Defeat can be habit-forming. Ask any Democrat. They lost three presidential elections in a row in the 1920s and 1980s, four in a row between 1896 and 1908, and a record six in a row between 1860 and 1880. Only in one period in modern American history have Republicans suffered such a string of defeats: between 1932 and 1948, when Franklin Roosevelt won four and Harry Truman made it five.
I know what it feels like. The British Tories were out of power for 13 years between 1997 and 2010. Last night was my second defeat since I moved to the United States in 2002 and became a Republican supporter. (Actually, it was my third, since I endorsed John Kerry in 2004 in a fit of frustration about the Bush administration’s mishandling of Iraq and the Republican Party’s fiscal irresponsibility.)
To break the losing habit, Republicans must resist the temptation to make excuses. We should dismiss the following thoughts from our minds: it was Hurricane Sandy’s fault; it was Chris Christie’s fault; the mainstream media gave Obama a pass on Benghazi; a Mormon can never be president; a private-equity guy can never be president; the Tea Party went too far; the Dems’ ground game was better in Ohio.
Forget all that. These are just ways of denying the deeper causes of Mitt Romney’s defeat. Until we face up to these, we will keep on losing. Indeed, I predict now that we will lose in 2016, even when faced with a less ruthlessly effective campaigner than President Obama.
First, the Democrats understand the new world of Internet-savvy, data-driven marketing better than the Republicans do. My own experience of being piranha-attacked by liberal bloggers taught me that. And this was just a minuscule bit of vilification compared with the character-assassination campaign against Romney during the summer.
Second, demographic trends doom any Republican campaign that appeals more to white males than to any other voter group. According to exit polls, Romney won 60 percent of the white vote, compared with Obama’s 38 percent. But Hispanics voted Democratic in even larger numbers than four years ago. The Hispanic share of the population is set to rise from 16 percent in 2010 to nearly 30 percent by 2050. Non-Hispanic whites, meanwhile—who made up two thirds of the population the last time Republicans won a presidential election—will be down below half by midcentury.
Third, running on the economy doesn’t work if people remember your own party’s role in screwing it up and think improvement is in sight. According to the latest IMF projections, U.S. growth will be higher over the next four years than that of any of the other major developed economies. Unemployment will come down faster. Driving recovery will be the bonanza of cheap energy represented by shale gas.
Finally, and most important, the Democrats have figured out what European Social Democrats long ago understood: the more entitlements you create, the more voters you can depend on. Let me put it very simply: given the choice between higher taxes on the 1 percent and cuts in entitlement for the 47 percent, voters went for the former. Surprise!
True, we now are in for an unpleasant bout of brinksmanship as the reelected president takes the still-Republican House to the edge of the fiscal cliff. But the Grover Norquist argument that the debt can be brought under control without any new taxes is no longer credible, if it ever was. Even staunch supporters of Paul Ryan like Devin Nunes acknowledge this.
Again, the historical trend is not the Republican Party’s friend: since 1960, welfare spending (mainly Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid) has risen inexorably from 2 percent of GDP to above 10 percent; the Congressional Budget Office sees it nearing 20 percent by 2059. With every passing year, the share of the population receiving some form of government transfer rises.
Of course, the rising cost of “benefits for the boys (and girls)” cannot be met solely by taxing the rich and cutting defense. At some point, the Democrats will be forced to admit that. And at some point, too, the geopolitical consequences of allowing the United States to proceed down this European road will become clear. Middle-class taxes will go up. And Iran will go nuclear. At which point, we Republicans will cry: “We told you so!”
But will that be an election-winning slogan? I doubt it.
The character of Selina Meyer—the fictional vice president in Armando Iannucci’s comedy series, Veep—reminds us that Americans usually don’t take the job of deputy commander in chief too seriously. Whereas presidents elicit respect even from their political opponents, veeps and would-be veeps have been providing gag writers with material for generations.
Current veep Joe Biden certainly sought to play last Thursday’s vice-presidential debate for laughs. Embarrassingly for Democrats, the laughs were mainly his own. Guffawing, chortling—all but slapping his thighs and wiping away the tears—Biden might equally well have been arguing about the relative merits of whiskey and poteen in a hostelry with a name like “The Shamrock.”
This was old-school Irish-American politics. If Biden had passed around a hat at the end to raise money for famished nuns in County Cork, it would not have seemed out place.
His opponent, by contrast, was more like the earnest young parish priest who has been sent to coax wicked Uncle Joe out of the pub and into the church. Father Paul did his best, but his appeals fell on deaf ears. I lost count of the number of times Biden interrupted his Republican rival. Paul Ryan’s patience was more than priestly; at times, it was almost saintly.
It was predictable that Biden would bring up Mitt Romney’s now notorious reference at a fundraiser to the “47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what, ... who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it ... [and] who pay no income tax.” Biden added a jab at Paul Ryan, accusing him of having said in a speech that “30 percent of the American people are takers.”
“These people are my mom and dad,” fulminated the vice president, “the people I grew up with, my neighbors ... They are elderly people who in fact are living off of Social Security. They are veterans and people fighting in Afghanistan right now ...”
Last year, in the heyday of Occupy Wall Street, it was all about the 1 percent and the 99 percent. But now Democrats want to make membership of the 47 percent a badge of honor.
This language of percentiles strikes me as transitional. Americans have never been comfortable with the language of class—hence the strange phenomenon that all candidates, including both Biden and Ryan, now claim to represent the middle class. But the voters have absorbed the idea of politics as a zero-sum game, in which resources are redistributed through the systems of taxation and welfare—hence all the percents.
Yet the reality is that the real distributional issue the country faces is not between percentiles but between generations. As Paul Ryan put it in a powerful peroration, which temporarily silenced the ranting to his right, “A debt crisis is coming. We can’t keep spending and borrowing like this. We can’t keep spending money we don’t have.”
You don’t need to take this from Paul Ryan. In its latest “World Economic Outlook,” the International Monetary Fund points out that the U.S. public debt now exceeds 100 percent of GDP. The last time debt was this high, the IMF shows, the results were an “unexpected burst of inflation” and policies of “financial repression.” But that combination doesn’t look likely today—which means the debt is going to be around for years to come. More importantly, in the absence of the kind of reforms of Medicare, Social Security, and the tax system that Paul Ryan has long advocated, it’s going to keep on growing.
Already a staggering $16 trillion, the debt represents nothing less than a vast claim by the generation currently retired or about to retire on their children and grandchildren.
Pressed for a clear answer on what he and President Obama intend to do about the debt crisis, Biden responded with what the Irish call blarney. “The president and I,” he declared, “are not going to rest until ... they [presumably the universal middle class to which everyone belongs] can turn to their kid and say with a degree of confidence, ‘Honey, it’s going to be OK.’”
What we saw last week was not just a contrast between Irish-American political styles. We saw the opening round in the clash of generations that will soon dominate American politics. If Laughing Uncle Joe—who turns 70 this year—has nothing better to offer than “It’s going to be OK,” then I suspect a surprisingly large number of younger voters will turn instead to young Father—and future veep—Paul Ryan.
It can be a mistake to laugh at fascists. Charlie Chaplin mocked Hitler and Mussolini in The Great Dictator. P.G. Wodehouse had fun with his preposterous parody of Oswald Mosley, Roderick Spode. But Nazism turned out to be no joke. Today Chaplin’s film, for all his comic genius, is embarrassing to watch, while Wodehouse lived to regret his complacency about what was brewing in Berlin.
So when a party called “Golden Dawn”—which has something that looks a lot like a swastika as its logo— starts denying aspects of the Holocaust and heaping opprobrium on immigrants, it’s best to keep a straight face. Sure, they’re Greeks, not Germans. Sure, their party leader, Nikolaos G. Michaloliakos, is about as -charismatic as a barrel of rotten olives. But if elections were held tomorrow, these guys could become the third-largest party in the Greek Parliament.
The Greeks are the extreme case. But maybe that’s only because economically they are the extreme case. This year the Greek economy is forecast to contract by 7 percent. Unemployment is at 23 percent and youth unemployment a mind-blowing 54 percent. Under these circumstances, it would be rather remarkable if people were patiently sticking to the mainstream parties of the center-left and center-right.
Populism is the standard political response to financial crisis. In America we have seen two different variants—the right-wing populism of the Tea Party and the left-wing populism of the Occupy movement. But European populism takes more toxic forms.
Nothing was easier to predict than this: that the crisis of the euro zone would spark a nationalist backlash. Golden Dawn is not just xenophobic; it’s also Europhobic. The same thing has happened in the Netherlands: there, Geert Wilders started out by attacking Muslim immigrants (and indeed Islam itself), but has more recently added Euro-bashing to his repertoire of his Freedom Party.
This strategy was pioneered in Finland by the “True Finns,” whose leader, Timo Soini, has succeeded in pushing his country’s government to take an increasingly tough line on bailouts for (you’ve guessed it) the Greeks. Populism in the North fuels—and feeds on—populism in the South.
As I said, there is much about this neo- or crypto--fascist wave that is hard to take seriously. Can 13 percent of Italians really want to substitute the unkempt comedian Beppe Grillo, leader of the anti-European Five Star Movement, for Mario Monti, the prime minister who has pulled their country back from the brink of moral as well as financial bankruptcy? Do the supporters of the Lega Nord (Northern League) really intend to dismantle Italy and create a new rump state of Padania—not so much a banana republic as a Bolognese republic? Is talk of Catalan independence just a Barcelona bluff?
Nearly one in five French voters backed Marine Le Pen’s French National Front in last spring’s election. Le Pen has described the European Union as “a structure that I consider totalitarian, it is the European Soviet Union ... a rootless ... impotent empire.” She also denounced last year’s fiscal compact, designed to slash European budget deficits, as “anti-democratic,” “anti-economic,” and adopted “by order of Germany.”
Credit where it’s due: a few wise men warned the Europeans that creating a monetary union without any kind of fiscal integration would lead not just to economic crisis but also to conflict. They were right. Last month, at a conference on the shores of Lake Como, I heard Prime Minister Monti declare: “I do not fear controversies between governments, but I do fear difference and hate between peoples.” That hate is growing.
Yet there is one crumb of comfort. Fascism is for young men. All that marching around, beating up opponents, and giving Roman salutes gets steadily harder once you pass the age of 30. And the good news is that Europe really has passed the age of 30. To be precise, nearly a quarter—23 percent—of the population of Greece are 65 or older. For the Italians it’s even higher: 25 percent. Any Spaniard over 50 remembers what fascism was really like.
Perhaps for this reason, the new right tends to do rather poorly when people actually vote, rather than just opine to pollsters. The Dutch Freedom Party lost around a third of its seats in last month’s elections. Earlier in the year, Timo Soini tried and failed to become the Finnish president. Marine Le Pen couldn’t even win a seat for herself in the French National Assembly.
Blackshirts were bad and brownshirts were worse. But who’s honestly afraid of grayshirts?
Fascism still isn’t funny. But the more it ages, the less it scares me.
Four years ago John McCain was campaigning on his foreign-policy experience when along came a financial crisis that killed his chances. This time around Mitt Romney has been campaigning on his economic experience. Now along comes a foreign-policy crisis. Will it kill his chances, too? Or can the Republicans finally land a punch on President Obama?
They really should be able to. Because what is unfolding in the Middle East has the makings of the most perfect storm in American foreign policy since 1979. You may recall what happened then. Another Islamist revolution. Another attack on a U.S. Embassy. Another Democrat in the White House.
This is what Jimmy Carter said in a speech on Feb. 7, 1980, as the Iranian hostage crisis entered its third month: “I have been struck ... by the human and moral values which Americans as a people share with Islam. We share, first and foremost, a deep faith in the one Supreme Being. We are all commanded by him to faith, compassion, and justice. We have a common respect and reverence for law ... On the basis of both values and interests, the natural relationship between Islam and the United States is one of friendship ... We have the deepest respect and reverence for Islam.”
Remind you of anything? Try this: “I’ve come here ... to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect, and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles—principles of justice and progress, tolerance, and the dignity of all human beings ... Let there be no doubt: Islam is a part of America.”
That was from a speech given by President Obama in Cairo on June 4, 2009. Funny how small a difference 30 years make. Same old pious hopes for respect, reverence for law, and tolerance. And, in return, the same disrespect, illegality, and intolerance. The embassy in Tehran then, the consulate in Benghazi now.
Here’s what happens to American presidents who look to be loved in the Middle East. In 2008, the year Obama won the presidency with his pledge to end George W. Bush’s wars, 75 percent of Egyptians had an unfavorable opinion of the United States. Today it’s 79 percent. Four years ago, that was the percentage of Jordanians with a negative view of the U.S. Now it’s 86 percent.
“It is much safer to be feared than loved,” Machiavelli teaches us. Today America is neither. Consider the wider ramifications of the Middle Eastern crisis. Revolutions have succeeded, with halfhearted American support, in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. Among the beneficiaries have been staunch anti-American organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood. The United States continues to give Egypt more than $1 billion a year in aid, roughly the price of the two attack submarines the Egyptians are buying from Germany. The country was once America’s ally. Last week the president conceded it is now neither our enemy nor our friend.
America’s most dependable ally in the region is Israel. Repeatedly this year Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pleaded with Obama to draw a “red line” on Iran’s nuclear program rather than give a “red light” to preventive military action. Last week the White House declined even to meet with Netanyahu when he visits the United States later this month. Even Haaretz (no fan of Bibi) regards this as a mistake.
Maybe you think George Bush’s invasion of Iraq was a worse mistake, though it gave that country democracy, showed Arabs that dictators can be toppled, and turned an enemy into a potential ally. But consider the consequences of this president’s decision to pull out of Iraq. Two months ago, at least 100 Iraqis perished in a wave of bombings and shootings by al Qaeda in Iraq, which aims to overthrow the Shia-led government of Nuri al-Maliki. Last week the country’s Sunni vice president was sentenced to death. Meanwhile, Kurdistan is acting like an independent state (or, rather, a satellite of Turkey). Iraq is falling apart.
As for Syria, while Obama fiddles, its cities burn in a civil war that could soon eclipse Lebanon’s in the 1980s.
The president who was once a foreign-policy neophyte now makes much of his experience. That claim depends heavily on a program of targeted assassination that liberals would have denounced if it had been pursued by his predecessor.
If Mitt Romney wants to be Barack Obama’s successor, he urgently needs to launch a metaphorical drone strike of his own—against a Mideast policy that is flaming out.
Like The Daily Beast on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for updates all day long.
Niall Ferguson is a professor of history at Harvard University. He is also a senior research fellow at Jesus College, Oxford University, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His Latest book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, has just been published by Penguin Press.