These are awkward times to be a Right-of-Centre candidate. Many voters believe they are living through a crisis of capitalism. They blame the credit crunch on lack of regulation. They think the deficit should be filled by taxing the bankers who, they have been assured, created it in the first place.
It is not easy for a candidate to respond that bailouts and nationalisations are the precise opposite of capitalism; that, with the exceptions of nuclear power and broadcast media, it is hard to find a more regulated industry than financial services; and that expropriating every banker in the land would barely dent the deficit.
Most European elections since the crash have been won by the populist Left – partly because the Right has locked itself into Euro-corporatism, and partly because the Left currently has the best tunes.
America is meant to be different. The Greek or French electorates might have a predilection for statism, but the US was founded to get away from all that. It has one of the most liberty-minded electorates on the planet. US Republicans, unlike most European parties of the Centre-Right, tend to be populist and libertarian – at least in their present incarnation. While some Bush-era conservatives were guilty of crony capitalism, most Republicans ran yesterday as anti-élitist, anti-government and anti-corporatist. So why didn’t they win?
The short answer is that they did. Foreign observers, perhaps understandably, focus almost exclusively on the presidential contest. But it’s not the president who sets budgets. That prerogative is squarely with Congress – represented, in this context, by none other than Paul Ryan, comfortably re-elected in his Wisconsin district.
Two years ago, Republicans made extraordinary gains in the House of Representatives, having focused their campaign almost exclusively on the unsustainable levels of taxation, spending and debt. As I write, they appear to have held onto those extraordinary gains.
It’s true that President Obama held the White House, and congratulations to him. But as president, he has more power over foreign than domestic policy. And it can at least be argued – several small government types did argue – that Obama’s foreign policy is cheaper than Romney’s. Almost nothing Obama said in the campaign can be interpreted as a mandate for higher spending. (This was true last time, of course, and didn’t stop him once he got in, but the point stands.)
My guess is that he won mainly because people liked him better. His speeches were warm and inspiring, and he came across well on television. Mitt Romney, to his misfortune, came across as aloof, rich and cold. For what it’s worth, I think this characterisation is well wide of the mark, but it’s not what I think that matters. To many Americans, Romney seemed a throwback to the unpopular, preppy, Northeastern GOP of the mid-twentieth century. The reason his ’47 per cent’ remark did so much damage is that it confirmed a negative impression that people had already formed, namely that he was approaching the presidency as a management consultant, not a leader.
America did not move Left yesterday, not in any meaningful sense. Yes, some states voted in a socially liberal way on same-sex marriage and the legalisation of soft drugs. But plenty of people – including me – support these things while remaining fiscal conservatives. All three causes are, at least on one level, anti-government.
You can still win elections on an anti-tax, anti-statism ticket; but you mustn’t be compromised. Four years after the event, many Americans still blame the Republicans for the fiasco of the 2008 bailouts, and they’ve got a point. With a candidate who had clean hands on that issue, and a more palpably attractive personality, the Republicans could have won.