The Republican best represents his country’s ability to renew itself for each generation
Most commentators thought that President Obama won the final US presidential television debate last week. Attention particularly focused on the President’s put-down of his rival, Mitt Romney, when they debated defence. Mr Romney complained that the US Navy had fewer ships than at any time since 1917. Cue a scornful Obama intervention: America probably has “fewer horses and bayonets” too, he mocked – the world is changing and so is the technology of defence. “This is not a game of Battleship,” added Mr Obama, with curling lip.
Since I am a member of that widely disliked class, the “commentariat”, my immediate, instinctive reaction was that the president had scored a palpable hit. He had done what we columnists try to do in comparable situations: he had been funny, and made his opponent look stupid. We – and he – pride ourselves on being clever and so regard stupidity as the ultimate vice.
On second thoughts, though, I wonder if American voters feel quite the same way. Mr Obama may well have been making a reasonable point about modern warfare, but if I were serving in the US Navy, or related to someone working in any industry or service involving defence, security or risk to life, I would not have enjoyed that comparison with horses and bayonets. This was a piece of condescension, and it came not from a columnist but from the Commander-in-Chief.
One reason, over the past four years, that Mr Obama has lost his heroic status is that people now see beyond the simple, wonderful fact that a black man can be elected president. Martin Luther King famously had a dream about the time when his own children would be judged not “by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character”. In the case of President Obama, this time has come.
And it turns out that his character is not that of a man who has emerged from nowhere to challenge the powerful few on behalf of the wretched of the earth. It is that of a media-savvy professor of an Ivy League university – comfortable with irony, more than comfortable with the sound of his own voice, confident that he knows a great deal more than most of us. One of the striking features of the lives of such professors is their terms of employment. They have what is called “tenure”: no one can get them out.
Mr Obama went into the contest that ends on Tuesday believing that he, too, had tenure. The White House was his. The election, like those bogus selection processes for top public sector jobs when the winner has been pre-decided, was little more than a tiresome formality.
In the first debate, when Mr Romney attacked him and proposed himself as a man with interesting answers, Mr Obama looked shocked at the challenger’s effrontery. Ever since then, he has had to wake up and fight back. He has certainly performed much better. But he still speaks as if he thinks his main qualification for the job is that he has it already. In this time of immense economic difficulty, incumbency should have few rights. You have to listen very carefully to get any idea at all of what the president proposes to do with the four more years to which he feels so strongly entitled.
In Britain and, even more, in continental Europe, the people who bring their fellow citizens the news do not really see this. To them, Mr Obama’s combination of historically persecuted ethnicity and posh seminar tone is just perfect. It satisfies their mildly Left-wing consciences and fits in with their cultural assumptions. The chief of these is that the excesses of the West, especially of America, are the biggest problem in the world. Mr Obama comes as near to saying this as anyone trying to win American votes ever could. His “apology tour” to the Middle East early in his presidency remains, for the European elites, the best thing he has ever done. He is the anti-Americans’ American.
Mitt Romney is not. Although he is a moderate Republican, it is fascinating how profoundly he clashes culturally with Obama, and, a fortiori, with the European media and political classes.
Early on in this campaign, Mr Romney seemed rather boringly technocratic, as if politics were a branch of management consultancy. You still hear traces of this: in that final debate, Mr Romney, son of Detroit, kept talking up “managed bankruptcy” in the automobile industry. No doubt this makes sense in business language, but his words must have struck fear into large parts of his audience.
Yet whenever Mr Romney has made what the media call his “gaffes”, I have noticed that almost all of them contain kernels of truth. Whether he is talking about the 47 per cent (his figure) of Americans who are suppliants of the state or about the threat from Russia, he is raising real problems, very much the sort of questions that Mr Obama would rather not discuss.
His decisively interesting “gaffe” was the one in Israel at the end of July. He praised the Israelis for the “cultural elements” in their success, the qualities that had made the actual, economic and political desert bloom. “Culture makes all the difference,” he declared. Of course this brought a bucket of condemnation upon his head because it was taken as an implied criticism of Palestinian culture. But his point goes to the heart of the West’s current problem. Does it still, as it once did, contain within itself the capacity for renewal, adventure and enterprise? Is its prized freedom a principle of activity for each individual or merely the right to moan about everything and tell the government to put it right?
Mr Romney is a Mormon, and Mormons often get a bad press. They feature, some as criminals, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s very first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet. But Conan Doyle also says this in that story, about the great journey of immigrant Mormon believers seeking the promised land in Utah “with a constancy almost unparalleled in history”: “The savage man, and the savage beast, hunger, thirst, fatigue, and disease – every impediment which Nature could place in the way – had all been overcome with Anglo-Saxon tenacity.” This sense of a people defeating appalling obstacles, through their own efforts and the hand of providence, is as old as Moses. As Conan Doyle implies, it is central to the story of the English-speaking peoples. Even today, it is what makes America new in each generation. Barack Obama does not believe in it – he does not even like it. Mitt Romney does.
What the media see as a “gaffe” is often, in reality, a challenge to the dominant orthodoxy. In the late Seventies, Margaret Thatcher made the gaffe of questioning the motives of the Soviet Union when everyone else was mad about détente. She made the gaffe of questioning incomes policies when most people said they were the only way of stopping inflation. After a while, she piled up enough gaffes to make sure that she won the general election of 1979. In the United States in 1980, Ronald Reagan made those sorts of gaffes, too.
Then, as now, our entire economic system was in question. It was so serious that it put the West’s global predominance in question as well. The prize went to the candidate who raised the questions, and tried boldly to answer them, not to the one who tried to suppress them. I hope the same proves true in the United States next week.