By Danny R. Johnson
What would President Barack Obama hear if he took along a spiral notebook and two Secret Service agents and began a series of quiet visits, without the press, to communities like East Lansing, MI, Jackson, MS, Bronx, NY, and Modesto, CA? He could stay up late drinking beer or coffee with a family and listening to their problems, and then go to sleep on the foldout sofa in the living room.
The President might go to Raleigh, NC, to talk to Milton and Julie Hargrove. “We’re taxed to death,” Milton Hargrove would tell President Obama. Milton, 30, and his wife Julie, together earn $30,000 to $35,000 a year, pay rent on a three-bedroom apartment because they cannot afford to buy a house, and worry what the future holds for their four daughters, ranging from ages 8 to 15.
“I hate to admit it, because I am a Republican,” says Milton, who served eight years in the Army and now works the evening shift at the front desk of a hotel. “But it appears that President George W. Bush, like Ronald Reagan before him, and Mitt Romney favors the wealthy, has disdain for the working poor, and has forgotten the largest group in the middle.”
Julie, 33, has a degree in business administration and works part-time managing a local gift store. “Sometimes I think the American Dream, at least for the middle class,” she says, “is about dead.”
The Hargroves are disgusted with the “childish bickering” of the President and Congress. “All the politicians can agree to is to disagree,” says Milton. “When they do legislate something, it’s about something ridiculous, like flag burning. Come on!” Julie speaks for millions: “They [politicians] are a bunch of bozos and idiots.”
House Republicans who came in during the mid-term 2010 election, known as the Tea Party minority, heard the political noise erupting from across the country and went to Washington thinking it had a mandate to force change on the President and its own House leadership.
The Tea Party scream, if primal, was perfectly articulate. The 2010 mid-term election amounted to a cry of anger, disgust and pain that was above everything else a warning to President Obama, a kind of political death threat.
When the August 2011 debt-ceiling crisis ended with President Obama signing into law the Budget and Control Act, polls became more unfavorable to the Tea Party. According to a Galluppoll, 28% of adults disapproved of the Tea Party compared to 25% approving, and noted that theTea Party movement appears to have lost some ground in popular support after the blistering debate over raising the nation’s debt ceiling in which Tea Party Republicans…fought any compromise on taxes and spending. Similarly, a Pew poll found that 29% of respondents thought Congressional Tea Party supporters had a negative effect compared to 22% thinking it was a positive effect. It noted, “the new poll also found that those who followed the debt ceiling debate very closely have more negative views about the impact of the Tea Party than those who followed the issue less closely.
The American Electorate is Divided
Former Massachusetts Governor, Mitt Romney’s double-digit win over Newt Gingrich in the Florida primary was largely due to heavy negative advertising, which only drives Tea Party activists and other conservatives from one non-Romney candidate to another. Divide and conquer is a storied strategy; it may well work in Florida. However, it does not build votes for Romney. The non-Romney vote–despite millions of dollars, months of media coverage and dozens of debates—remains stubbornly north of 60% among Republican voters. If Romney is going to defeat Obama, he will have to unite the Grand Old Party behind him. So far, there is no evidence is any state that he can do just that.
Indeed, Romney’s nomination presents the real risk of a third-party presidential challenger, a candidate who hopes to hoover up libertarians, Tea Partiers and conservatives disaffected with Romney. Sure, that candidate would win, at most, 2% of the vote—but that percentage would be enough to swing the election to President Obama.
“As a Republican, I think we have to scare some sense into Romneyand the Republican Establishment before it’s too late,” stated Thomas Hines, a grass-root Tallahassee, Florida Tea Party supporter.
For Florida Republicans, the choice was more complicated, and the results in a way more interesting. Former House Speaker Gingrich, usually enveloped in an aura of indignation, did not profit from the prevailing anger he stirred up in his South Carolina win. A different contrarian principle worked in favor of Romney. Romney came away from the Florida Primary with 44% of the vote – but with a price tag of over $13 million spent on ads burying the Conservative alternative, Newt Gingrich.
Romney’s astringent message was that Gingrich was Santa Claus in whatever extravagant forms (Ronald Reagan or the Great Society) is not coming back, and the nation cannot afford any more toys. Romney succeeded, for the moment, by being virtually everything that Reagan was not.
As he moves forward to Nevada, which he expected to win easily on February 4, Romney faces ominous challenges – a few are listed:
Romney is not an election winner. He lost in his U.S. Senate race to unseat Ted Kennedy and decided not to seek re-election as governor, largely because he would have almost certainly lost. Moreover, he lost to John McCain in 2008, which is not exactly playing the varsity. Could he win in 2012? Arguably, but not definitely.
Romney is not a strong debater. Certainly, he improved greatly in the most recent Florida debate, but he still trails Rick Santorum and Gingrich in his ability to woo a crowd. While debates, by themselves, do not determine elections, they move marginal voters one way or the other. A strong debate performance will be essential to defeating Obama for the Republican nominee.
Romney is not a tax-cutter. Yes, he has a great record as turn-around artist in the private sector, saving dozens of companies and rescuing the Salt Lake City Olympics. He certainly deserves the money he has made and he has made a lot of money for shareholders. That is microeconomics. Presidents do macroeconomics: taxes, spending, regulation, Federal Reserve and national debt. As governor of Massachusetts, he agreed to more than 500 tax and fee increases. He did not even propose an income-tax cut.
You say that tax cuts are impossible in Tax-achussets? A ballot initiative to completely abolish the state income tax won nearly 30% of the vote in 2009 referendum there. A tax-rate cut, which would be far more reasonable and politically possible, backed by formidable former governor and fundraiser, could well have passed. Romney did not even try.
Nor is Romney proposing to cut income-tax rates at the federal level. Since Reagan, every major contender for the Republican nomination has proposed trimming income-tax rates—except Romney. When questioned about this by the Wall Street Journal’s Paul Gigot, Romney’s response spoke volumes. He said he had not yet had the chance to model the economic effects of cutting income taxes.
Can a candidate win the Republican nomination without even proposing a tax cut? We are about to find out.
Romney is not a Reaganite reformer. Romney is not planning to abolish or privatize any significant federal functions. Again, this sets him apart from most people seeking the Republican nomination over the past three decades. It also makes him the darling of the GOP establishment, as many have lobbying deals linked to federal largesse. However, it turns off many Tea Partiers and other conservatives who worry about ballooning federal deficits and a national debt now equal to the value of the entire U.S. Economy.
Indeed, it seems as if Romney’s policies are on autopilot from the 2008 campaign—before the Tea Party emerged as a force in Republican politics. While his platform has changed at the margins, it has not been changed in a bold enough fashion to win the enthusiastic support of the Tea Party movement. Without their support, the GOP could lose key U.S. Senate and House races in 2012 and, indeed, the presidency.
Romney’s Bain. Romney has successfully parried attacks on his record at Bain Capital as “attacks on capitalism,” but that defense may not be as effective in the general election as in a Republican primary. You can count on Obama’s surrogates bringing it up and armies of unemployed independent voters demanding answers. Anyway, Romney’s time spent defending his Bain record will be at least as distracting as Gingrich explaining that he was actually cleared off all ethical charges by the House Ethics committee and the IRS.
The Atmosphere of Pain
There is a broad undercurrent epitomized by two-income families who realize they are not going to make it. People are afraid. If they miss just one paycheck, they will lose the home and the car. It is that close.
The Florida, New Hampshire, and South Carolina primaries results suggested an emerging seriousness and impatience in American voters, a sense that they are groping into difficult political and moral territory, often well in advance of both the politicians and media. The usual American political apparatus seemed to be malfunctioning, defective–incapable of bringing along plausible leaders, Presidents, as it once did.
The recession has left the great American middle class feeling frayed, sobered, and vulnerable. Fear and anger are eating like acids at the electorate. A shadowed mood has been playing across the country. Stories of foreclosures and lost jobs have woven themselves into a virtual folklore. Many who have been accustomed to the upholstered assumptions of the American Dream have discovered what looks like an abyss, something the middle class has not seen before.
Looking down gives them terrible vertigo. It scares them, and makes them want to attack the politicians they think have led them to this place.
Some of the anguish no doubt amounts to self-pity among some of the world’s more spoiled citizens, now forced to clean up their debts, live within their means and build an economy that makes competitive sense in a world that has spectacularly changed. Nevertheless, the pain is real, and so is the fear of pain, even what is becoming a sort of national atmosphere of pain. As President Obama discovered, all that emotion compresses into an anger that has sharp political consequences.
The voters of New Hampshire played an odd role in the American political drama. Holding the first primary, the tiny state with relatively few minorities exercises a quaint, disproportionate fascination for the media and the rest of the country. The tryout in New Hampshire focuses the process and tests the scripts. New Hampshire voters relish their role as a sort of Council of the Wise. They choose their candidates with the care that others reserve for selecting a heart surgeon.
The rest of the U.S. is not New Hampshire. In Georgia, for example, which holds its primary in March, the unemployment rate (9%) is about half that of New Hampshire. Still, many of the same unhappy themes run deep through states across the country. The American electorate is in a volatile mood, impatient with incumbents, with political emptiness and with a feeling of unfamiliar, inexplicable embarrassment before the world, a discomfort focused lately by China outpacing the US in expanding markets and jobs creation.
Americans always feel somewhat betrayed by recession or depression, but they are usually sustained through cyclical difficulties by an overriding sense of America as an ascendant proposition–the American exceptionalism. That sense of unique American virtue and the American place in the scheme of things has grown deeply confused in the rapid evolution of a much-changed world.
Since the end of World War II, Americans have known themselves as the giant of the Free World, the dominant economic power and the Force of Good in counterweight to the Force of Evil in the world. Americans are now trying to assimilate, morally, emotionally, the dissolution of AL Qaeda. If it is such a splendid event in the history of the world, why are Americans obscurely depressed by it? In part because it makes them ask, who are we now? What is our purpose in the world? Why are we exceptional?
In the new world, America is economically challenged by Japan, Brazil, China and Germany.
At the same time, massive infusions of new immigrant genes confuse and disconcert a people who must think of themselves as a tribe that has been formed by an idea. In an America so bruised in its sense of identity, a politician like Newt Gingrich can summon up a powerful visceral response with the old nativist phrase “America First.”
Finally, the baby-boom generation always exaggerates the moods of America–skewing a national tendency in the direction of its own concerns, whether sex, drugs, music in the ’60s or the traumas of middle age now. The boomers, who have just arrived in the neighborhood of mid-life crisis, are getting a taste of the disillusion and hopelessness that naturally arrive when people think their best years are behind them. The boomer effect may endow the post recession with more undercurrent menace and even apocalypse than are necessary.
Nevertheless, the conviction runs deep that Americans’ lives are getting worse and worse, and will never get better again–that the American Dream is over. In addition, politics is psychology with access to a microphone. At the end of the ’70s, Americans recoiled from Jimmy Carter’s malaise. That had a passive, flinching, disconsolate quality, and no clear remedy. The obvious victim of that irritating little foreign word malaise was finally Jimmy Carter himself. Today’s disaffection is an active, even aggressive disgust, and while the mood may pass as the economy improves, its clearest target for the moment is President Barack Obama.
Danny R. Johnson is San Diego County News’ Washington, DC based National News Correspondent.