A Good Day to Die Hard: An Unabashed Propaganda Film for State Terrorism

Many of my pleasantest memories from childhood involve watching the original 1980s and 1990s Die Hard Trilogy. The uncomplicated dynamic of good Americans and bad foreigners, laced with some nostalgic slices of politically incorrect Americana, such as characters who openly smoked cigarettes and Bruce Willis’s open contempt for Johnny Foreigner evokes memories of the days in which movies primarily catered to the uncomplicated blue-collar mind or that of a stressed professional seeking the intellectual anesthetic of a plot so banal as to be capable of being explained in less than a minute. It’s not that the underlying message was necessarily wholesome. There was an implicit endorsement of police violence and a glorification of cops acting contrary to established rules of conduct. The movies also served up what was already becoming the highly dubious Hollywood fare of contrasting the appropriately heroic but empathetically ordinary American security operative (in this case, the physically super-human but emotionally immature John McClane) with the evil and shadowy terrorists, who, it was implied, could bring civilised life to an abrupt end in a matter of hours or at least days.

The movies provided a fundamentally benign view of the American security establishment – one of public service against drug dealers, kidnappers and bullion snatchers. Never was a US government official seen to behave inappropriately (unless he had gone rogue like Colonel Stuart or Major Grant in Die Hard II). The movies made no attempt to explore actual themes of complex human behaviour that have characterised the activities of American police forces or branches of the military or intelligence. For the libertarian, the socialist, the paleo-conservative or the conventionally conscientious constitutionalist, there would be no examination of the philosophical principles or often nefarious motivations behind the use of government power.

However, only the most puritanical of their number would have objected to the movies. They were, after all, light entertainment. They catered to the existing prejudices of the audience, but at least they didn’t seek to implant new ones like the propaganda movies associated with the Bolsheviks or the Nazis. They made no effort to examine in truly questioning fashion the actual behaviours associated with securocrats, but they did not show those securocrats engaged in dubious behaviour and then seek to explicitly or implicitly endorse it. There was no attempt to inject any kind of moral nuance into the battle between the goodies from the US government and the baddies from outside it, but at least in the sterile world created by the shallow script, there was no ambiguity: the goodies were good and the baddies were bad – one might not consider that to be a realistic narrative but it was an entirely reasonable and rational implication of the plot. The movies were, in simple terms, harmless rubbish, of no more relevance to the concept of cultural enlightenment or decline than Enid Blyton’s racially insensitive use of Golliwogs in her literature was to segregation or Apartheid.

The original Bruce Willis trilogy represented one of the last examples of the (in its own way noble) Hollywood tradition of providing low-fiber entertainment and leaving weightier matters to the publishers of books, periodicals, newspapers and documentaries where they could be discussed and analysed in cool clinical terms by serious people motivated by intellectual curiosity.

What began shortly after the first Die Hard movie in 1988, was the intellectually dubious habit of Tinseltown treating serious subjects through the medium of feature-length movies, whose fundamental purpose was to entertain and not to educate. This led to movies such as Dances with Wolves, JFK, Thirteen Days and the Path to War, which took a series of factual historical episodes, distilled the poly-chromatic facts that emerge from any historical narrative into a black and white tableau of right versus wrong (sometimes the underlying message was pro-establishment and sometimes anti), either employing poetic licence with established facts or just plain fabricating them and confecting these ingredients into entertaining narratives in which miscable pieces of facts and fiction could be forced into a false consistency consonant with the filmmaker’s fundamental biases. Sometimes, these bad movies would have the indirect consequence of encouraging a person to research a topic and learn more about it. However, mostly, it gave viewers who had little familiarity with the facts of a historic episode a false belief in their own expertise, when they had, in fact, only learned a mixture of indistinguishable facts, opinions and fallacies manipulated for the purposes of, at best, entertainment and, at worst, propaganda.

The 1990s genre of historical movie eventually gave way to a new concept designed to communicate something approximating dissent in the grim and darkening era of the 2000s. Instead of historical events, we saw pointed simulations of hypothetical events designed to draw direct comparisons with historical events occurring in the here and now. This genre reached its arguable apogee in 2005 with the grimly haunting thriller, Syriana.

This movie was a true curate’s egg – a potent mix of good and bad features defined, sadly, by its flaws rather than its strengths. Once again, the need to generate a Hollywood arc led to the use of a simplistic plot. Instead of using a real country, the script invented a hypothetical one which could be bespoke to the exigencies of the theme. The Royal family of this nation (resembling a curious and entirely bogus cross between Saudi Arabia and one of the Emirates) is divided into a good prince, who is anti-American and a bad prince who is pro-American. The viewers are expected to uncritically, and without an examination, accept the prima facie motivations of the Chinese and the Europeans, whilst regarding American imperialists as corrupt and immoral. This was no small flaw in the movie. It disregarded the basic fact that the Arab world is a place where governments, whether pro-American like Jordan’s or anti-American like Syria’s, have few redeeming features. More seriously, it implied that the European Union was a much more virtuous political entity than that of the Ugly American.

It was thus that beneath the dissenting veil, there was a hard core of establishmentarianism to the movie. It implicitly rebuked the Bush administration but played into the prejudice of East Coast establishment figures, whose principal disagreement was with George W. Bush’s foreign policy, not with America’s more generally and who favoured the paleo-Wilsonian ideology of multilateral aggression administered with European approval through the UN rather than the neo-Wilsonian preference for unilateral American action.

Today, I had the dubious pleasure of watching the fifth movie in this rather tired franchise. A few superficial facts I might mention in limine:

  1. Bruce Willis, now 57, looks exceptionally good for his age. He has aged sufficiently well that he looks like a realistic projection of how a (now seemingly non-smoking) John McClane might look, on the assumption that he has looked after himself. There are no scenes where his shirt comes off, meaning that perhaps Bruce is less happy to show off his pecks than he once was. That said, the man is 57 and he is depicting a character who must be at least 50. He has avoided the disaster of looking like a roided-up freak like Stallone or Schwarzenegger, which is eminently to his credit.
  2. The film is a veritable orgy of product placement. I counted at least seven separate appearances of the Mercedes C-Class coupe. There was also a Mercedes van, a regular C-Class, a Maybach, a Unimog and another Mercedes commercial vehicle. Subtle it was not and I would love to know how much Daimler AG spent on this blatant shilling. I believe that whatever the sum, it was wasted. Nobody with the money to actually buy a Mercedes (a category which regrettably does not include this author) could possibly be anything but insulted at the blatant attempts to burnish the three-pointed star in his face. Were I in the leagues of those blessed with the requisite purchasing power, I would be tempted to go straight to a BMW dealership to spite the bastards.
  3. Hollywood, I swear to God, when depicting foreigners, shit or get off the pot. Have them speaking English or have them speak their native language but be consistent. The Russian characters in this movie primarily speak Russian to one another. However, in scenes in which there are Russian characters alone together, there are regular interruptions of the subtitled Russian conversation with invidious use of English with Russian accents. Why was this necessary? It added nothing to the dialogue and took the audience for fools. Note to scriptwriters: If I could read the subtitles you showed for the Russian conversation, then I didn’t need sudden digressions into accented English at random points in conversation.
  4. Was I the only viewer who thought that there was a disturbing incestuous undertone to the relationship between arch-baddie Yuri Komarov and his sexy daughter? Note to Hollywood: There is no need to underline the badness of baddies by showing completely non-contextual hints of sexual deviancy. If they are baddies, then their bedroom mores should not matter, period.

More seriously though, this movie pushes the envelope in terms of its ability to manipulate the prism through which the viewer sees public policy. Gone are the halcyon days of George W. Bush, when there was at least some attempt to provide a critique (however misguided though the medium might have been) of US foreign policy.

Today, we have seen a regression to the type of propaganda not seen since the days of the Spaghetti Western. It is hard to give proper expression to just how nauseating this movie is. The fetid stench of political propaganda envelopes the theater not like the subtle breaking of wind which might provide momentary olfactory discomfort to a viewer of room-temperature powers of reasoning, but is like sharing a small room with a metaphorical open sewer without the benefit of a gas mask.

The movie sets the scene by depicting the CIA as fighting a vicious and covert war with people at the highest levels of the Russian government, implicitly justifying two decades of post-Cold War bear baiting which continues to this day and which sadly strengthens the demagoguery of Vladimir Putin.

John McClane’s son Jack is depicted as a talented CIA operative, who is sanctioned by his employers to assassinate a Russian functionary in order to assist in the interference in the prosecution of a sinister Russian criminal. I don’t think I have ever before seen a movie in which Hollywood has endorsed the use of assassination as a legitimate public policy.

The US government’s current drone-war is implicitly endorsed by this movie. Indeed, the endorsement is chilling in ways that no serious news outlet has yet been able to match. Early on in the film, CIA operatives are seen priming a drone to be used in downtown Moscow. It is disturbing enough that drones might be used in failed states in the Middle East. It is more disturbing still that Hollywood thinks it is acceptable to use them in a nuclear armed industrial power like Russia. This could be chalked up to Hollywood trigger happiness but for the context, in which US forces, on presidential orders, killed not merely the American citizen Anwar al Awlaki, but also his sixteen year old son. Perhaps the most brutal juxtaposition ironies, though, is the fact that in the context of the open use of targeted assassination by the US government, the county’s president openly jokes about the policy.

Early in the movie, we see Bruce Willis on NYPD premises with a picture of President Obama in the background. This is more than a little depressing. A president elected on an ostensibly dove-ish platform now reduced to a poster-boy for the lawless and unaccountable use of military power.

More depressing still: no serious institutional opposition. In the days when George W. Bush prosecuted a foreign policy of heedless aggression without recourse, we saw the emergence of waves of opponents, both inside and outside of the US establishment.

No more. The crowds are no longer to be seen. Trafalgar Square and Times Square are curiously devoid of protesters. The manager of the current policy has been re-elected, against an opponent whose only relevant complaint was that he was not aggressive enough and was too apologetic about America’s actions in the world. Bruce Willis, in contrast with most in Hollywood, is no Democratic Obama-sycophant but a Republican. The once great Republican Party of Harding, Coolidge and Taft remains in thrall to war mongers like John McCain and Lindsey Graham. While the purchase of Ron Paul and his son Rand in the GOP increases and slowly advances the cause of restrained foreign policy within that party, the progress is too slow to match, let alone exceed, the increased hawkishness of the Democrats. Of the anti-war voices in the party of Andrew Jackson, Denis Kucinich lost his primary and is gone and Mike Gravel has decamped to the Libertarian Party. Even at the fringes of the left, the rapper Lupe Fiasco was recently removed from the stage for condemning the Obama administration’s foreign policy.

Seen in this context, A Good Day to Die Harder is a disturbing symptom of disturbing times. The centres of cultural communication seem to have locked themselves into an embrace of officialdom that is every bit as disturbing as the puppet media outlets in the third world that we in the west so rightly despise. The question is who and what will produce the social capital necessary to organise coherent opposition to this insanity.

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Groundhog Day: Part II

More than a week has passed in which the commentariat has luxuriously masticated the data and implications arising out of Barack Obama’s re-election in the 2012 election. Last week, we looked at the parallels between Obama’s re-election this year and George W. Bush’s in 2004. This week, I would like to focus on key take-outs and implications of this result.

  • Oh the Triviality:

When history eventually reaches a point of sufficient distance to comment on the 2012 presidential election with anything bordering on objectivity, it will remark with the greatest perplexity on the fact that an election taking place in the teeth of a crisis which threatens to take down the world’s second currency, a global debt super-cycle fed by the infernal machinations of the fiat currency machine, the imminent possibility that the investment bubble that has long been inflating in China is about to burst and the disastrous descent of the Middle East into an uncontrollable farrago of Islamist revanches which the western media has the temerity to call an “Arab Spring”, was fought on such trivial matters as it was.

The Obama campaign successfully turned the election into a battle for supremacy in a war of cultural projection, which drove people into a series of tribal pigeon holes – Obama projected a culture of cosmopolitanism in the metropolitan-DC area (i.e. Northern Virginia), the Research Triangle of North Carolina and the suburbs of Denver Colorado, of racial solidarity to black voters, of post-Anglophilia to Hispanics and of crude gender-identity politics to single women (including a bizarre ad comparing voting for the Dear Leader with the loss of one’s virginity). Romney’s counter-attack was feeble. He committed himself to neither a Buchanan Strategy of engaging in his own war of cultural projection (demographically difficult) nor a policy of undercutting the cultural projection strategy of Obama by bringing the campaign back to (a) the economy and (b) the culture of liberty endangered by Obama’s radical progressivism. In an election defined by the necessity to take risks, Romney the data hack decided to go for a bit of each – vague and poorly fleshed-out policies and toe-curling “Believe in America” bromides, which the flintier George W. Bush might have gotten away with in his heyday but which the smooth WASP-ish sounding Romney could not pull off with any kind of authenticity. Obama (liberated perhaps from making such a choice by his pathetic record) doubled down on his brand (i.e. it’s cool to vote for Barack Obama) and on the strategy of “Swift Boating” his opponent (in previous posts, I have set out some of the litany of personal smears Obama successfully deployed against Romney).

History may well record that the 2012 election represented a final test of seriousness for both America’s electorate and its politicians, which both disastrously failed. If this is so, then perhaps America’s national anthem should be changed to Liam Lynch’s provocative but depressingly apposite “United States of Whatever“.

  • Demography is Destiny – But Whose?

Throughout the 2012 election, we saw the epic battle between the two polar extremes of the polling industry. On the one hand, Rasmussen and Gallup argued that the high minority turnouts recorded in 2008 were based upon the peculiar fact patterns of that year (i.e. the first black president, deeply unpopular predecessor from the opposing party, crashing economy etc.) which they said would result in a demographic regression to the mean effect, with minority turnout slipping and the more enthusiastic Republican base coming out with all guns blazing. By contrast, all the other pollsters said that 2008 represented a permanent game-changing alteration in electoral composition (or at least one which would carry through to 2012). As the numbers came out on election night, it appeared that the white turnout had fallen to an unprecedented 73% of the electorate and that minority turnout had risen. To the commentariat (including many conservatives), this was proof of the importance of demographic shifts and proof that the Republicans must abandon their policies on immigration law enforcement in order to win the Hispanic vote.

I disagree.

Firstly, as Sean Trende of RealClearPolitics was one of the first to point out, minority turnout hardly budged from the 2012 levels. What changed was white turnout, which was down approximately seven million votes. This is both disastrous and perplexing for the GOP, given that (a) the 2008 white turnout was itself rather low; and (b) the level of enthusiasm among white Republican core voters was supposed to rise not fall. Trende also pours cold water over the notion propagated by the likes of Charles Krauthammer who used his Washington Post column to argue that Hispanics are somehow natural Republican voters. Given their typically lower income status, they are more likely to fall into voter categories which tend to favour big government blandishments. Remember that Barack Obama won voters earning under $30,000 by 63 to 35 while Romney won those on over $50,000. Given the demographic profile of the Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans who make up the bulk of Hispanic immigrants, it is hard to see what significant untapped voting potential there is for Republicans among Hispanics. Assuming (using a back-of-the-envelope “guesstimate”) that the roughly 10% of voters who self-identify as Hispanic would, if their non-ethnic demographic features were projected onto a white voting sample, vote for Obama by 63 to 35 (compared to the roughly 71-27 split in favour of Obama that actually did occur on election night) Romney could have achieved 0.8% of the vote in addition to what he got. This assumes that Romney would not have lost a single white vote in the process, which I deem improbable. Even so, this would have only succeeded in reducing the margin in favour of Obama by roughly half. This is small beer compared to a white voter deficit relative to 2008 amounting to a staggering 5.6% of the 2012 electorate.

Secondly, Peter Brimelow of VDARE.com points out that Romney’s big failure was to mobilise the white voters, who, remember, went for Reagan by 65% to 33% in 1984. Indeed, at 59% of the white vote, the failure of Romney and the GOP to take more of the white vote looks like a significant unspoken factor in the race and in future elections. Remember that in southern states (in many of which the Republicans are in much worse demographic shape than in America as a whole) the Republicans have raised their support among white voters to between 70% and 90% and thus performed competitively.

Thirdly, the US electoral statistics present a stark warning to libertarians and conservatives in Ireland about the dangers of going pie-eyed on immigration. Contrary to the theories being promulgated by groups such as the Reason Foundation, there seems little reason to believe that migrants to western countries will join with societies’ demographic mainstream and vote against welfare state policies and plenty to believe that, as Milton Friedman warned in 1999, welfare state societies such as ours cannot have unrestricted immigration without creating substantial skews in migratory and voting behaviour. Put simply, we cannot have entirely free systems of immigration for so long as we have substantial systems of fiscal transfer in place (one of the few areas where I must admit to agreeing more with conservatives rather than my fellow libertarians). The US experience demonstrates that mass immigration has led to an increase in support for the statist agenda of the Democratic Party and has driven the Republican Party far to the left of where it ought to be. Thus, while open borders immigration is closer to the de jure libertarian ideal with which I sympathise, it fails to address the de facto results.

  • Bribery Worked for Obama:

Despite the general unpopularity of the GM/Chrysler bailouts in 2009, the issue operated very much in Obama’s favour in 2012. Why? Firstly, the bailout bought the support of the union movement, which used its considerable electoral muscle to move voters in the swing states. Secondly, the bailout worked a disproportionate amount of its magic in precisely the states that decided the election (most notably Ohio and Michigan). This fact demonstrates the unalloyed cynicism of Obama’s bailout policies. High-income, unionised workers in Ohio and Michigan (who benefited from the bailout) voted for their benefactor. Comparatively low-waged non-unionised workers in Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina (who were always going to go for Romney) lost out from the Detroit bailout, but their votes didn’t matter.

Beyond the immediate consequences of the auto-bailouts, Obama has probably provided the entire western world’s politicians with a blueprint for litigating the resource wars that will inevitably result from the slow demographic collapse of the welfare state in years to come. Politics in a world of collapsing welfare states will provide major political advantages to politicians who are adept at identifying groups of voters who could realistically support them and singling them out for protection from austerity and identifying other groups who are locked into opposing voting columns and singling them out for pain. Ugly as this is, Obama has proved, with his supercilious smirk and sanctimonious turn of phrase, that this political strategy of beggar thy neighbour wins elections. Now that he has enjoyed the fruit of this strategy, he and his party must contend with the broader consequences of this system of political arbitrage.

As Megan McArdle of the Daily Beast points out, the demographic coalition that Obama has constructed is inherently unstable and contains a natural fault line between the old (hungry for Social Security and Medicare) and the rest (women, minorities, unions etc.). Set against that, the Democrats are limited in terms of the safe Republican constituencies they can tap for increased taxes. Once this tax base is exhausted (as it nearly is), it is going to be well nigh impossible for the Democrats to maintain the full support of its coalition. The Republicans, meanwhile, can still take the same political low road as Obama took with the auto bailout and throw Obama’s young poor voting base under the bus to protect their older and wealthier voters. Democratic voters who gleefully supported Obama’s “I scratch your back if you scratch mine” formula may ultimately have many years to regret their mistake, and (needless to say) nobody to blame but themselves.

  • Election Day is a Good Day to bury Bad News:

Jack Welch caused much controversy when he accused the Labour Department of massaging the unemployment numbers to bolster Obama’s re-election. His statement shouldn’t have been regarded as controversial at all. US government statisticians have been using creative methodologies to keep unemployment rates down for years. Don’t be surprised to discover that unemployment rates are revised upwards now that the election is over.

David Petraeus’s increasingly bizarre scandal broke just days after the election and was only broken to Obama on election day. As Homer Simpson would say, how convenient.

Why does the information from the Benghazi scandal drip out so gradually at a time when it is too late to allow it to influence one’s vote? Homer Simpson nods again.

How much did Ben Bernanke help Obama with his QE3 and what will the dire inflationary consequences be after the election?

The list of questions just goes on and on.

  • Conclusion:

In the words of that great philosopher of our era Mr. Kent Brockman (keeping to the Simpsons theme): “Is it time to crack one another’s heads open and feast on the goo inside?”

Time will tell…

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Groundhog Day: Part I

Submitted for your approval:

A controversial president almost worshiped by the rank and file of his party and reviled as the second coming of Hitler by his opponents. He has faced a deep recession brought about by the collapse of a financial bubble just as his presidency began.

He was elected promising to be a uniter who could bring people together and run a truly bi-partisan administration with the co-operation and support of his political opponents. However, once in power, he has excluded the minority party from decision making. He has engaged in controversial policy decisions which have damaged his standing among independent voters. He has developed the habit of passing bills on a party-line basis, often without the support of a single member of the opposition, sometimes using an arcane legislative process known as “reconciliation” to ram through controversial laws. His opponents blame him for creating this atmosphere of hyper-partisanship. His supporters counter that his opponents are deranged ideologues who are putting their hatred of the president above the national interest.

His opponents accuse him of recklessly endangering America’s solvency by running enormous fiscal deficits. He and his supporters counter that the deficits are (a) necessary; (b) affordable; (c) the fault of the previous administration; and (d) in any case, being caused by his opponents’ own pet projects. The recovery from the mess he inherited has been slow and dissatisfying. His opponents claim the anaemic recovery of the economy is the fault of him and his policies. He and his supporters have alternated between claiming that he is doing a good job in bad circumstances and asserting that the recovery would be stronger if his opponents were prepared to co-operate with him in passing beneficial legislation.

He has presided over a bitter geographic polarisation of the country. In some parts of the country, it is impossible to find anyone who will admit to supporting him. In other parts of the country, people loudly denounce his opponents using the most stinging pejoratives to describe them while any opponents he has must keep their mouths shut or risk social opprobrium.

He is culturally in sync with his half of the country, reflecting their social values to a T and is a popular and well liked guest on their favoured talk shows. To the other half of the country, he might just as well be from Mars. His opponents regard him as clueless and make cruel comments about his understanding of public policies, relishing every gaffe and deconstructing his every statement to try to demonstrate his unfitness to lead. His supporters interpret this distain as representing bigotry, sometimes directed against him for his background, sometimes directed against his coalition of supporters, who his opponents supposedly regard as their inferiors.

Having come to power, promising a nation weary of “nation building” abroad that he would concentrate on domestic concerns, he has watched his domestic agenda gradually derail and has increasingly taken refuge in an activist foreign policy, fighting Wilsonian wars for democracy in the Middle East.

He has just fought and won an ugly “get out the base” re-election campaign. He has fought that election based upon (a) national security, the line being that he has “kept America safe” from terrorists; (b) the cultural resentments of his base towards his opponents, playing on the notion that they represent a nasty, contemptuous, self-serving elite; (c) casting his opponent as a rich out of touch aristocrat whose loyalties to the nation are dubious and running character-assassinating ads in swing states; and (d) using cultural wedge issues such as abortion and gay marriage to gin up enthusiasm and turnout among the base, all in an effort to distract an electorate from the fact that the economy is a mess and their living standards are going down.

Nobody denied that it was a gamble. His opponents sceptically questioned his ability to distract voters from the economic fundamentals. They claimed that the turnout models that he and his team were using to calculate support levels were flawed and overestimated his ability to get out the base.

They were wrong. The gamble paid off. He eked out a narrow and bloody victory in the popular vote. Moreover, in addition to thwarting his opponent at the top of the ticket, he had down-the-ticket coat-tails, which allowed his party to strengthen and consolidate their control of the Senate.

After four years of bitter acrimony, the sweet taste of success and opponents asking themselves whether they can ever win again without completely revamping themselves.

The year is 2004 and the president to whom I refer is none other than George Walker Bush. However, those who thought I was talking about Barack Hussein Obama in 2012 could be forgiven for thinking so. After all, every statement I have made above about George W. Bush could apply equally to Barack Obama. To have campaigned as the anti-Bush and ended up having a presidency and re-election campaign so startlingly similar must be truly depressing to those who believed in “Hope” and “Change”. What is even more depressing about winning such a dissatisfying victory is that the history of 2004 to 2008 gives us a blueprint for what happens next.

In 2005, the insurgency operations of Iraqi groups opposed to US occupation became so great as to make a nonsense of Bush’s assertion of “mission accomplished“. Later that year, Hurricane Katrina blew a levee-sized hole in Bush’s reputation for responsible disaster management, which he had undeservedly earned after 9/11.

In 2006, the Ted Haggard gay sex scandal and the Mark Foley page-boy scandal made a mockery of Bush’s wedge social conservatism, Jack Abramoff, Bob Ney and Randy “Duke” Cunningham demonstrated a fetid culture of corruption among Congressional Republicans and the Iraq war dragged on with mounting American casualties. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Tom DeLay, the Republican majority leader in the House was forced to resign over corruption allegations, which helped set the stage for the loss of the Republican House majority.

As the pivotal real estate market began to falter in 2006 (with consequences nobody in officialdom got until it was too late), Bush ally George Allen threw away his Virginia Senate seat by throwing a bizarre racial epithet at one of his opponent’s supporters, thus losing the GOP control of the Senate. In 2007, former Bush administration official J Steven Griles was jailed for corruption, showing that the culture of graft permeated the administration itself, not just his party.

All of this tore Bush’s and the Republican Party’s reputation to shreds even before the sub-prime collapse and the ensuing economic meltdown (the legacy of the Bush administration’s greatest public policy follies) brought the US and world economies to their knees. Some of the disasters (like Iraq) were truly Bush’s legacy. With others (like Katrina), the culpability was perhaps more arguable. As for the scandals, none of them implicated him directly. But ultimately, every sin of cynicism and incompetence was visited down on the head of Bush and his party and the manner in which he governed in his first term and was re-elected directly influenced the political fallout from these disasters.

Given the similarities between Bush 2004 and Obama 2012, the “shellacking” that Obama and America will ultimately have suffered may well be judged by history to only be beginning now.

In Part II of this Post, I will be examining what factors generated yesterday’s result and what the implications for the future may be.

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Obama v. Romney – The Case for Each

Never before has an election generated in me such fascination about the process and apathy about the result as this year’s US presidential election. A- country which shows all the signs of hurtling into an unceremonious Soviet-style collapse is holding an election in which imminent fiscal and monetary Armageddon play second fiddle to the financial future of an anthropomorphic bird, an accusation relating to women and stationary items, whether or not a thirty year old student in an elite law school should be entitled to free prophylactics from her Catholic university and whether a president who orders extra-judicial assassinations of American citizens and fights wars without congressional authorisation has “apologised for America“. A person who entered into a coma six months ago and woke up today would not believe the consummate triviality which has characterised the 2012 election. However, the links provided will demonstrate that this has not been a bad dream. An election fought in extraordinary circumstances has been characterised by what can only be described as a caricature of politics as usual.

The bright spots have been few and far between. Romney has managed to avoid stooping to the lowest depths of neocon idiocy on foreign policy. Cynicism about Obama (even among his supporters) has grown, such that it now seems inconceivable that he will ever re-assume the aura of invincibility he once appeared to enjoy (albeit fleetingly) back in 2009. The Ron Paul movement, which was virtually ignored by the Republican establishment in 2008 now has sufficient purchase within the Republican Party that Senator Rand Paul received a speaking slot at Romney’s convention and the idea of returning to the gold standard has been revived. The idea that such thin gruel could provide noticeable satisfaction underlines the depressing nature of the contest.

Of the candidates on offer, there can be no doubt who represents the best choice when it comes to principled libertarian philosophy. Former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson (formerly a Republican and now the Libertarian Party candidate for president) has promised to:

  1. abolish the Federal Reserve;
  2. close the US Federal deficit without raising taxes;
  3. end the war in Afghanistan;
  4. end the war on drugs; and
  5. not start a new war in Iran. 

There is only one problem. Gary Johnson is not going to win. Yet another depressing reality which has not gone away is that the GOP-Democrat duopoly is alive and well. Since relatively few Johnson supporters are likely to contemplate supporting Obama, the likelihood is that a vote for Johnson will be a vote to tip the scales for him against Romney.

So who represents the “least worst” option for the next four years: Obama or Romney?

The first variable is the economy:

  1. The US economy has averaged recessions every 4-6 years since 1945. Given that the last recession officially ended in 2009, it is statistically highly likely that the next recession will occur in the next presidential term. On the evidence of the last two recessions in 2002/3 and 2008/9, such a recession would be likely to be devastating in effect. On the assumption that there will be no material difference between how Romney or Obama would respond to such a recession (triggered perhaps by a crash in the bond markets) and that we would see a George W Bush style orgy of bailouts, “stimulus” and quantitative easing either way, it would be best for Obama to be in charge. The Republicans’ ideological predispositions render it possible that a strong and coherent response might ensue, forming the basis behind a constructive agenda for a 2016 election which the Republicans would be fancied to win. By contrast, Romney might well be able to fall back on the cult-ish discipline upon which George W Bush was able to rely, leaving the way clear for a Democratic victory in 2016, with potentially incalculable consequences. 
  2. On the other hand, it is conceivable that the euro currency crisis could drag on for some years to come, with the combined efforts of Merkel and Draghi not solving the problem (which seems virtually insoluble) but preventing for some significant period of time, the collapse of the euro. In this scenario, the euro would continue to exist on life support, leading international capital to continue with its current policy of seeking refuge in the Dollar, thus keeping Dollar interest rates artificially low and allowing a continued “recovery” to be sustained through the economic heroin of Keynesian borrowing. The long term consequences of such a “recovery” would be an even greater crash. However, such a crash might arrive too late to discredit the suicidal Ponzinomics of Obama. Under such circumstances, the re-election of Obama might lead to a nightmare scenario involving (i) a robust two years of growth under an Obama presidency leading to an impressive Democratic performance in the 2014 mid-terms; (ii) the end of the Tea Party and the capitulation of the demoralised Republican Party to a massively statist Democratic agenda (unions running amok, cap and trade legislation, massive increases in taxes on labour, profits and capital and more government “investment” (i.e. reckless public spending)); (iii) the emboldening of European anti-austerity politicians by stories of Obama’s Roosveltian success and the gradual capitulation of Europe, led by Francois Hollande and perhaps a new Social Democrat government in Berlin to Obama’s preferred solution of European federalisation, continent-wide stimulus and an ECB led orgy of money-printing leading to; (iv) a gargantuan global crash involving fiscal meltdown, hyperinflation and then God knows what.

One is thus faced with a gamble. We don’t know which of the above scenarios will arise, so which one is preferable depends on which arises. Perhaps we should consult an economist (although these days economists seem to only exist in order to make astrology seem like an academic discipline).

On foreign policy, Obama has essentially continued Bush’s warmongering. However, at least lessons have been learned – it would appear by both candidates. Beyond the rhetorical differences, both Obama and Romney want to help the Syrian rebels (meaning the likelihood of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover like in Egypt) but neither want to commit American troops or bombs (thank heavens for small mercies). Both support a timetable for withdrawal from Afghanistan. Both support the Patriot Act, Guantanamo and sanctions against Iran. Beyond the rhetorical differences between the two (which moderately favour Obama), it is by no means clear whether either would attack Iran. Both leave the option on the table (regrettable) but neither purports to want war (progress). Foreign policy thus leaves little to separate the two candidates.

On monetary policy, Obama has continued with Bush’s policy of sub-prime interest rates from the Fed, quantitative easing and Dollar debasement. He has even kept the egregiously awful Ben Bernanke at the helm of the Fed. It is disheartening that after a Republican primary season in which Ron Paul, as usual, schooled the economists in what is supposed to be their area of professional expertise, Rick Perry disparaged Bernanke’s inflationism as “almost treasonous” and even the oleagenously creepy Newt Gingrich called for a debate on returning to the gold standard, Romney played no constructive part in the debate. Indeed, most discouragingly, Romney’s chief economic advisers are R. Glenn Hubbard (a Bush-era retread) and N. Gregory Mankiw (also a Bush adviser and an avowed Keynesian to boot). Monetary policy thus moderately favours Obama on the principle that if your enemy’s policy is going to be implemented anyway, it might as well be implemented by your enemy – at least that way, he might get the blame when it all goes wrong.

Regulatory policy is the only area where there is a clear and straightforward difference between the two candidates. The difference between the discretionary operations of regulatory agencies such as the EPA and the NLRB under Romney and Obama is likely to be night-and-day. Romney will probably end Obama’s war on hydrocarbons (e.g. the Keystone Pipeline) and it would be virtually inconceivable that Romney Labour Regulators would repeat Lafe Solomon’s disgraceful persecution of Boeing for building a plant in non-union South Carolina. That said, I cannot join in the optimism of groups like Free Market America, who think that such policies will act as a fundamental economic game changer. The big regulations damaging the US economy are likely to remain, regardless of who wins. The Wagner Act, the Clayton Act, the Sherman Act and Sarbanes Oxley will, I fear, stay in force and continue to wreak havoc on the world economy.

All in all, I think that it is naive to believe that the election will make no difference. I think that there is a scope for very different outcomes, depending on which candidate wins. The problem is that factors outside of either candidate’s control render it completely unclear which candidate’s victory represents the worse outcome – and sadly, once we know, it will be too late. 

For this reason, I fear that the choice becomes much more speculative and much less scientific. Romney is an unknown quantity. Obama is not. Romney has shown during this campaign that he does not understand capitalism or free enterprise. However, he has not shown any intrinsic hostility to them. Obama has also shown in the last four years that he does not understand capitalism or free enterprise either. However, unlike Romney the businessman, Obama the community organiser has shown a vicious hostility to capitalism and free enterprise at almost every available opportunity. Romney’s pro-forma invocations to American exceptionalism and denunciations of European social democracy inspire little confidence. However, his heart may be in the right place. The cold glint of implacable hatred in Obama’s eyes and the supercilious unctuousness of his tone of voice when he talks about “millionaires and billionaires” and businessmen “not building” their businesses suggest the possibility of a deeper and more sinister hatred of free enterprise than his mere words communicate. In the absence of a crisis, neither Romney nor Obama will do anything useful. However, with his back against the wall, Romney might do the right thing. Obama will do the wrong thing with relish, with circumstances which could be cataclysmic for the world. 

With the full understanding that calling Romney a conservative (never mind a libertarian) is like pouring boiling water into a bowl and calling it soup, I must regretfully cast my lot in with him – in the full knowledge that hindsight may make my decision look like the very definition of folly.

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Fianna Fail: Rising Lazarus or Deadcat Bounce?

Yesterday’s Irish Times leads with the story that Fianna Fail, known throughout Europe as the 2008 financial crisis’s most spectacular political roadkill (other than perhaps PASOK in Greece), may have turned a corner (a real one, not one of the corners whose turning the late Brian Lenihan used to announce). In the latest MRBI poll, Fianna Fail have overtaken Sinn Fein into second place, a major achievement for a party that was reduced to rural rump status at the last general election in 2011. Fine Gael is stagnant at 31% (compared to 36% in 2011). Sinn Fein has seen its vote fall four points to 20% (still up from 14% in 2011). Labour saw its vote improve, going from 10% to 12% (still a catastrophic seven points down from 2011). In this context, Fianna Fail has managed, with a poll position of 21% to win a beauty contest within the opposition, which has been transformed by fragmentation and incoherence into a “least ugly” contest.

What are the implications for Fianna Fail? Does this (tiny) lead over Sinn Fein mark a new chapter in the party’s history? Here are a few reasons to believe that the answer is yes.

  1. The party has now survived more than a year and a half after its historic electoral meltdown with a relatively stable support level. It has not crumbled below the critical mass of support necessary to hold its current seats. It has survived the attempt of former deputy leader Eamon O’Cuiv to rebel against the Michael Martin leadership’s Europe policy. Consequently, we have not seen a devastating split led by the De Valera-ite wing of Fianna Fail. We have not seen the development of coordinated domino effects which might have led John McGuinness (one of the few remaining FF TDs with a strong national reputation) and/or some of the younger TDs to decamp to Fine Gael or a new party. This is an achievement for FF – notwithstanding the mediocrity of the party’s current level of support.
  2. The current government has failed to cover itself in any glory and the new broom of 2011 has failed to sweep out many cobwebs. The ongoing failure of the government to reduce public spending, the grotesque parody of industrial relations policy represented by the Croke Park Agreement and the bickering between Labour and Fine Gael ministers about whose constituency gets the juiciest slices of pork have raised serious questions in people’s minds as to whether Fianna Fail deserves to be stigmatised quite so egregiously as in 2011. This is not so much a case of the Fianna Fail brand being decontaminated, but of the contamination of the Fianna Fail brand spreading to other parties previously untainted by virtue of their previous lack of power. This may not be especially gratifying to Michael Martin’s ego but politics is a zero sum game which must always result in the election of a government. Therefore, it’s not how well one does, but how well one does relative to everyone else, which counts.
  3. The public may have begun to fathom some element of the truth about what really caused Ireland’s current woes. The fundamentals of our disastrous economic situation lie in Austrian Business Cycle Theory. Put simply, once we locked ourselves into the eurozone in 2002, we found ourselves captives of the ECB’s and US Federal Reserve’s monetary doctrines which assert that the creation of cheap money and the devaluation and debasement of currency stimulate economic growth. They do not. They strip away the real wealth-producing capacity of the economy and inflate investment and speculative bubbles, resulting in phenomena such as the now infamous “My Home is my ATM” doctrine. Fianna Fail deserves its own share of the blame for (a) having joined the euro in the first place; and (b) having meekly accepted the disastrous post-1971 fiat currency consensus. However, no significant body of opinion within the Irish body politic was prepared to challenge either of these Shibboleths. This is not to say that Fianna Fail’s pro-cyclical fiscal and regulatory policies made no difference. However, the difference was one of degree not direction – and in any event, many of the worst policies had either explicit or implicit support from the opposition. As the reputation of the EU, the IMF and the other high temples of neo-Keynesianism are tarnished, the notion of the Soldiers of Destiny as a convenient scapegoat for the nation’s ills loses its lustre.

Notwithstanding the above, Fianna Fail has several reasons to greet this poll with caution.

  1. The lead over Sinn Fein is statistically insignificant. Any sensible observer would regard Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail as being tied in second place. Also, one poll does not generate a trend. The trend over the last year and a half has been significantly in Sinn Fein’s favour and one poll is not going to change that. Fianna Fail should be looking at this poll with cautious optimism – but only cautious optimism. They should also bear in mind that the media coverage of the Sean Quinn affair has brought about an uncharacteristically weak response from Sinn Fein, many of whose Northern and Border County voters work for Quinn companies. While Sinn Fein’s uncharacteristic ambiguity in this regard may cause it permanent damage, it may also be that once the transitory coverage of the Quinn affair fades, Sinn Fein will be able to once again don its “people’s champion” mantle.
  2. This result, if replicated in a general election, would probably still leave Sinn Fein with more seats than Fianna Fail. Sinn Fein, remember, retains total toxicity among suburban middle class voters. This becomes a huge problem for the party in constituencies with a large concentration of upscale voters (e.g. Dun Laoghaire, Dublin South, Dublin South East, Dublin North, Wicklow, Limerick County, Cork South Central). Even in rural areas, there remain bizarrely anomalous constituencies such as Clare and Kerry South in which an insufficient Sinn Fein organisation existed  in 2011 to run even one candidate. This results in there being about one third of the country in which Sinn Fein has a negligible presence, meaning that the vote the party does get is more heavily concentrated than that of Fianna Fail and produces higher constituency percentages, more quotas and more seats in those constituencies. This means that Sinn Fein will find it exceedingly difficult to become a national party of government. However, it allows them to take more seats per vote than the more broadly spread Fianna Fail. If Fianna Fail reaches the critically important 25% barrier, then the effect of this phenomenon swings into reverse, with Fianna Fail taking 40+ seats. However, on 21%, it’s harder to see significant seat improvements. My guess for now is that on a performance of this nature FF takes about 24 seats and Sinn Fein 28.
  3. There are few grounds to believe that Fianna Fail has provided a compelling reason for its continued existence. One of the few advantages to the ideological cul-de-sac into which Eamon O’Cuiv tried to drive Fianna Fail this year – nationalist, agrarian, Gaelgeor-ist – is that it at least represented some kind of intellectual mission. Fine Gael shows no sign of relinquishing its crown as the party of the “catch-all” centre-right. Fianna Fail has no credibility as a socialist party – nor on the other end of the spectrum as a libertarian party. The Lemass-era rural, socially conservative social democratic party is an idea whose time appears to have come and gone. Right now, the only alternative to Michael Martin’s drift is the formation of a radical right force akin to the Freedom Party and the Alliance for the Future in Austria or the People’s Party in Switzerland. However, it’s an option for which Fianna Fail’s current generation does not appear to have the stomach. Without a clear philosophy, it seems hard to envision any chance of a significant breakthrough.

More broadly, this poll speaks to the continuing ambivalence of the electorate. The ULA continues to lose its sheen. Labour continues to regress to its historical mean of getting slaughtered after a term in government. Fine Gael’s support is currently being held up by three key factors:

  1. The lack of a coherent right of centre alternative in the mold of the old Progressive Democrats;
  2. The completely discredited nature of Fianna Fail among whole swathes of the electorate; and
  3. The tendency of certain Fine Gael backbenchers to openly criticise the Croke Park Agreement and to make forthright statements about the need to cut public spending is probably convincing worried Fine Gael voters that after a re-shuffle, the party will begin to stand up to Labour in a more effective way than the older 1980s generation of politicians is prepared to do.

Fine Gael should take note that all of these factors can very quickly reverse themselves. However, at this stage, it is too early to predict matters, which leads me to the conclusion that Fine Gael will remain complacent until a crisis of some kind occurs.

Most interestingly, this poll represents the first concrete indication that a Fine Gael-Fianna Fail coalition might finally come to pass. After all, the late John Kelly described such a coalition as a “match made in heaven”. With Labour TDs and MEPs siding with the EU in seeking to impose a financial transaction tax on Ireland which would destroy the IFSC, the option has some attractions.

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The Day After Obamageddon: Bitch, Moan and Pass the Buck

Nearly a week has now passed since Barack Obama and Mitt Romney went head to head in Denver. As I mentioned in my post of 5 October, there was a surprisingly generally shared feeling that more might be rising out of the mountains of Colorado than the just the hot air that inevitably emanates from candidates for high office so close to an election. The conventional wisdom coming into the debate was that the race was Obama’s to lose and that Romney’s gaffe prone campaign was sailing into yet more troubled waters. Fresh from his 47% debacle, it was a fairly respectable assumption that the hour and a half that Romney would have in front of a live TV camera would be more than enough for him to deliver several oven-fresh clangers for a salivating media and Obama campaign (to indulge in a redundancy) to devour with relish – unless he delivered his very best game and Obama performed to a breathtaking level of incompetence. The likelihood of this happening seemed very slim indeed. However, the shock event occurred (although I, for one, was less surprised than most for reasons I will outline), with the entire race now thrown into a flux nobody could have predicted a mere week ago.

The consequences of the debate now appear to have been seismic and have led to a number of theories emerging from Obama’s incredulous supporters as to how this travesty occurred.  They fall under three broad headings:

  1. Obama was too nice: Straight after the debate, Chris Matthews, whose rant has now gone viral, suggested that Obama hadn’t listened to enough MSNBC coverage and had let Romney away with “lies”.  He was, according to Matthews, “enduring the debate rather than fighting it”. The high point of Matthews’s meltdown was when he said he didn’t know how Obama “let Romney away with the crap he threw out”.  Matthews’s explosive reaction to his hero’s failure was to prove an early indicator of where Obama’s supporters were going to take the grim (depending, of course, on your point of view) aftermath of the Denver Disaster. Gary Younge in the Guardian argued that Obama was not angry or passionate enough. Michael Tomasky in the Daily Beast went further and suggested that perhaps Obama doesn’t want to win.  Joe Klein of Time ascribed his problems to an inexplicable diffidence, describing his performance as an exercise in “unilateral disarmament“.
  2. Obama failed to prepare: This argument is effectively the teacher’s scold to the lazy pupil. “You know you could have done better than this but instead of studying the night before the test, you were playing computer games.” Bill Maher, as  only Bill Maher can, ascribed Obama’s performance to a combination of post-coital lethargy (on account of his wedding anniversary falling on the same day) and narcotic consumption. Today, Toby Harnden in the Daily Mail (an Obama critic) suggests a more plausible if less entertaining version of what happened, his source for which is an anonymous Democratic Party insider. Said insider suggests that Obama made scant preparation for the debate, “breaking off whenever he got the opportunity” and complaining petulantly to a supporter that his aides were making him “do [his] homework”. Sensationally, this anonymous aide goes on to tell Harnden that at the end of the debate, Obama was so mentally detached from what had happened during the debate that he thought he had won it and needed 24 hours before accepting that he hadn’t. This argument was echoed by Romney surrogate Gov. John H. Sununu, who described Obama as “lazy and disengaged“.
  3. It was the Moderator’s Fault: This argument is essentially to blame either (a) the format of the debate; or (b) the moderator, the veteran broadcaster Jim Lehrer, for failing to take control of the debate and hold Romney’s feet to the fire. Typical of these criticisms was former Al Gore campaign consultant Bob Shrum, who used his Daily Beast column to argue that Lehrer’s was “not only a pushover, but an interrogator from the pre-modern age”, complaining that Lehrer didn’t drive the debate in the direction of “women, African-Americans, Hispanic and the LGBT community—or any of their concerns”.

Listening to some of these arguments has left me in the same position in which I have found myself with increasing frequency in recent years when listening to political debate – namely that the positions taken are too outlandish to predict and thus hard to refute. However, taking each of the above in seriatim:

  1. Obama was too nice: This argument is absurd. Gary Younge’s explicit invocation of anger as a missing ingredient is vapid and self-serving. It is true that Obama was trying to be nice (largely in order to preserve his likability advantage with the public) but to suggest that turning on the anger would have helped flies in the face of all evidence. Anger can be a useful means of communicating an authentic concern. However, it only works when the anger communicates an authentic concern about an issue in relation to which the public agrees. In a country in which self-identified conservatives (i.e. people who have a pro-Romney ideological bias) outnumber self-identified liberals (i.e. people who have a pro-Obama ideological bias) by roughly two to one, Obama’s refusal to get angry and vituperative looks to any objective observer like a wise concession to the reality that his core beliefs are not very popular. Additionally, as Mark Halperin of Time has pointed out, Obama has a tendency to come across as “kind of a dick” when he gets angry, something which might explain his insistence on playing it cool. Meanwhile, Mr. Tomasky’s suggestion that Obama might not want to win is almost beneath contempt. Obama and his minions have been expert in running the most unscrupulous series of negative campaigns ever seen in a modern election. I fail to see how a man whose surrogates have accused his opponent of killing the wife of one of his employees and of being a felon could be accused of lacking appetite for the chase. No. The idea that Obama has not been sufficiently combative or that he lacks hunger is risible. The argument is a smokescreen for the fact that Obama’s Leviathan-worshiping, community-organising statism are simply not very popular.
  2. Obama failed to prepare: This explanation sounds more plausible. But again, on closer examination, it too inhabits an alternate reality in which there is nothing wrong with Obama’s policies, just a communications problem. What Obama sycophants like Bill Maher and Joe Klein refuse to understand is that Obama in fact doesn’t debate well because he does not understand public policy very well. As I’ve said in my 5 October post, this is a man who believes that ATMs cause unemployment. His understanding of economics literally seems to be limited to what he can memorise from flashcards (“fair share”, “millionaires and billionaires”, “spread the wealth around”, “invest in our future”).  As I’ve said before, his debating performance, dreadful though it was, was not appreciably worse than his usual performances. Brit Hume on Fox News summed his performance up rather well: “This idea that Romney won the debate because Obama basically didn’t show up – I don’t buy that. The Barack Obama I heard on that debate stage was the Barack Obama I’ve been listening to now for four years. He sounded very much like himself. I don’t think he was terribly bad, I think he has a very weak case.”  Obama’s problem is not that he is a bad debater, but that he has a pedestrian mind. This is starting to become clear to Obama supporters such as the aforementioned Joe Klein, who suggested that it was “bigoted” to question Obama’s ability and Andrea Mitchell, who went as far as to ask John Sununu to “take back” the accusation that Obama was lazy. As Bismarck said, one should never believe a rumour until it’s officially denied.
  3. It was the Moderator’s Fault: This accusation seems to go to the heart of the mindset of many of Obama’s supporters, who appear to earnestly believe that it is the job of the media to support Obama, including the effective rigging of debates. This is a harsh accusation to level but an increasingly hard one to avoid. The most charitable analogy I can draw is that of blaming the referee after losing the match. At worst though, its analogous to demanding that the rules be changed every time your opponent scores. I’m glad to see that Jim Lehrer is defending himself against these charges.

One way or the other, pathetic as the Obama sycophants’ excuses and explanations are, I expect that they will have an effect on the next debate. Expect a much angrier, more aggressive and more vituperative Obama. This could get very interesting…

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Obama Bombs in First Debate

Most people in their now cherished days of naive undergraduate arrogance will have had at least one moment of supreme hubris where they watched a person in a position of importance making their case before the watching world and loudly asserted to anyone prepared to listen that they could do it better. Try to imagine, if you will, the moment when you turned to a friend and said: “If I were in charge I’d…”. Well imagine if, in the moment after you made the statement as to how you would solve the world’s problems, a puff of smoke transported you into the hot seat and by magic you somehow found yourself in the position you regarded just a moment ago as being so easy. Imagine the feeling of horror in your gut as you suddenly realised, amidst of the onset of a precipitous feeling of intolerable anguish through every sinew of your being, that you were in imminent danger of making a fool of yourself in front of millions of people. Imagine the childlike hesitancy and diffidence with which you would utter your first words. Imagine how you would look and sound – as if you wanted the torture to end. Then imagine the look of betrayal on the faces of your supporters as it dawns on them that you have let them down. Then imagine the feeling of shame that would envelope you. At Wednesday’s debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, it seemed as if Obama’s place had been taken by just such an imposter – a know-it-all student from a second-rate university wearing an Obama mask – and that the real Obama would run onto the stage at any moment demanding that the imposter vacate his post.

Obama’s performance in the debate was, bluntly, not that of a four year incumbent, but rather, of an undergraduate Smart Alec learning an object lesson in being careful in what he wished for. To Obama skeptics like this author, the performance was no surprise. Obama has had unscripted moments where he has demonstrated  crass ignorance in saying that America’s embattled private sector was “doing fine“, of simplistic economic illiteracy (“ATMs cause unemployment“), of a primary school level understanding of geography (referring to the Falkland Islands as the Maldives instead of the Malvinas) and of an unpleasant tendency to insult his opponents (“You’re likeable enough Hillary“). Moreover, his unscripted tomfoolery, in telling people that they “didn’t build”  their own businesses even gave his opponents a ready-made campaign slogan.

However, despite all of this, the myth has persisted among his supporters that he is an orator par excellence. There is little in the way of convincing evidence to suggest that he is anything of the kind (see this vicious take-down by the laceratingly brilliant George F. Will). However, to most of the world’s commentariat, Obama’s rhetorical brilliance has become an article of faith, allowing for no intrusion from the stubborn irrelevancies of evidence.  The first presidential debate, in Denver Colorado, represents the ghastly moment at which the emperor is revealed to have no clothes. It was truly a sight to behold an emotional and clearly shell-shocked Chris Matthews on MSNBC (who once said that Obama’s speeches made him feel as if something was going up his leg) denounce Obama’s incompetence in the debate.

Having looked at the debate, I don’t think that Obama’s performance was appreciably worse than what he normally delivers without a teleprompter. What was different was twofold:

  1. Instead of being faced with a fawning interviewer throwing him softball questions, he faced an actual opponent for the first time in four years.
  2. It had been expected that Romney, who it often seems only opens his mouth in order to insert his foot, would perform disastrously in the debate. Instead, he managed to speak competently and cogently and in a broadly likeable and respectful way and managed to thrash Obama in the rhetorical stakes – although Obama’s toothlessness often made it seem as if Romney had picked a fight with a beak-less, wingless dead baby sparrow.

Romney delivered his plan with a proficiency bordering on panache. He advocated  (i) an expansion in America’s indigenous hydrocarbon sector through the removal of federal government roadblocks to the development of oil, coal and tar sands; (ii) a comprehensive reform of the tax code; (iii) improvements in education; (iv) standing up to Chinese currency manipulation; and (v) balancing the federal budget.

Obama, by contrast, stumbled through his plan (including, bizarrely, devoting the beginning of his economy segment to wishing his wife a happy 20th wedding anniversary), going negative from the outset – attacking Republican tax and deregulation policies – and advocating making “investments” in “our future” and making “millionaires and billionaires” pay their “fair share” (read – massive increases in public spending partially funded by increases in marginal tax rates).

Romney delivered a surprisingly self-assured defence and counter-attack, denying Obama’s allegation that he would bring in a US$5 trillion tax cut for the wealthy. He said that he would not bring in a cut which reduced the overall share of the tax burden shouldered by wealthier taxpayers and that he would not sign off on any tax cut that cost $US 5 trillion, saying that he would insist that his cuts be revenue neutral. Interestingly, this now gives Romney some constructive ambiguity in relation to his tax policy. His statement now cleverly allows him to either (a) institute unfunded tax cuts and then claim that supply-side effects will render the cuts self-funding; or (b) abandon all or some or most of his proposed tax cuts if and when Washington’s pork barrel politics make it impossible for him to eliminate a sufficient number of loopholes and deductions to make the cuts revenue-neutral. An opponent with a rudimentary grasp of economics would have latched onto this issue and forced Romney to define his terms with respect to his tax policy. However, Obama, whose understanding of economics seems to extend no further than the constant repetition of Keynesian cliches, could only come out with repetitions of his $5 trillion allegation against Romney without in any way addressing his detailed rebuttal of this attack.

Obama repeatedly delivered the same talking points (“millionaires and billionaires” should pay “their fair share”, “investing” in the “future”, putting money into the hands of the “middle class”) over and over again in a way that clearly ignored everything Romney was saying, suggesting that his command of the issues was so poor that he couldn’t understand Romney’s arguments and could only deliver pre-cooked comments rote-learned before the debate.

Both candidates were let off the hook by the consensus of ineptitude around spending. Obama repeated a series of tired Keynesian bromides about pump-priming consumer spending as a means of stimulating the economy. Romney, meanwhile, demonstrated that for all of his mastery of detail, his understanding of the fundamentals of America’s problems and the world’s is no better than Obama’s, when he dusted off Jack Kemp’s tired old dictum about growing out of the monstrous US Federal deficit rather than actually cutting spending. This part of the debate was particularly depressing, coming on the same day that influential bond fund manager Bill Gross issued a dire warning about impending fiscal Armageddon.

In a debate devoted to the economy, there was no meaningful effort to debate the role of the Federal Reserve in this crisis – one truly pined for the presence of Ron Paul on the stage. With the exception of some brief and superficial references by Obama, neither candidate gave any indication of any intention to cut spending on the US’s bloated military.

All in all, while the debate was probably a game-changer insofar as it gets Romney back into the race, it still offered a calamitous paucity of debate in relation the ticking time-bomb of America’s trillion Dollar plus deficit addiction and underlines how in times of grave distress, a watching world is receiving nothing in the way of real leadership.

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