THIS time next year the results of the 2012 presidential race will be known. But twelve long, expensive and acrimonious months lie ahead before we get to Tuesday 6 November 2012.
The first milestone in this race comes in a fortnight, when the Joint Select Committee on Budget Reduction (known as the Super Committee) must defy huge odds and deliver at least $1.2 trillion in savings to help deal with the federal budget crisis. There have been bipartisan calls from the House and the Senate to consider all options, including reform of entitlements and taxes, in order to cut deficits by $4 trillion over ten years. Such proposals echo the “grand bargain” that President Obama and House Speaker John Boehner tried, but failed, to achieve during the showdown over the national debt ceiling over the northern summer.
The Super Committee has a real chance to get the country back on a sound fiscal footing. It is just possible that the panel, which has laboured mostly behind closed doors, could present a viable plan that distributes the pain in an acceptable way, provides a long-term fix, and goes some way towards improving Congress’s image. But despite the magnitude of the stakes, no one should be sanguine about the panel’s prospects. It’s equally possible that the partisan lines will hold, generating a renewed impasse that will only be broken when the threat to America’s credit rating forces a last minute, short-term fix.
At risk for both parties are the things that define them. For Republicans, it’s the commitment to oppose any new taxes. For Democrats, it’s the determination to protect entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. The Democrats might agree to some changes in those programs if Republicans agree to tax hikes, but nearly every Republican in Congress – including all six GOP members of the deficit panel (and every Republican presidential candidate except Jon Huntsman) – has signed the “taxpayer protection pledge” instituted by Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform. Until there is a resolution of this issue, there really can’t be a solution to the sluggish economic growth at the heart of the American malaise, or to Americans’ anger at the president, Congress and politicians.
While President Obama travels the country exhorting Congress to pass his jobs bill, Congress is doing nothing. Over the past few weeks the House has passed the seventh bill so far this year to prohibit abortion and a concurrent resolution to affirm that “In God We Trust” remains the national motto. But there have been no jobs bills – unless, like House Republicans, you count regulatory relief for America’s cement producers and other legislation undoing environmental regulations.
Out stumping, the Republican presidential hopefuls have proposals to tackle the economy and create jobs, but none of these, or the claims made about them, has been subject to serious scrutiny. Nearly all of these job creation proposals involve cuts in taxes and regulations, which ignores the fact that surveys of employers find that slack consumer demand is the biggest impediment to increased hiring. The 500 companies in the S&P Index hold about $800 billion in cash and cash equivalents – the highest levels ever – but they are not using those funds for job creation.
The Republican presidential field is deeply unsettled and Republican voters currently have little appetite for policy debates. Republicans have their script; they just need to pick the person to deliver it. Mostly, the debate is about who will be the “not-Romney” candidate. Voters have toyed with – and then discarded – Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and now, it seems, Herman Cain. They have longed for Sarah Palin, Donald Trump and Chris Christie. They may even be preparing to embrace Newt Gingrich. But they are not yet ready to make Mitt Romney their candidate.
On one view, Romney is the logical nominee who will consolidate Republican support after conservatives stop flirting with Tea Party candidates. But another view holds that he can never placate conservative voters because of his establishment ties and the more liberal positions he once held on abortion, gay rights, healthcare reform and gun control. If this latter view is correct then the shifting support for Bachmann, Perry and Cain is more than a flirtation, and someone who isn’t Romney will eventually emerge to win the nomination.
What makes Romney so formidable is that – unlike his primary foes – he has been through this process before. The few scandals that lie in his past, such as once having hired a gardening firm that employed illegal immigrants, are old news. And the polls show that he is the only Republican candidate who could come close to beating Obama.
Despite low approval ratings and a general feeling, even on the left, that Obama has failed to live up to expectations, a new poll shows the president is ahead of all his likely opponents in the 2012 elections. In the latest NBC poll, Obama leads Romney by six points and businessman Herman Cain by fifteen points. Cain’s support is likely to fall as sexual harassment allegations continue. Rick Perry, meanwhile, has dropped even further in the polls; the one-time frontrunner is now behind Newt Gingrich, tying with Ron Paul for fourth.
Disappointment with Obama can be seen as more an indication of pessimism about the state of the nation, its economy and its government than a marked dissatisfaction with the man himself. Nearly 75 per cent of Americans believe the United States is headed in the wrong direction; just 25 per cent think the economy will improve in the next twelve months and a solid majority says the country is experiencing the start of a long-term decline. According to the polls, the general mood is negative and uncertain, with an emphasis on unfairness.
It is these feelings of unfairness and dissatisfaction that play out in the Tea Party and, more recently, the Occupy Wall Street movements. In one recent poll, 50 per cent of respondents said that they strongly identified with or were part of either of these populist movements.
All of which indicates that the election is still up for grabs. Some of the uncertainty may be resolved after the early January primaries in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida, but until then Republican candidates will jostle for air time, money and endorsements. The Obama–Biden team will have clear sailing until such time as a final Republican nominee emerges. Only then can the real policy debate begin. •
Lesley Russell works in health policy for the US government in Washington DC. She is a research associate at the Menzies Centre for Health Policy at the University of Sydney.