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Dance With Me Tonight
I Don't Feel Like Dancin'
Better off Alone
Jonathan Freedland, Tuesday 23rd October 2012 20:17
If Mitt Romney is elected president of the United States on 6 November – an outcome which is no longer the statistical implausibility it once was – then historians will say it was the October debate season, that turned it around.
Before he came face to face with Barack Obama in Denver three weeks ago, Romney existed in much of the American public mind as a cartoonish figure, a comic-book plutocrat so rich his wife had two Cadillacs and his cars had an elevator of their own. Extravagantly out of touch, he was "Mittens", the pampered son of privilege who refused to come clean about his taxes and whose personal rate turned out to be a measly 14%. Ideologically, he was either unpalatably extreme – a "severe conservative" by his own description, whose message to America's undocumented immigrants was that they should "self-deport" – or an insincere flip-flopper who had reversed countless previous positions – first supporting, then opposing, abortion rights, for instance – to curry favour with the hardcore faithful who pick Republican presidential candidates.
And he was useless to boot: clumsily embarking on a summer overseas tour that alienated a string of allies, including Britain, whose imminent Olympics he hinted would be a flop. As late as September his candidacy seemed doomed to failure. He had condemned himself out of his own mouth, thanks to a covert video of a fundraising speech in which he wrote off 47% of the American electorate as feckless parasites who would never vote for him anyway.
The conventional wisdom deemed Romney perhaps the most inept nominee of a major party ever to seek the presidency. Obama was on course for a blowout, tipped to retake states that, when he won them in 2008, had seemed like an unrepeatable fluke.
But that was before the debate season. Now that it's over, with Monday's encounter the last time the two men will clash directly, the landscape looks utterly different. Before the first debate on 3 October, the national poll average showed Obama consistently ahead, usually with a four-point cushion. Now Romney has a lead: tiny, but a lead.
Obama's cheerleaders used to point to his "firewall", his advantage in the key nine or 11 swing states. But now the uber-pollster Nate Silver deems that firewall "brittle", Obama's previous edge in Florida, Colorado and Virginia steadily melting away. Today a different Romney has succeeded in lodging himself in the public imagination: sane, reasonable, even moderate.
He seems energetic and capable, his experience in business no longer a liability – evoking questions about the vulture-like conduct of his private equity company, Bain Capital, along with his record of outsourcing American jobs – but an asset, a qualification for turning around the ailing enterprise that is USA, Inc.
Monday's performance completed that new picture. Democrats had been painting Romney as the heir to George Bush, noting the hawks and neo-conservative outriders who form his circle of foreign policy advisers. That left the Republican with a single task for a debate dedicated to international affairs: he needed to reassure the American people that he was no warmonger, out to reshape the world with US force, but a cool-headed realist. Accordingly, he lashed himself to his opponent, offering a me-too echo of Obama's foreign policy. He too would withdraw troops from Afghanistan by 2014. He too had no plans to intervene militarily in Syria. He too regarded war to halt a nuclear Iran as a "last resort". Why, the only differences were ones of style: he would show Vladimir Putin "backbone", rather than the "flexibility" Obama had promised. And he would never apologise for America, or say it had dictated to other nations. Instead he declared – in what was his best moment, one already spliced into a new TV commercial – "Mr President, America has not dictated to other nations. We have freed other nations from dictators."
Most neutrals gave the debate to Obama, either on points or more convincingly, who regularly exposed Romney's inconsistency on Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran – "you've been all over the map" – and used humour to devastating effect when he rebutted the Republican's lament that the US Navy had fewer ships now than at any time since 1917. Obama's reply: "Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed." But for Romney, none of that much mattered. He was not aiming for a win; he merely needed to avoid disaster. As David Frum, former speechwriter to Bush, tweeted: "Romney reassured voters who fear he might be too hawkish; otherwise gave nobody reason to vote against him. Mission accomplished."
That goes for the whole debate season. Romney needed to use October to transform himself from a near joke-figure into a plausible president – and he did. That's why Republicans like to recall Ronald Reagan in 1980. Early that autumn, too many voters regarded Reagan as unfit or too extreme to be president. But during the TV debates, Reagan laid their fears to rest. This autumn also began with the US electorate disappointed in the occupant of the Oval Office. But it first needed to be reassured that it was safe to vote for the alternative. Romney may have lost two out of the three debates but it doesn't matter – he did what he needed to do. Now a campaign that began nearly two years ago enters its final stretch. There will be no more grand set pieces, just the hard graft of on-the-ground organisation, as both parties sweat to get out their vote – with all eyes on one must-win state.
"It will all come down to Ohio," says one former Democratic strategist close to the Obama campaign. "Both know it. And it will be a district by district street fight." While Romney looks to energise miners in the south of the state, Obama's hopes will rest on bailed-out car workers in the north. America's future now rests in the narrow statistical space the pollsters call the margin of error.