mess, fairness is not the dominant issue when we need to kick start America’s engine.
Picking the wrong priorities
True leadership is about identifying the most important thing and running with it. I am afraid that this president lacks this quality. The most important challenge facing America today is lack of growth and losing the innovation battle. And I do not hear any of this from the White House. We hear a lot about caring for the poor and the unemployed. However, the fact is that the best cure for unemployment is not extending the safety nets but promoting vigorous growth.
Looking at a country still struggling to get out of a historically bad recession, facing an unprecedented growth of the national debt, while million of children get a truly bad public education, condemning them to menial jobs, I would say that economic revitalization, while going all out on public education reform, should be priority one and two and three.
Inability to create a coalition around economic growth policies
But this president, while saying a few good things here and there, has not managed to create the proper atmosphere leading to a grand bargain with the opposition that might have led to the creation of a better base for growth. In fact he has failed to the make the case even within his own party, now dominated by nervous law makers whose priority is the preservation of the welfare state with all the entitlements, while selling the silly notion that it will all be fine if the rich paid for it. Look, if we squeezed the rich we may get a few hundred extra billion in tax revenue. But you tell me if that alone would make a serious dent into a 15 trillion national debt that keeps growing.
Imagine a different scenario
But think instead of a different scenario. Roll back to December 2010 when the Bowles Simpson Report came out. Imagine that Obama had fully endorsed it, promoting it vigorously in Congress. Imagine if today we had in place a simplified flat tax system that would have eliminated loopholes and preferential treatment for special interests. Imagine if had in place a substantive deal about fair but meaningful entitlement reform affecting not the current retirees but those still active, so that the whole world would know that America is serious about bending the cost curve, reducing the deficit and thus the national debt.
Imagine if had an agreement about energy and about a credible national infrastructure plan that could not be politically manipulated, whereby all the good projects would go to the districts of the most powerful law makers. Imagine if we had created a national consensus about public education reform. Imagine the impact of a credible national effort, based on smart public private partnerships to boost R&D across the board. This would be an entirely different country.
Public policy alone not a cure all
Look, good public policy would not be a cure all. But it would help set the tone and the national mood. If all these (sadly) imaginary reforms had been agreed to in a climate of genuine cooperation, this would have helped to create optimism and hope.
But instead we have nothing done and the prospect of more stalemate ahead, unless the Democrats win everything in November: the White House, the Senate and the House. Former governor Mitt Romney had tried to say that he really knows this stuff and that he would fix the economy. He’s got the credentials. He can do it, or so he says. And, for all I know, he may have the instincts, the capabilities and the smarts to do it. But a president also needs to inspire and unite. And in the confidence department accident prone Romney does not appear able to do well.
Believing in “American exceptionalism”
And so, as I said, expect four more years of Obama, a president who once waffled when asked about his belief in “American exceptionalism“. Corny as it may sound, genuine belief in “American exceptionalim” is an essential leadership quality. Exceptionalism is the distilled essence of America. Belief in it provides the extra energy to defeat the odds and to come back from behind. Yes, I know, this is Hollywood stuff. But this is also the soul of America.
When Ronald Reagan talked about it it was contagious, because he believed in it. Whatever his shortcomings, and they were many, Reagan’s contagious optimism, based on a sincere belief in America’s resilience and energy, was probably the best policy ingredient he had. And it worked.