America’s missing middle
The coming presidential election badly needs a shot of centrist pragmatism
IT IS a year until Americans go to the polls, on November 6th 2012, to decide whether Barack Obama deserves another term. In January the Republicans start voting in their primaries, with the favourite, Mitt Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, facing fading competition from Herman Cain, a pizza tycoon, and Rick Perry, the governor of Texas. Already American politics has succumbed to election paralysis, with neither party interested in bipartisan solutions.
This would be a problem at the best of times; and these times are very far from that. Strikingly, by about three to one, Americans feel their country is on the wrong track. America’s sovereign debt has been downgraded. Unemployment remains stubbornly above 9%, with the long-term unemployed making up the largest proportion of the jobless since records began in 1948. As the superpower’s clout seems to ebb towards Asia, the world’s most consistently inventive and optimistic country has lost its mojo.
Some of this distress was inevitable. Whatever the country’s leaders did in Washington, the credit crunch was always going to cause a lot of suffering. Rising inequality, unfunded pensions and bad schools are not new problems. But politics, far from offering a remedy, is now adding to the national angst. Eight out of ten Americans mistrust their government. There is a sense that their political system, like their economy, has been skewed to favour the few, not the many.
The European Union may seem the epitome of political dysfunction, but America has been running it close. All this year the deadlock between the Republicans in Congress and Mr Obama has meant that precious little serious legislation has been passed. The president’s jobs bill is stuck; the House of Representatives’ budget plans have been scuppered by the Democrat-controlled Senate. At the end of this year temporary tax cuts and other measures, worth around 2% of GDP, are set to expire—which could push America back into recession.
Surrender to extremists
On the face of it, neither side has gained from this stand-off. Only 45% of Americans approve of Mr Obama’s performance. The approval rating for Congress dropped to 9% in one recent poll. A plurality of Americans call themselves independents, and on the most divisive economic argument—how to solve the budget mess—two in three of them back a combination of spending cuts and tax rises. But politics is being driven by extremists who reject any such compromise (see article).
The right is mostly to blame. Ronald Reagan, a divorcee who did little for the pro-life lobby and raised taxes when he had to, would never be nominated today. Mr Romney, like all the Republican presidential candidates, recently pledged to reject tax rises, even as part of a deal where spending cuts would be ten times bigger. Mr Cain surged briefly to the front of the pack because of a plan that would cut personal taxes to 9% (see Lexington); Mr Perry lost support for wanting to educate the children of illegal immigrants. Meanwhile, in Congress, the few remaining pragmatic Republican centrists, like Senator Richard Lugar, are being hunted down by tea-party activists.