Monday, 29 October 2012

Is the world ready for a Romney victory?

David Cameron has spent his time in office assiduously sucking up to Barack Obama, not just because (as Christopher Meyer once implied) it's the job of any British prime minister to crawl as far up the US president's backside as possible and stay there, but because Obama remains international, if not domestically, an enormous attractive figure.  To be best buddies with Barry O was an ambition shared by many other Western leaders.  Association with Obama conferred kudos, credibility and cool.  Cameron could certainly not be damaged by it, as Tony Blair was damaged by his closeness to Dubya.



As for Mitt Romney, his international reputation until very recently has been as a candidate in equal measure rich and unappealing.  Someone who gained the nomination through vast expenditure of money, and because all the other candidates were, to a lesser or usually greater extent, crackpots.  (Certainly, from a European perspective they looked like crackpots; and if you're a European politician that's what matters.)  Politically, Romney is someone who you wouldn't want to be associated with unless, of course, he was likely to win.  Which for most of the campaign he wasn't.  For all the superficial exoticism of his Mormon heritage, Romney is in British terms instantly recognisable as a toff, born to privilege, a Mormon aristocrat whose wife owns dressage horses.  Even Samantha Cameron wouldn't dare bait the plebs by owning dressage horses.

Henry G Manson notes that Tory contacts with leading Republicans were already limited in the Bush era, despite the theoretical sisterhood of the two parties and any warm, lingering memories of the Thatcher-Reagan love-in.  In March, Cameron annoyed the Republican high command by not deigning to meet the leading candidates, even Romney, when he visited Washington.  And when Romney visited London on the eve of the Olympics he was the received with icy politeness by Cameron while Boris Johnson performed a comedy routine at his expense.



This suggests that a victory for Mitt Romney in next week's US election might be bad news for David Cameron, just as Clinton's victory was bad news for John Major who had, as Clinton himself pointed out publicly (ouch) been "openly supportive of my opponent."  Except that it's more or less the same story in the rest of the world (if one excludes Israel): something approaching open partisanship for the incumbent combined with a sense of inevitability about the outcome.  François Hollande, asked which of the two candidates he was backing, joked that, since support from a French socialist would be the kiss of death, he ought to back Romney.  As for the ever-cautious Angela Merkel, she arranged to be in holiday at the time of Romney's planned visit to Europe in July.

The polls suggest that the election is anybody's.  The consensus right now is that Obama will probably scrape home.  But no-one in America will be astonished if he loses.  It's the conventional wisdom that his presidency has been a disappointment, failing to live up to the soaring rhetoric of the 2008 campaign.  The economy remains stagnant, at least by historic American standards.  The Obama years have been marked by a curious insipidity, punctuated by a few half-decent speeches.  He isn't a particularly bad president, but he was required to be an outstanding one and fell short.  The White House would open its doors to a genuinely inspiring  challenger, a Reagan or a Clinton.  Obama's good fortune is that he faces Mitt Romney. Who would, if elected, probably turn out to be a perfectly reasonable, if unexciting, president.  At least he would disappoint no-one's exaggerated hopes.

But if the United States would take a Romney victory in its stride, the rest of the world will be shaken.  Obama's reputation may be a bit tarnished, but he's still seen as representing the best of America: the outward-looking, richly-layered, optimistic, democratic America.  That's why international politicians still want to be his friend, and don't want to be Romney's.  A Romney victory would look like the United States turning inward, and turning its back on the historic promise of 2008.  It would look like a reversion to the Bush years, and the restoration to power of a rich, white dynast promising to repeal allegedly European-style health reforms.  But more than disappointment, there will be amazement.  In much of the world the tightness of the presidential race has simply failed to register.

If Romney wins, there will be consternation behind the scenes in Downing Street.  But there will be equal consternation behind the scenes in Paris and Berlin. Most of the Western world, at both a political and a popular level, has invested heavily in the lazy assumption of an Obama victory.  That doesn't mean, of course, that the congratulations offered President-Elect Romney will be anything other than ingratiating and effusive, or that European leaders won't indulge in the traditional race to be the first on a plane to see him.