Role reversal in the US presidential election

Throughout the past 40 years, Democrats have been cast as the Mummy Party and Republicans as the Daddy. Are we seeing an unlikely role reversal?

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Obama is cultivating his "worldly" image
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Dr. James Boys
On 12 September 2012 08:59

For decades there has been an accepted maxim in American politics: when the American people felt secure internationally they voted in a Mummy president who would keep any eye on the store and ensure that domestic issues were addressed. However, when they felt uneasy, insecure, or altogether threatened, they would vote for a Daddy candidate who would stand tall on the world stage, face down any adversary and defend the nation, come what may.

Throughout the past 40 years, Democrats have been cast as the Mummy Party and Republicans as the Daddy. It has been the Republican Party that has managed to successfully wrap itself in the flag and campaign successfully on national security issues, portraying the Democratic Party as being weak and unreliable on foreign affairs. For much of that time they were also able to portray the Democrats as being financially irresponsible and as being advocates of tax and spend approaches to government.

Events of the past two administrations have altered this perceived reality.

During the 1990s the Clinton administration did much to end the perception of the Democrats as being poor handlers of the economy, as the United States entered the 21st century with a debate over what to do with the almighty surplus that had built up in the government coffers. The administration’s handling of foreign affairs was more mixed, but essentially Bill Clinton bequeathed his successor a nation that was prosperous and at peace.

His successor, of course, was George W. Bush, who continued to invert the perceived wisdom in relation to the role of American political parties. The apparent economic prudence of former Republican administrations was replaced by a tax cut in time of war, which saw the eradication of the surplus, as the administration sought to have guns and butter. If its economic legacy was poor, its foreign policy was worse, as it deliberately ignored previous Republican strategies that had been successfully implemented as recently as 1991.

The inversion of previous perceptions has continued under President Obama. With his team drawn largely from the former Clinton Administration, this is perhaps to be expected. However, Obama has not been able to replicate Bill Clinton’s economic polices, which saw vast reductions in the US debt. Instead, the debt level has increased substantially, to an eye-watering $16 trillion dollars.

The scale of the debt is such that easy remedies appear no longer to be an option. Couple this with an unemployment rate stuck stubbornly above 8 percent and it should have spelt doom for the incumbent. So far it has not.

Unusually, voters are not yet registering their overwhelming disenchantment with the Obama presidency, despite the usual maxim that people vote according to the contents of their purses or wallets; President Reagan’s question remains pertinent today: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”

Instead of running on his economic record, or his groundbreaking (however you view it) decision to implement healthcare reform (initiated, like the Bush tax cut, at precisely the time that it was least affordable), President Obama is instead taking the battle to his opponents, casting them as naive with insufficient experience, indifferent to the plight of normal Americans and ill-prepared for high office. Intriguingly, four years ago, many of the same accusations were made of Senator Obama.

A key area that Obama is exploiting is the difference in terms of experience in foreign policy. Continuing to defy accepted maxims, the president is portraying himself as the steady, experienced Commander in Chief, and his Republican opponents as woefully unprepared for global leadership.

The Republicans have done much to aid him in this. Neither Mitt Romney nor Paul Ryan have served in the military, or focused upon military or defence affairs during their careers in government service. Neither has a record of addressing foreign or military affairs in any manner of note.

For a Republican ticket this is unheard of. A quick stroll through past tickets confirms that on all occasions either the top or bottom of the ticket had a recognised appreciation of foreign or military affairs that would be brought to bear in the White House. That is not the case in 2012.

Instead, President Obama has been able to portray himself as the man who killed bin Laden. He has successfully managed to avoid being “swiftboated” on this issue so far, despite many efforts, not least of which is the new book ‘No Easy Day.’ His efforts have been aided by Mitt Romney’s recent overseas trip to Europe and Israel, where he at best did little to impress and at worst did much to reinforce a negative image of his candidacy.

With a little over 50 days to go until Election Day, Obama continues to lead in the polls, both nationally and in key swing states. This is not over yet, and the debates could be crucial. A key blunder, an indiscretion, and this could all turn on a dime. At this point, however, the Republican ticket has all of the heavy lifting to do if it is to have any chance of securing what, at this point, would be an unlikely victory come November.

Dr. James D. Boys is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. He is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at King's College London, Associate Professor of International Political Studies at Richmond University in London and a Senior Research Fellow at the Global Policy Institute. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @jamesdboys

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