If there’s one thing that the US knows well, it’s how to make an election last. The primaries, debates, sound-bites and talking points all combine to extend the mudfight of choosing the President to well over a year before the election. But, at last, we have reached the final weeks, and it looks as though the two survivors are in a closer race than anyone would have predicted.
This election has moved through so many rounds of gaffes and different poll leaders that it is difficult to remember a few months ago when the global press was watching the ‘Romneyshambles’ of the Republican nominee’s visit to Europe with a mixture of horror and glee. Some went as far as to call a win for Obama already. A note to future would-be statesmen: doubting Britain’s national spirit, implying Palestinian cultural inferiority and letting your aides swear at reporters at a war memorial is not the best way to appear presidential on the global stage. What was really interesting, though, was not that Mitt Romney produced this series of overseas blunders; it was the fact that he felt the need to go on the trip in the first place.
Everything indicated that this was going to be an election about America, and only America. A resilient recession, the President’s public support of gay marriage and the emergence of the Tea Party means that the economy, ‘Obamacare’ and civil liberties should have been the exclusive battlegrounds of this election.
Not only that, but foreign policy shouldn’t be a major concern when isolationism seems to be running so high among the US population at the moment. A ‘Pew’ poll this month showed that 60 per cent of the population want American troops to leave Afghanistan immediately and the grassroots popularity of Ron Paul and his outlook speaks for itself. You might assume that the US was returning to the days before the Second World War, where elections were defined by internal policies such as FDR’s New Deal or Prohibition. Issues like Vietnam, Cuba, Détente and Berlin were understandably the bane of Cold War Presidents, but this situation should have ended in 1989. The Cold War’s over and there’s no longer this threatening, red Russian bear in the East to base slogans around.
Yet the Republican nominee still felt the need to come to Europe and visit us. This alone speaks volumes about how America’s self-perception has changed. Some say the visit was to showcase Romney’s statesmanlike potential on the world stage. That’s true, but if it was solely that then he wouldn’t have felt the need to criticise Palestine and Iran before launching a scathing attack on Russia in the tour’s final day. As even the commentators at Fox News despaired, “All the man has to do is say nothing.”
The reason that he didn’t is because of America’s self-image. The USA has come to embrace its role on the world stage to such an extent that it has become part of its national identity. Despite the desires of the Tea Party and isolationists, America seems to be finding it impossible to stick its head in the Capitol Hill sand as it did seventy years ago.
That isn’t to say that it’s not trying. Watching the final, supposedly foreign policy-centric debate was highly revealing as the two candidates discussed the economy and education as much as diplomacy. Yet out on the campaign trail, time and time again the focus has been placed on issues such as Libya, Osama bin Laden and Iran. Admittedly Obama was always likely to use the first two extensively, as they are perceived as being major successes of his Presidency. Romney, however, didn’t need to mention them at all. It would have been entirely possible to run a threatening campaign solely based around the stagnating economy and issues such as abortion and the war on drugs.
The fact that he didn’t is testament to the need of US politicians to find an external focus (if not enemy), even when its citizens say that domestic policy should take priority. Somalia, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya are reflective of this and it’ll be interesting to see how the clash of the two political forces of Romney’s interventionism and Paul’s isolationism change America’s identity in the years to come.