IF I were betting on the US elections, I would put my money on Barack Obama to win in November. He can lose some of the states he won last time – few expect him to recapture Indiana or North Carolina, for instance – and still win easily. But the latest polls show him head to head with Mitt Romney. Another economic downturn; increased instability in the Middle East; an unexpected gaffe in the television debates – any of these factors might trip up Obama’s campaign.
So, too, would a low turnout. In a country where electoral rules are subject to local control, and where the Republicans use considerable ingenuity in finding ways to make voting difficult for those groups least likely to support them (non-whites, the poor and the young), fewer voters at the polling booths could be enough to change the results in key states.
Remember, too, that presidential elections are decided by the electoral college votes of each state, and in all but two cases these votes are awarded on a winner-gets-all basis. Certain large states are therefore decisive this year – above all, Florida and Ohio – as has been true for the past several decades. And the record of incumbents is not as strong as is widely believed. Both Jimmy Carter (1976) and George Bush (1992) failed to win re-election, and the economy was healthier in both years than they are now.
If it did happen, a Romney victory would have direct implications for Australia, particularly if it is accompanied by a Republican takeover of Congress (and it is difficult to see a scenario where Romney wins but the Republican position in Congress has weakened).
First, a Republican presidency in the United States would strengthen the right-wing impulses in Australia’s Liberal–National Coalition, in both cultural and economic terms. Republicans increasingly emphasise individual initiative over state responsibility; Romney has recently had to show his commitment to this party tenet by attacking Obama’s healthcare program even though it was partly modelled on programs Romney himself had established when governor of Massachusetts.
For his part, vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan has built a career on developing policies that require major cuts in both services and taxation. Ryan Republicans share an assumption that all taxation is bad, with no recognition that it is a device for providing what cannot be delivered by the market. Indeed some people are now defending the very low levels of Romney’s own taxation payments with the argument that he is a generous donor to various good causes, implying that charity is somehow equivalent to taxation.
Australia already allows charitable donations as tax deductions, but we have yet to hear arguments that seriously suggest the very rich should be taxed less if they give money to their favourite causes. And Mitt Romney’s vision is not that of Tony Abbott, who has much greater faith in the role of the state and some commitment to egalitarianism (not necessarily shared by everyone in his party). But if the Romney–Ryan ticket were successful it would most likely give new ammunition to what are currently fairly fringe views within the Coalition parties, namely that the federal government should embark on a major program of cutting back on government services and income-support payments.
Changes of this sort would necessarily be slow, as there is deeply entrenched support for these entitlements in Australia; but as we have seen in some states, government action of this kind is not impossible. With the ideological certainty that a conservative American administration might help provide, a Liberal government is likely to be more ruthless in pruning services and increasing inequality within Australia.
Already there are hints of this approach, for example in Joe Hockey’s attacks on what he calls an entitlement mentality and Tony Abbott’s claim that Australia cannot afford the Gonski reforms. On social issues, the Liberals are largely more liberal than their Republican counterparts; indeed, people like Hockey, Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop would seem radical within the current Republican Party. But there is a socially conservative strain within the Liberals, and more so within the Nationals, and a Romney presidency would give them renewed confidence.
Romney’s own once moderate views have largely disappeared as he has sought to conciliate the demands of the religious right, and his choice of Ryan brings to the campaign someone whose conservatism favours less government regulation other than in areas that the right regards as “moral.” It’s reasonable to ask why opposing abortion is a moral issue while combating poverty is not, but on issues like abortion, family planning, same-sex relationships, rights of asylum seekers, and crime and punishment a Romney presidency would provide oxygen to the most conservative elements in Australian politics.
A second area where a Romney presidency might affect Australia is in our approach to foreign affairs. We know little about Romney’s foreign policy views, but from the few comments he has made we might expect less interest in working cooperatively in the international arena, and a return to the Bush II posture of the United States as global policeman. Romney has been critical of Obama’s “weakness” in foreign policy, though rather unspecific as to alternatives. But we can assume that he would continue to maintain an American military presence in the Pacific and would be no more likely than Obama has been to accept China’s claim to greater influence. What he would lack is the initial goodwill that gave Obama an opportunity, not always used, to reset Washington’s relations with the rest of the world.
But a Romney presidency is also likely to re-energise debate in Australia about how far we should see the American alliance as the bedrock of our own foreign policy. At the time, the relationship between George W. Bush and John Howard seemed like the high point of Australia’s alignment with the United States, but Julia Gillard seems even more unquestioningly pro-American, and Labor is encouraging a permanent US troop presence that goes beyond its predecessor’s policies.
So far there has been little dissent from this position, but I suspect this is in part because of the enormous popularity of Barack Obama. A President Romney could be greeted with somewhat more scepticism, and those voices who question our over-dependence on the United States would probably grow. Indeed, were Labor in opposition I would anticipate some of the criticism would come from people like Bob Carr and Kevin Rudd, both of whom share Labor’s commitment to the United States but are capable of balancing it against the realities of a rapidly shifting global environment.
Romney might of course prove to be a realist, and ignore rhetoric about American greatness to seek a more balanced relationship with other powers – even those (such as China and Russia) whose domestic records he abhors.
For as long as I can remember people on the moderate left outside the United States have felt despair as increasingly conservative candidates have been nominated and elected: since the election of George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan seems like a middle-of-the-roader. The United States can probably survive a Romney presidency, but its impact would push the centre of gravity sharply to the right. Political discourse in Australia is likely to feel the effects. •
Dennis Altman is Professor of Politics at La Trobe University.