Business Times - 30 Mar 2012
THE BOTTOM LINE
Two wonks and a right to become US President
By LEON HADAR
AMERICAN comedian Bill Maher describes the presumptive Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney as 'the most boring man in the world'. Romney is so boring, he quips, that 'the paint on the wall looks at him when it dries' and 'Ambien (a drug for the treatment of insomnia) takes him when it cannot fall asleep'.
Well, the comedian may be exaggerating a bit. Mr Romney is probably not the most boring man in the world but he certainly could compete for the title. Indeed, there is something about his robotic persona that makes human beings feel uncomfortable about him. He does look and sound like an automaton that has been programmed to look and talk like an American president who reiterates his love for family, country and God, and promotes this or that plan to solve this or that problem.
In fact, during his long career in public service, Mr Romney seems to have been all over the place when it comes to his policy ideas, at times sounding like a liberal (he once supported the women's right to abortion) and at other times repackaging himself as a conservative (he now wants to criminalise abortion) or is somewhere in between (perhaps the states and not the federal government should decide on the abortion issue).
Mr Romney is, after all, attacking President Barack Obama now for adopting the same government-backed healthcare programme on the federal level that he himself helped pass as Governor in Massachusetts. And he pledged, if he becomes president, to repeal Obamacare - something that only Congress can do anyway.
So no one is shocked when some of his critics accuse him of being a 'flip flopper', or of pandering to voters and interest groups, of lacking an 'ideological underpinning' and a 'political backbone'. But then this same kind of criticism can be turned on its head and be applied to suggest that Mr Romney is 'pragmatic' and 'open minded', a 'non-ideologue' and 'problem fixer'.
'Do we really need a moral crusader in the White House?' ask supporters of the former governor and financial business executive. Which is exactly how he likes to paint himself - someone with experience in state government and in the private sector who would be able to come up with 'solutions' to US economic problems. He even has a Power Point presentation that details those policy solutions - just right for those who suffer from insomnia.
And the irony is that much of the criticism and the praise directed against Mr Obama as a president and as a candidate is that, like Mr Romney, the present president has been a man for all political seasons, sounding at times as the man of the political left (let's get out of Iraq and regulate the financial system) or the political right (let's expand our military presence in Afghanistan and refrain from nationalising the banks). He uses populist rhetoric - but gets his economic advice from free marketers; he won the Nobel Peace Prize - but has expanded the use of drones to attack suspected terrorists.
Indeed, even his Obamacare plan that conservatives like to hate was modelled after the healthcare programme that the Republican Romney implemented in Massachusetts - under which private insurance companies remain in control. And unlike his Republican predecessor, he ended-up killing Osama bin Laden as well as other leading terrorist figures around the world.
Mr Obama is younger than Mr Romney and may be more attuned to contemporary popular culture and, therefore, scores higher than his Republican challenger on the 'cool' barometer. But in many ways, if you forget that Mr Obama is bi-racial and has an exotic name, the current White House occupant is not so different from the former Massachusetts governor in terms of Ivy League education and of their non-ideological and pragmatic modus operandi, if not technocratic approach to policy issues.
Notwithstanding all the talk about his charisma and his being a transformational president, Mr Obama is not really a very inspiring president. He is not a bad orator who knows how to read his prepared speeches that sound as 'wonky' and robotic as those of Mr Romney with their emphasis on the management of policies as opposed to rousing the people with new ideas.
It may be a paradox. But at a time of ideological polarisation in US politics, dominated by the rhetoric of the likes of the Tea Party and 'Occupy Wall Street', America's two major political parties will be running for the president in the coming election two political figures who are not driven by any grand ideology. Both are detached policy intellectuals who like to build coalitions and manage things.
Indeed, Barack Obama is not FDR - and Mitt Romney is not Ronald Reagan. The two remind us of the men and women who run for the Prime Ministership of governments in Europe. So don't be surprise if the televised debate between these two wonks will be very, well, boring.
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