While predicted by most pollsters, the defeat of Republican Mitt Romney in last week’s presidential election confounded some of the orthodoxies of modern politics.
In spite of a stalled economy and a poisonous political environment, on election day Romney’s lead among white Americans, evangelical Christians and the elderly was no match for Obama’s’rainbow coalition’ of Hispanic, black, single women, gay and younger voters.
Obama has become the first President since Roosevelt to win re-election with such a high unemployment rate and only the second Democrat since World War II to win a second term. So if it wasn’t the economy then what was it?
The failure of the Republicans says much about changing values in 21st century America. There are also some lessons for politicians here in Australia and the result should sound alarm bells for Tony Abbott in particular…
The seeds of the Republican party’s defeat were sown in their failure to articulate a clear alternative vision. Throughout much of the Obama presidency the Republicans attempted to obstruct his agenda. This strategy seemed to be premised on the belief that by creating an air of crisis and chaos, Republicans could undermine Obama’s claim to change politics. Indeed, in an environment of hyper-partisanship the President’s approval ratings began to dip as the lofty rhetoric of hope and change was tempered by the realities of office.
Under Presidential aspirant, Mitt Romney the Republicans continued to adopt a small target seeking to frame the 2012 election as a referendum on Obama’s leadership. Repealing the President’s controversial health care package, ‘Obamacare’ was the centerpiece of this strategy.
The failure of Romney to articulate his own vision however allowed his opponent to fill in the gaps. Obama effectively framed the election as a battle between two competing value systems. In this frame, Obama embodied progress and fairness; while Romney was a creature of the past, representing the vested interests of economic elites. This was not however entirely of the President’s making and Romney himself facilitated this narrative in a number of ways:
Despite being of the more moderate wing of his party, Romney’s decision to chose hardline pro-life advocate Paul Ryan as his running mate injected gender politics into the US Presidential race. In addition, Romney was forced to distance himself from Republican Senators Akin and Mourdock following their appalling comments on rape. Romney was also wrong-footed on immigration and his hard-line stance appeared to backfire, alienating many migrant groups. Such positioning only served to reinforce perceptions that the Republican candidate was out of step with the mainstream.
On the economy, voters began to worry about the implications of Romney’s vision for a smaller state when a leaked video showed him claiming that 47 per cent of Americans “were dependent on government and would vote for Obama no matter what.” It was an unfortunate gaffe for a man already depicted by the Democrats as a ‘vulture-capitalist’disinterested in the plight of struggling Americans.
Obama on the other hand offered a very different vision. The President was steadfast in his defence of women’s reproductive rights, he abolished ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ in the military and was the first President to support gay marriage. He also proposed progressive immigration reform and continued to advocate for higher taxes for the rich as part of his social justice agenda. Obama’s triumph lay in his ability to pull together diverse constituencies under this ‘inclusivity and fairness’ values framework.
While economic management is still central, political leadership is also about reflecting and projecting shared community values. The conservative side of politics has understood the importance of this for sometime and the pairing of classical liberal economics with social conservatism has proved a winning formula. However, as the community changes, the majoritarian status of these values is being challenged. The traditional symbols of church and family are becoming less powerful as democracies become more secular and culturally and ethnically diverse.
Under President Obama, the Democrats have finally succeeded in establishing an alternative values framework that resonates with the new majority of voters. Critically, it has also not alienated the ‘old left’ – traditionally conservative working class constituencies in manufacturing states like Ohio.
So how does all of this relate to Tony Abbott? While one has to be careful not to read too much into the US election result (after all there are important differences between our two political systems) there are some interesting parallels:
For instance, like the US Republicans, in an effort to damage his opponent Tony Abbott has sought to create an air of hyper-partisanship and chaos in Canberra. Rather than articulating a compelling alternative vision, it seems much of Abbott’s strategy has been based on the belief that he can surf to the Lodge on a wave of carbon tax resistance. It seems however that the tide is now turning. Critically, Abbott’s failure to spell out a clear alternative has also aided Gillard in framing her opponent.
On gender politics, like Romney Abbott has faced difficulties. His record as Health Minister during the Howard years, coupled with his continued use of gender derogatory phrases (in reference to the Prime Minister in particular) has contributed to a growing perception that he is out of step with modern Australian women. The Prime Minister’s stinging misogyny speech in the parliament last month can only have reinforced this image.
Abbott has also been damaged by the remarks of some of his high profile supporters and associations with Alan Jones and Corey Bernadi have further undermined his standing as a leader of the mainstream.
Similarly, Abbott’s position on the mining tax and other tax reforms aimed at high-income owners has left him open to charges that, like his Republican counterpart, he is currying favor from the big end of town.
Gillard appears to be framing the next election as a contest of values. A national disability Insurance Scheme, DentiCare, increased funding for mental health; along with a renewed emphasis on Australia’s role in the Asian century are part of the Prime Minister’s vision for a modern Australia. This sits in stark contrast to the agenda of her opponent.
However, in contrast to Obama, Gillard’s social agenda remains largely inconsistent. For instance, while Gillard has rightly stood up against sexism, she has not shown the same resolve on the issue of homophobia. Despite majority support for gay marriage in the community, she has continued to cling to the minority position favored by the conservative forces within her party. On the issue of asylum seekers, under Gillard Labor has moved even further to the conservative side of politics.
However, Obama has demonstrated that it is possible to articulate a vision that is appealing to conservative working class voters, as well as ‘progressives’ in the inner cities. This is something that Labor succeeded in doing in 2007 and must do again if it is to govern in its own right.
In Tony Abbott, Labor has a candidate who is uniquely vulnerable to an assault from its own ‘rainbow’coalition. The challenge for Labor is to develop a suite of policies that will resonate with this emerging Australian mainstream.
For the Liberals, Romney’s defeat is a warning that simply opposing the leader of the day is not enough. Values matter and a successful leader will reflect those of their nation.