Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Guest Post: Andy Williamson: Mid-Terms of Engagement

There is nothing that a blogger more that somebody giving them stuff to put on their blog. Yes, even if that blogger is as prolific as I can be. Therefore earlier today I received an email from one of my Edinburgh friends and fellow campaigners containing his overview of the American mid-term elections and how it relates to us in the coalition. I am therefore of course happy to share it with you all.

The US midterm results are in, and the results seem bad for Obama. Even though the Democrats held the Senate, many of the Senators who survived the Republican onslaught did so only by standing as anti-Obama Democrats. Joe Manchin, elected Democratic Senator for West Virginia, produced a campaign ad showing him shooting the President’s ‘Cap and Trade’ legislation. But whilst partisans in the US are spinning the results faster than an Ann Widdecombe polka, it remains to be seen what the impact will be for UK politics. However, the lessons that can be learned by the UK coalition government must not be ignored.

Firstly, however, we must put the result into context. Yes, it was a clear bloody nose for Barack Obama, as a galvanised Republican party led a vociferous, and successful grass-roots campaign against him. However, government split between president and Congress is extremely common in US politics. In the last twelve years, Republican and Democrat presidents have had both hostile and friendly Congresses to work with. Indeed, the US public seem to regard a partisan division between President and Congress as a strengthening of the separation of powers.

Although the success of the ‘Tea Party’ should not be downplayed, we should also not read too much in the resurgence of the right in the US, particularly given the relative nadir they reached in 2008. Global trends do not seem to suggest a rise of the right. The French regional elections this year saw a victory of the Parti Socialiste (the Socialist Party), and despite the victories of the right in Hungary and mixed messages in Italy, there does not seem to be an overarching global trend towards the right as there was in the 1980s. In Britain, the inability of the Conservatives to gain a clear majority is indicative of an absence of a rise of right-wing vote.

What must be understood is that many Democrats and swing voters who backed Obama in 2008 feel disillusioned with the President’s consensus-based approach. Despite the passage of health care reform, the President has not used his Congress majority to his full advantage, even before Scott Brown and the Republicans ended the filibuster-proof Democrat majority.

Obama, more than any world leader in recent history was given a personal mandate for boldness. In this he has failed, or at least is perceived to have failed. (In politics perception is nine tenths of the law). As Machiavelli wrote:

"it is better to be bold than too circumspect"

Obama is guilty of giving the people consensus, when they wanted audacity. He has managed, not led.

The lesson of last night for David Cameron and Nick Clegg is simple: play to your mandate. Cameron and Clegg have exactly the reverse mandate to Obama – in Britain, consensus reigns. The mandate of consensus is a difficult one, although it suggests that policy should be aimed at the middle ground, rather than the core voters. Obama has paid the price for ignoring his core supporters. It is the dilemma which faces every executive upon gaining power – whether to govern for your supporters, or for the country. Ultimately, this is the decision which must be made. Machiavelli again provides the words, “it is better to be feared than to be loved, if you cannot be both”. Obama is neither.

Time will tell for Cameron and Clegg, although the nature of the coalition suggests that they should strive to be ‘loved’. They will underestimate the mandate at their peril.

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