Reagan-like win unlikely in 2012

Business Times - 17 Aug 2011

Reagan-like win unlikely in 2012

Most voters favour Obama's approach to dealing with deficit


IN 1964, Barry Goldwater, a Republican senator from Arizona - charismatic, highly intelligent, a World War II air force pilot and an ultra-conservative politician calling for the dismantling of the welfare state and defeating the Soviet Union - won his party's presidential nomination after beating the head of its liberal wing (Nelson Rockefeller).

Mr Goldwater went on to lose the general election to Democratic president Lyndon Johnson by a huge landslide, with Mr Goldwater carrying only Arizona and five southern states and the Republicans losing many seats in the House of Representatives and Senate.

In 1980, Ronald Reagan, a former Republican governor of California and a former Hollywood movie star - charismatic, telegenic, and an ultra-conservative politician calling for the dismantling of the welfare state and defeating the Soviet Union - won his party's presidential nomination after defeating the leader of its moderate wing, George H W Bush.

Mr Reagan went on to defeat Democratic president Jimmy Carter in the general election, carrying 44 states with 489 electoral votes to 49 electoral votes for Mr Carter who carried six states and Washington, DC.

Mr Reagan also ended up winning re-election in 1984, carrying 49 of 50 states after defeating democratic candidate Walter Mondale who carried only his home state of Minnesota.

In 2012, with the ultra-conservative wing of the Republican Party - represented by the populist anti-government and anti-Syariah Tea Party movement - on a roll, the conventional wisdom is that the leader of what remains of the moderate wing of the Republicans, former Massachusetts governor and former business executive Mitt Romney, would find it very difficult to win his party's presidential nomination.

The betting is that one of the more ultra-conservative presidential candidates (declared and presumed)Â - Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann from Minnesota, Texas Governor Rick Perry or former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin - would be elected to head the Republican presidential ticket and face off Democratic President Barack Obama.

So the big question is whether an ultra-conservative Republican presidential candidate will be able to capture the White House in the same way that Mr Reagan did in 1980 and 1984? Or will Republican presidential candidates Perry, Bachmann or Palin - not unlike Mr Goldwater in 1964 - be rejected by the voters who would go on to re-elect a moderate Democratic president?

Political specialists and historians are still debating why Mr Goldwater lost big in 1964 while Mr Reagan made it to the White House in 1980. After all, they both looked the way US presidents had to look then and their views on the major policy issues of the day were quite similar - dismantle the welfare state and take on the Kremlin.

One explanation is that Mr Johnson was a popular political figure who presided over an American economy that was in the midst of its post-World War I growth, while the unpopular Mr Carter was managing an economy plagued by high inflation and high unemployment.

At the same time, conservatives suggest that Americans were 'not ready' for their particular message in 1964, but that the ailing economy, social strife and a perception of declining US global power helped make conservatism - with its emphasis on free markets and strong defence - a winning ideology in 1980 while reducing the appeal of liberalism that placed an emphasis on using government to promote social progress.Â

But those Republicans and conservatives who are daydreaming about a repeat of a Reagan-like electoral victory in 2012 need to recognise (to paraphrase Bob Dylan) that the times they have been changing since 1980, including what it means to be 'conservative'.Â

While it is true that, running for the presidency in 1980, Mr Reagan was bashed by liberals as 'extremist', pointing to his alliance with the Christian Right, the former California governor and Hollywood film actor was a mainstream public figure whose main interests revolved around economics and national security. Mr Reagan's partnership with the conservative social-cultural wing of his party was more a reflection of Realpolitik considerations than cultural affinities.

But the three leading conservative figures vying for their party's presidential nomination are the 'real thing' when it comes to the issues that dominate the conservative social-cultural agenda - same-sex marriage (they want to ban it), abortions (they want to criminalise it), religious tolerance (they perceive a Muslim threat to promote Syariah religious law), and science (they do not believe in Darwin's evolution theory and demand 'creationist' or 'intelligent design' theories in school curricula).

Hence, Ms Bachmann, who has won the recent 'straw poll' among Republican voters in Iowa, is an Evangelical Christian that has spent much of her political career dealing with such cultural issues (her husband Marcus is a therapist who specialises in 'curing' gay men). Ms Palin, who has yet to announce her presidential candidacy (and she might not run), is opposed to abortion even in cases of rape and incest.

And Mr Perry, who proudly wears his Christianity on his political sleeve, proclaimed on Aug 6 as a Day of Prayer and Fasting and invited governors across the country to join him to participate in The Response, a Christian prayer meeting held in a huge stadium in Houston, which was organised and hosted by a conservative Christian organisation.

While many Americans in general tend to report higher church attendance than, say, the French or the British, the social-cultural positions embraced by these three presidential candidates - and by the majority of Republican Party activists - run contrary to those of most voters, especially younger Americans and independent voters, who tend to subscribe to more moderate and tolerant views on issues such as gay marriage and abortion.

Interestingly, after retiring from the Senate, Mr Goldwater decried the growing influence of the Christian Right on his party. That enormous influence has forced moderates such as Mr Romney to change their earlier, more accommodating positions on abortion and other social-cultural issues that in Mr Romney's case had actually helped him win the governorship of the liberal state of Massachusetts.

Republicans, however, are hoping that against the backdrop of the economic discontent, most voters, especially in economically distressed states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, would be attracted to the economic message of economic revival espoused by Mr Perry, Ms Palin, or Ms Bachmann - and pay less attention to their views on abortion or gay marriage.

But the problem is, contrary to the Republican conventional wisdom, it is not clear that the radical economic prescriptions - cutting government spending, abolishing socio-economic and health programmes, imposing no new taxes - promoted by the three and, in fact, the rest of the Republican candidates, Â are going to win the support of a majority of voters. According to opinion polls, most voters favour Mr Obama's balanced approach to dealing with the nation's deficit - cutting spending and imposing taxes on the wealthy while preserving the foundations of the welfare state.Â

Indeed, even Mr Reagan, who had led a major reform of the economic system by cutting some regulations and reducing the level of taxation, was never a proponent of changes in the government-backed insurance plans for retirees and the elderly and during his first four years in office demonstrated that he was more of a cautious reformer than a radical revolutionary. And this is the way that Mr Obama in 2012 is hoping to sell himself to the American people.

Copyright © 2010 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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