Mitali Saran: Red, white and blue
There’s something depressing about following the US presidential elections, however glancingly, in contrast to our own (mostly) five-yearly national carnival. The US process is far from perfect, as anyone who recalls the Florida vote-counting fiasco of 2004 would agree, but it has many upsides. It’s fairly simple. It’s fairly transparent. It’s torn to shreds by the 24/7 basilisk eye of the media. You know who will lead the country, at least officially, before the voting begins. You know what their positions are on emotive issues as well as more wonky policy, or that they keep changing positions, or that they don’t have a position.
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Message and spin are the master tropes of any campaigner anywhere in the world, but nowhere is that game played as enthusiastically as in the US. Candidates throw mind-boggling resources into broadcasting messages peppered with half-truths and outright lies. They try to use body language and tone, rather than record, to persuade. Too bad that they’re up against a pitiless press that spends its time bursting bubbles, digging up dirt, and jogging the public’s notoriously short memory. Fact checking has become an essential part of the mainstream media analysis that follows a presidential debate. Also, smarmy is smarmy in any party, and voters have a radar for it. In short, there are plenty of Potus-eaters. It’s one of the greatest travelling circuses in the world, and that’s what makes it fun.
Speaking of smarmy, Mitt Romney comes across like the reverberation chamber that he’s turned out to be — a man who will calibrate his smile and his voice to act out every sentence he speaks to reflect his audience to themselves. My chemical dislike of him seems borne out by every misstep Mr Romney has made, from throwing his views out the window after he earned the Republican nomination, to airing the worst of them behind closed doors at fundraisers, as in the now infamous “47 per cent" speech.
Much of this campaign has, on paper, been bad for Mr Romney. The Daily Beast noted that the Salt Lake Tribune, the biggest newspaper in Utah – home of Romney’s Mormon faith – just endorsed President Obama. An editorial in the Tribune (“Too Many Mitts") points out that the “largely Mormon, Republican, business-friendly" state has nothing but warmth and admiration for its “favourite son". It then goes on, displaying a refreshing ability to overcome its own prejudices based on evidence, to catalogue the ways in which this son has disappointed. It calls him “servile" (to the Tea Party nutjobs), a “shape-shifting nominee", and “shameless" about saying whatever it takes to win over whatever audience he happens to be facing. It considers his domestic plan “bereft of detail and worthy of mistrust". And it concludes, witheringly, that: “The president has earned a second term. Romney, in whatever guise, does not deserve a first."
After the third presidential debate earlier this week, in which the challenger spent his time praising the incumbent’s foreign policy to the skies while insisting the incumbent is doing a poor job, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show called Mr Romney “one of this year’s coveted swing voters". And after a lot of flak for snoozing through the first debate, the president came out swinging in the next two. One of the most delicious moments for any Barack Obama supporter came at the beginning of the final debate, when he turned to Mr Romney and critiqued him thus: “You want to import foreign policy from the 1980s, social policy from the 1950s, and economic policy from the 1920s." Succinct, accurate, and devastating.
And yet, various polls give Mr Romney a near even, if not higher, chance of getting himself elected. Polls are an imperfect measure of sentiment – our own pollsters looked pretty red-faced in 2004 when the United Progressive Alliance took office – but they make people nervy. In what seems like the most polarised US polity in history, this neck-and-neck race boils down to the tiny persuadable few who can swing this way or that. The vast majority already has a visceral loyalty to their chosen candidate, and that means that the emotional stakes are high in this fight for two rather different American futures.
Wouldn’t it be nice to feel that someone was fighting for the future of India? It would be useful to watch those who claim to yearn to serve us display their smarts, skills and stated vision in structured policy debates. Delivering a speech at a rally is very different from being questioned and pressed about that speech, and the public eye generally encourages people to raise their game. It might make our politicians more accountable and less brazen.
No, really, it might.