LSE Public Lecture: America and the World After the Election

I’m an alumnus of the LSE. I get invited to gatherings there quite frequently, but I’ve managed to miss going for years because I’ve usually been travelling for work or just working too far away to get to an event there on time.

I’m now working in central London, just around the corner from the campus, so I pounced on the opportunity to attend a public lecture and listen to some great speakers give their opinions on Obama’s win only a few days after the election.

(L-R) Justin Webb, Michael Cox, Anne Applebaum, Craig Calhoun, Gideon Rachman

The session was introduced by Justin Webb, formerly chief Washington correspondent with the BBC, and now co-presenter on the Today Programme. Justin introduced himself by saying, “I work for the BBC. We ask tough questions of our bosses…”, he said, which drew a laugh. “We used to ask others but not any more.”, which drew less of a laugh: perhaps a lot of people share the opinion that the whole Saville/ McAlpine affair has de-fanged the BBC a little.

The actual lecture part kicked off with each of the panel giving their opinions, variously on the causes of Obama’s win, the domestic effects and the foreign policy implications.

I made a cardinal error of not taking my notebook along with me, so ended up tapping my notes into my smartphone. At some stage, I decided to give up and just enjoy the ride, although this was mainly during the Q&A stage.

In any case, I caught a few of the salient points:

Author and Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Applebaum described herself as a “lapsed Republican” – presumably because she is clearly well-read and smart. She noted that not only did the Republicans talk about much else other than the economy (more on Super-PACs later), whilst the Democrats were able to wheel out the big, scary social issues and paint the Republicans as wanting to turn the clock back to the 1950s.

Applebaum also noted that Romney was the wrong man for the race, admitting also that the Republican Party didn’t have any decent challengers to choose from. One glaring reason he was the wrong man for the race was because in a time of bank bailouts, here was another plutocrat on the ticket. For this man, the middle class was the working rich, whilst most of the electorate identified as middle class, but were probably working class. A lot of the panel joked that no Americans consider themselves working class, just lower-, middle-, and upper middle class.

Justin Webb picked up on this sense of being out of touch and related that Romney still owes him money. In a queue for a sandwich at a convention, Romney had to ask Justin Webb to buy him a sandwich because he only had $100 notes in his wallet.

LSE Director Craig Calhoun dismissed the idea that hurricane Sandy had a decisive effect on the election outcome. Evidence for this is that polls had consistently predicted an Obama win for about a year. Moreover, as the campaign wore on, a lot of people were getting themselves in position for the 2016 election. Chris Christie being an example.

Calhoun observed that the Republican Party could have taken a lot of the decisive Latino vote with its social conservativism, but alienated these votes with its far right anti immigration nonsense. He remarked that the party needs to widen its appeal beyond old white men, and isn’t sure that it can do this without fracturing.

Michael Cox, founding director of LSE IDEAS, thought that Obama’s win was delivered through excellent local organisation, learned from the Republican party (but not deployed by them so well in this election). He observed that there was little difference between the candidates on foreign policy. It was as if foreign policy was making a “guest appearance” as not all that important, but, “Let’s talk about Israel and see who can bash China the best?”

Obama, he continued, has had a relatively easy four years. The next four will be particularly hard, with a “perfect storm” in the world economy looming as the tactic of Quantitative Easing starts to run out of steam. The relationship with China is getting tougher, and the Iran question has been postponed. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said, “but it’s the headlights of a train coming towards us”

The fourth member of the panel was Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator at the Financial Times. In the election, he surmised that the killing of Osama bin Laden had made the President fireproof. As he said this, I remember thinking that this didn’t stop the Republicans trying to make capital from the attack on the US mission in Benghazi. He also noted that the US is no more popular in the Middle East now than it was under Bush, despite the hopes of Obama being a great reconciler of the West and the Islamic world.

It was clear that the pivot towards Asia is key: Rachman foresees tensions rising between the US and China, especially given China’s rough and ready diplomacy with its neighbours as well as the fact that it has surpassed the USA as the biggest trading partner of many of America’s allies in the region. It was telling that neither Europe nor the Special Relationship were mentioned in the debates.

At this point, I realised that I was better off concentrating on the speakers and just enjoying the ride, so my notes petered out, but this segment mostly opened out to pre-vetted questions from the audience. Some of the insights included:

  • The panel agreed that the Republican party would be shooting itself in the foot if it continued to obstruct Obama in the house. John Boehner probably knows this, but will struggle to bring the party with him.
  • The Tea Party is not dead!
  • The 2012 election result signifies a decline in power of the religious right.
  • The future looks to be fiscally conservative and socially liberal. One panelist hoped the Republican party would go back to this approach, joking that Clinton was the best Republican president of recent times.
  • The Super PACs may well have had the effect of muddying the waters. Since they can’t officially synchronise with the candidate’s election messaging strategy, they might have been counter-productive in some cases. In other cases, the flood of messages over the airwaves may well have turned people off listening to messages blaring at them through their TV sets.
  • On the subject of who from the Republican party will run in 2016, the panel offered Marco Rubio, Condoleezza Rice, Susana Martinez and, surprisingly, Paul Ryan. Whilst Applebaum thought Ryan was well liked and might rehabilitate the Republican Party away from its crazy positions, Cox dismissed him by saying, “Paul Ryan should spend less time in the gym and more time in the library”.

All in all, a great session. If my rather weak summary of the event has you interested, you can listen to the full thing here: America and the World – After the Election.

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