How to beat Romney and Cameron
Only a New Yorker can ‘bustle’ whilst waiting, stationary, at the traffic lights… It’s a drizzly April dawn in New York City, but the city’s famed frenetic energy is already on display. Pedestrians powerwalk purposefully, neon lights glimmer and glister in the early morning gloom, and yellow cabs hurtle southwards, en masse, down the shimmering tarmac patchwork of Ninth Avenue. The whir and thump of the American economic machine, fuelled by the largest Keynesian stimulus in history, is palpable in this, the commercial capital of the nation.
But all is not rosy. After several months of positive news on jobs and growth, the recovery has faltered. Here in ‘the city’ unemployment rose in March. Foreclosures are rising. Down on Wall Street, the traders are wary; in the last fortnight the Dow Jones has wiped out gains made last month.
Such is the background to today’s – somewhat irrelevant – New York vote on the Republican presidential nomination. Mitt Romney is expected to romp home in the primary, but regardless of the outcome he is, like it or not, the candidate presumptive.
Commentary has therefore turned to the showdown between the former governor of Massachusetts and the president. As the economy slows and the Romney campaign lurches forward, Democratic strategists, in NYC and elsewhere, are getting to work. Their plan: anchor their opponent to the eccentricities and extremism of the Republican nomination process. Run and rerun those videos of his pandering to Santorum supporters. Hammer home his chummy relationship with Paul Ryan, disciple of Ayn Rand and tax-slashing pin-up boy of the Tea Party tendency. Hint at his dodgy Mormon associations. The message: this guy is a dangerous right-wing radical.
To quote The Economist’s ‘Democracy in America’ blog, this amounts to culture war. And it is counter-productive. Romney’s strength (nationally) and weakness (in the -increasingly oddball – Republican Party) is his record in Boston. As governor he pursued a relatively moderate programme; most notably, he introduced a form of universal healthcare that later informed the Obama reforms. He seems likely to reinforce this by choosing a safe vice presidential candidate (my money is on Florida’s Marco Rubio).
Romney’s weakness is his inability to stand up for this record. The Democrat campaign would be well advised to focus on this: not Romney as the steely ideologue -radical or otherwise – but Romney as the flaccid flip-flopper. Obama, in contrast, has a pretty strong record on the economy and on the international stage. Romney’s CEO credentials pale in comparison to the leadership (imperfect, but nevertheless impressive) shown by the president.
There are lessons for Ed Miliband in this. David Cameron is no Mitt Romney. But like Romney, the PM is fundamentally weak (as I have outlined previously), despite his posing as a radical. Like Romney, he appears torn between party grassroots and the imperatives of the centre ground. Like Romney, he seeks to portray his opponent, unconvincingly, as a nerdy do-gooder without real leadership experience.
At the next election, Cameron will, like Romney, attempt to pitch himself despite all the evidence as the ‘open for business’ candidate; a safe, reliable pair of hands to manage the economy. Miliband needs to be ready for this. In response, like Obama, he must resist the temptation to cry ‘radical’. Like Obama, he must play on his strengths as a leader and on the international stage (consider his role at Copenhagen) and contrast these with a weak, flip-flopping, shilly-shallying adversary.
Voters on both sides of the Atlantic have lost trust in the establishment. ‘Radical’, whether of the left or the right, is no longer the insult it once was. Just consider the slew of ‘outspoken’/‘radical’ politicians of various ideological hues currently riding high: Ryan, Santorum, Salmond, Farage, Le Pen and Mélenchon, to name but a few. What both Obama and Miliband need to do is reclaim the territory of common sense radicalism. Romney and Cameron are both weak; both seem to lack the courage of theirconvictions.
Today New York’s (sparse) Republican population will dutifully confirm Mitt Romney as the party’s presidential hopeful. In the UK, recent polls have convinced even hostile observers that Ed Miliband has to be taken seriously. Different countries, different systems – but in both, it is time to sift the conservatives from the real radicals.
Jeremy Cliffe is a Labour commentator and contributing editor to Shifting Grounds. He tweets from @jeremycliffe.