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US Politics Opinion: Lessons from the Campaign and the Election

Anti-Obama billboard in Missouri

Late on Election Night, the American networks seemed to hiccup. After weeks of reading polls as the heralds of a close election, the unexpected was happening. Barack Obama was going to win by a landslide. Some --- especially Karl Rove on Fox News --- were loathe to admit it, but by breakfast, it was clear that after almost two years of campaigning, the expenditure of billions of dollars, and the casting of millions of votes, the outcome was the political status quo. The Democrats held onto the White House and increased their majority in the Senate but again lost the House of Representatives.

How could this have happened?

This fall, I spent almost two months in the States, but instead of traveling the battleground states looking for candidates and rallies, my wife and I travelled the old American West. We discovered a bit of history --- the Sundance Kid was not killed in Bolivia, as Hollywood would have it, but died peacefully in the US at a ripe old age.We found that South Dakota was almost flat until you reached the Badlands and the Black Hills. Mount Rushmore seemed impressive until you regarded the huge Crazy Horse monument --- now that is awesome. We travelled the highways and byways of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, amid wildlife, geyser steam, the caldera under Yellowstone, and the volcanic Cascade Range.

What we did not see was any campaigning for the national elections. There was the odd billboard with rivals for the Senate or House trashing each other. Occasionally, we would watch TV and see the ads of the Presidential race, all negative. That aside, it was clear we were in Republican country and there was no point in either party committing money and resources in these states. It was as if the election was not a contest but a foregone conclusion.

In Montana, I watched some of the televised Democratic Convention. It was Bill Clinton who brought the campaign to life for me when he said no President, not himself, not even FDR, could have handled what Obama inherited in 2009 and turned the country round in one term. He then put the Democratic campaign into context as he appealed directly to America’s political centre. It was a direct contrast to the Republican approach hatred and fear. Romney may have changed his message during the Presidential debates from far right to centre, but Clinton had nailed him for what he was, a flip-flopper and scaremonger --- in addition to being poor at maths.

I never believed the Presidential election would be close. I had said in July that Obama would win comfortably and I further tested a reputation by saying that the Democrats would increase their majority in the Senate. I predicted the Republicans would win the House but with a smaller majority.

That was the easy task. More difficult is projecting what happens next. Hopefully, the Republicans will realise that in the race for the White House, their side has lost the popular vote in five of the last six elections and they need to change their ways, if they are not to disappear as a political force. They can try to damage Obama’s legislation programme by voting No, No, and No again in the House, but if they do so, they risk losing that chamber in 2014. If the Republicans refuse a deal with the President over the "fiscal claff", legislation is already in place which will damage the interests of wealthy Americans more than those of Middle Americans.

Moreover, if Supreme Court justices retire or die in the next two years, Obama has an adequate majority in the Senate to fill vacancies on a straight up-and-down vote. The Republicans can try to filibuster but, once again, they will probably suffer in the 2014 mid-term elections as a result.

All in all, the Republicans are between a rock and a hard place. Because of that, there is a possibility that business can actually be done in Congress, especially if Obama takes a leaf from Lyndon Johnson’s book in how to deal with legislators --- studying, for example, the passing of Civil Rights legislation in the mid-1960s. Indeed, the bigger risk for the President may be that his own party’s legislators will try to exact revenge for the past two years of gridlock, ruining the chances of good governance by the Executive and Congress.

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