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Sunday 24 September 2012

Obama has Romney to thank for being his best hope of re-election

The Republican candidate's proclivity for gaffes is the despair of his supporters, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

For the Democrats these days, Republican presidential candidate Willard Mitt Romney is the gift that keeps on giving. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama's job approval was stuck stubbornly below the magic 50 per cent figure which pundits think is vital to winning an election. Now he's nearly there.

Some of the credit goes to Obama, who is one lucky politician. But much more should go to Romney, his propensity to make foolish throwaway remarks and his incapacity to recover from them gracefully.

Take the row about the attacks on US embassies in Egypt and Libya.

Now turmoil in the Middle East should play well for Romney. Many Americans were deeply offended when, in the early days of his presidency, in speeches and interviews, Obama seemed to give the impression that antipathy to the US in Islamic countries was largely America's fault. In messianic mode, he seemed to think he had the background, the empathy, the policies and the winning ways to win over all enemies.

This was ill-informed, naive and arrogant. Most Muslim countries are poor, corrupt and authoritarian, and they have political and religious leaders who spread viciously anti-Western, anti-Christian and anti-Jewish propaganda and blame the Great Satan for all their ills. When it suits Islamists to do so, they find an excuse to stoke up the hatred until it turns violent. Having failed to bring a new dawn, Obama accepted contentious anti-terrorist measures he had reviled before he was elected, and now has a rather incoherent policy which includes soft words and a policy of drone-assassinations that would have had liberals call for the impeachment of George W Bush. But in the eyes of Republicans, he is still too prone to appeasement and to dodging confrontation with hostile governments.

When on September 11, Egyptian and Libyan mobs began attacking US diplomatic missions over a stupid, anti-Islamic video, Romney issued a statement after a diplomat's death was reported, saying he was outraged "that the Obama administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathise with those who waged the attacks".

He was wrong in almost every particular, and Obama was swift to regret that "at a time when the United States of America is confronting the tragic death of one of our diplomatic officers in Libya, Governor Romney would choose to launch a political attack". Romney, he explained, "seems to have a tendency to shoot first and aim later".

So Romney and his team blew their advantage on foreign policy and his awkwardness was further exposed when in a leaked video of a May meeting with donors, he was heard making ham-fisted remarks about the hopelessness of even trying to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Electorally much more damaging were his dismissive remarks about the 47 per cent of the electorate who pay no federal tax and "who are with him [Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them". His job as a candidate, he explained "is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives".

Americans approve of self-reliance, they're worried about government debt and they don't want a European-style welfare state, but they also know that vast number of those taking state help have hit hard times and aspire to be independent again.

Romney's supporters know he's really a decent bloke who gives vast amounts of money to charity, but they despair not just about his gaffes, but about his inability to recover from them. He might have turned the row to his advantage if he had talked in a visionary way about his plans for rescuing people from dependence and the country from a future economic catastrophe, but Romney doesn't do the vision thing. He had expressed himself "inelegantly", he said, and pretty well ran for cover.

Meanwhile, the president is using his power ruthlessly by touring key states, unleashing new policies carefully tailored to each, such as drought relief for Iowa and a trade case against China in the interests of Ohio's auto-parts industry. Colleagues are saving themselves. Governor Susana Martinez of New Mexico, crucial to winning Hispanic votes, has pointedly said that those below the poverty line "count just as much as anybody else".

And most devastating of all, Tim Pawlenty, the Republican campaign co-chairman, has described Romney as "a truly good man and great leader" and retired to become the chief lobbyist for the financial sector.

It's not all over, but it's hard to see what disasters can strike Obama now that Romney can't inadvertently rescue him from.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards