9 th November: US Elections

1 pm – 4 pm, E1-09, Humanities Room
Attendance: Cheong Tien Yang Clarence, Jonathan Tan, Lee Si Yuan, Lim Yi Herh Ansel [1], Ng Ri Chi, Soon Hao Jing [1, 2], Stanley Quek Tee Kai, Uriel Tan
[1]Denotes recorders [2] Denotes moderator

DESCRIPTION OF ACTIVITIES
Several videos concerning the US elections were viewed, including a CNN summary of the Republican primaries and the subsequent Romney-Obama debates, Obama’s victory speech, Romney’s concession speech, and a viral video entitled ‘Will the Real Mitt Romney Please Stand Up’. An essay from BBC correspondent Andrew Marr about Obama, as well as another by Jonathan Schell featured on Project Syndicate titled ‘The New Obama’ were also reviewed. The discussion covered several main questions, including (1) what the election was fought over, (2) who the candidates were and what they promised, (3) the style and characteristics of US democracy and whether elements of it are suitable to implement in Singapore, as well as (4) the probable impacts of Obama’s victory on Singapore and Asia.

SUMMARY

Focal issues

Although various issues including abortion laws, extension of marriage rights to homosexual couples and foreign affairs, such as the Afghan war, the ‘pivot to Asia’ and the diplomatic standoff with Iran over its nuclear programme had airtime during the US presidential election campaigns, the focal issues of the elections were ultimately about the American economy. How Romney and Obama turned to the economy and education in the midst of the foreign policy debate (third debate between the two candidates) highlights the overwhelming attention paid to US economic problems.

Romney and Obama both paid plenty of attention to voters’ concerns and highlighted their immediate priorities regarding the American economy: reforming the tax code to eliminate loopholes favouring high-income earners, creating more jobs for Americans in especially the blue-collar industries, and balancing the fiscal budget. On this last point, the candidates were split according to their party stances.

Whereas Romney toed the Republican Party line by stating he would (1) cut taxes on the rich to stimulate internal investment which would create more tax revenue, (2) eliminate tax loopholes, and (3) repeal Obamacare, thus eliminating its costs, Obama insisted that the top income earners (approximately those making more than $200,000 yearly) should be taxed more while federal healthcare spending should not be cut. Both agreed that tax loopholes should be eliminated, but did not give concrete examples or action plans during their campaigns.

Since Romney clinched the Republican Party (GOP) nomination and proceeded on his national tours on his campaign, he was widely criticized for his vacillation and ambiguity on many fronts. He did not give specifics when promising certain policies such as fixing tax loopholes and immigration policies, and his speeches made in the race against Obama seemed to make Romney a political moderate, whereas his earlier speeches made during the Republican primaries saw him labeling himself as ‘severely conservative’. This may have been a factor that deprived him of the necessary margin to win. However, Romney may have been doomed to this course, as he would have needed to appeal to conservative Republican voters during the Republican primaries, and subsequently change tack to woo undecided, politically-moderate voters in his national campaign.

Although Romney attempted to redefine the terms of the national elections, saying ‘It’s still about the economy’ – no doubt hoping to disparage Obama’s performance as well as capitalize on his own successful career as businessman, governor and Salt Lake City Olympic Games manager – 50% of voters handed the decisive victory to Obama. No doubt, the reduction of the unemployment rate to an average of less than 8% countrywide and the slow but steady economic growth in 2012 were important factors in persuading voters that Obama had managed to improve an ‘extraordinary’ economic catastrophe and deserved four more years to complete his work.

Electoral demographics, and what the voting results may mean

It was noted that while Romney’s voters tended to be older, male, politically conservative, Caucasian, religious or rural voters, Obama drew support from a diverse selection of Americans, including ethnic minorities (especially African-Americans and Hispanics, both native and those of immigrant stock), liberals, the LGBT community, urban residents, women, and youth. With urbanization and immigration, as well as shrinkages in rural populations and the eventual replacement of elderly generations with younger generations, the constituency of the Republican Party is set to decrease in size and influence compared to the Democrats’ voter base. The Hispanic vote was mainly cast in Obama’s favour, somewhat out-of-character for Hispanics, who are predominantly Catholic and likely to be conservative, making them Republican voters, as they already are in Puerto Rico. However, the issue of illegal immigration from Mexico, and the Republicans’ hard stance calling for ‘self-deportation’ (Romney’s words) alienated this important demographic, set to be America’s largest  by the turn of 2050.

Many have perceived and commented on the US’s political dichotomy and deep divisions in society when it comes to politics. The Democratic and Republican Parties represent nearly mutually exclusive policies, and Obama’s victory can be read as a vote in favour of Obamacare – a tacit support of ‘big government’ policies to support less well-off Americans – as well as a more liberal immigration policy, and a consensus-based collaborative approach in international affairs.

Simultaneously held with the presidential election, the US gubernatorial and congressional elections as well as referenda also showed that voters’ support shifted away from the Republicans towards the Democrats, with Republicans losing Senate and House of Representative seats to their opponents. [However, electoral demographics ensured that the House did not ‘change hands’ as Republican-held districts mostly returned their existing Congressmen to office.] Referenda legalizing gay marriage were passed in Maryland and Maine, and marijuana use laws were relaxed in Washington and Colorado, a success for liberals.

Revisiting Obama’s key achievements

Looking back at Obama’s key achievements, he preserved the US economy by providing bailouts to automobile companies and major Wall Street investment banks in 2009. His next major legislation was a modification of Romney’s Massachusetts healthcare act, which would compel Americans to subscribe to health insurance and thus improve affordability of healthcare. Although this was a well-meaning response to America’s exorbitant healthcare, many politicians and state leaders saw this as imposing a tax on citizens, compelling them to buy insurance or be fined, as well as an unwarranted expansion of federal spending and Washington’s influence (‘big government’). The ensuing battles over Obamacare led to the 2010 landslide Congressional victory for Republicans, who seized the House from the Democrats with a sizeable majority. This led to federal gridlock, where Obama’s opponents brought the Obamacare issue to the Supreme Court, and Republicans in the House refused to cooperate with Democrats over budget issues until the ‘eleventh hour’ on multiple occasions, nearly activating default spending cuts and tax raises which would have crippled the federal government.

In other fields, Obama met with more success. He ended the Iraq war and ordered an Afghan ‘surge’; with the Taliban much weakened, US forces are preparing to exit in 2014. He abolished ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ in the US military and saw the demise of Osama bin Laden. In diplomacy, the US managed to create an international coalition in support of Libyan rebels without necessitating the entry of foreign or US troops. He began the long-delayed American ‘pivot to Asia’ in response to China’s disquieting rise. Domestically, he supported clean energy companies in response to climate change, and freed up ‘fracking’ and exploration of fossil fuels in the US in response to a need to free the US from foreign oil.

Obama’s victory speech – a reading

As one of his first ‘moves’, Obama made it a point to embrace his wife and two daughters onstage and affirm his love and praise for them as women, demonstrating his strong family values and respect for women and gender equality.

His succinct use of anecdotes amply showed his concern for major groups in society, by referencing children, veterans, the LGBT community and blue-collar workers. Using his life-like descriptions, he subtly slipped in messages about his commitment to creating jobs (no veterans should have to ‘fight for a job’ after having fought for the country, for instance), expanding healthcare coverage (the anecdote referencing a girl from ‘Mentor, Ohio’ who suffered from leukaemia) and ensuring good education for children (whether for the ‘boy on the South Side of Chicago’ –an African American boy in an urban setting-or the boy in ‘rural North Carolina’ – a Caucasian boy in a rural home – who hopes to be a doctor or engineer in future).

He confirmed his ability and willingness to work with Congress on facing the ‘fiscal cliff’ and reaffirmed that he knew no other options were viable. His attempt to rouse ‘hope’ in his audience bore a semblance to his euphoric 2008 campaign, and his references to a slowly recovering economy and his admission of the challenges facing the country made it clear that he understood voters had not returned him to another 4 years of office because of his stellar performance, but because they trusted him and were willing to give him more time to fix the economy’s and country’s woes.

The Republican Party’s possible reactions after the elections

It is still uncertain whether Republicans will agree on major policy and principle shifts, especially pertaining to economic and fiscal legislation, in the wake of the election results, in which Democrats and liberal policies achieved significant advancement. The 48% of votes that Romney received was possibly interpreted by Republican Congressmen, especially Speaker John Boehner and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, as a sign that ‘half the country’ did not approve of Obama’s policies. Their recent declarations about the ‘fiscal cliff’ also made it clear that they will not easily cave in to Democrats’ demands.

There is a possibility that the Republican Party will continue to utilize and support its unpopular, unproductive political strategies and ideologies, which would steadily drive them ‘right-wards and cost them more votes. They might even eventually develop serious dysfunction due to their increasingly partisan, ideological and factional politicking, with the Tea Party being the most notorious Republican Party grouping. In the long run, urbanization, ageing, and the rise of ethnic minority populations will all reduce the GOP’s voter base over the next few decades, which might reduce this onetime national party to extinction. Should this happen, America’s erstwhile fringe parties such as the Green Party might gain more prominence as opposition parties to the national Democratic Party.

America’s pivot to Asia

Members agreed that Obama’s previous record of collaborative, peace-seeking strategies will set Asia at ease compared to what might have been Romney’s strategy of aggression.

Though confident that America will ‘pivot to Asia’ in earnest, paying Asian concerns more attention, it remains to be seen who will direct this effort after Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leaves office. As China’s next generation of leaders are very much unknown to foreign analysts, China’s future leadership and subsequent diplomatic strategies and foreign affairs outlook will be important unknowns deciding the outcome of issues like the East and South China sea disputes as well as ASEAN states’ role in the China-US relationship. A reading of President Hu Jintao’s speech at the 18th Party Congress on 8 Nov failed to distinguish future foreign policy direction, as the speech, whose vocabulary greatly resembled Jiang Zemin’s speech at the 16thParty Congress in 2002, was mainly delivered to an audience concerned about internal problems –corruption, sustainable development, stimulation of domestic demand, and development of ‘socialist consultative democracy’.

In sum, the US election results will have little impact, in terms of change, on Singapore’s foreign affairs.

US democracy – could Singapore learn from it?

US democracy and politics is conducted in a way markedly different from ours, and should two-party dynamics emerge in our Parliament, the likeliest outcome would be gridlock and a downward spiral in standards of governance – politicians and their parties would have little incentive to move on to better policies if they were guaranteed re-election upon the demise of the opposing party. Such a two-party system does not promote constructivism or improvement in standards through competition.

US campaigners have also been noted for their heated speeches and verbal clashes; however, there is still a marked civility and respect which political candidates bear for their opponents. In Singapore however, fringe elements online might express greater vehemence at their political opponents when lambasting government policies in their writings.

ANSEL LIM
SOON HAO JING

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