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Category: Guest Post

Election 2012: it’s still the economy, stupid

Guest blog by Hassan Arif

The current economic situation has made the economy a dominant concern in political discourse in western countries. The United States is no exception, with the economy being a dominant theme of the 2012 presidential election, and a key concern on the minds of voters.

Reality bites:

While the 2008 election was dominated by Obamamania, the 2012 Democratic presidential campaign feels more conventional, focused on the issues of jobs and economic management, with sharp attacks on Mitt Romney and the Republican ticket. The realities of governing have dampened Obamamania. These are realities made especially harsh by the American legislative system where there are divided branches of government and decentralized party discipline.

Nonetheless, one can still say there is that sense of hope and idealism, even if elevated expectations from 2008 have been tempered and brought down to earth, in terms of a president who has prioritized jobs, and prioritized helping Americans through a difficult recession.

The Obama administration oversaw the saving of the automobile industry – preserving jobs in a major sector of the American economy – passed a stimulus bill that has saved and created jobs, and passed a health care bill that extends and improves coverage for Americans.

Economic times are difficult, but the Obama administration played an important role in alleviating the worse of it, and in putting the country on the path to recovery, even if this recovery is a long and slow one, and even if initiatives such as President Obama’s jobs bill have been obstructed in Congress.

GOP still veering hard right.

Meanwhile, Republicans are driven by an increasingly harsh neo-conservative ideology pushed forward by the Tea Party movement. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has campaigned to repeal “Obamacare” – even though he implemented a similar program as Massachusetts governor – with lower and middle income Republican voters seemingly oblivious to the fact that this would represent a blow to them.

Mitt Romney at the time of President Obama’s “bailout” of the automobile industry penned a column entitled Let Detroit Go Bankrupt. This was no doubt meant to be a nod to laissez-faire neo-conservative ideology where there is an aversion to government intervention in the economy, even if it is to save jobs and save a major American industry.

Furthermore, the Congressional budget promoted by Mr. Romney’s vice presidential pick Paul Ryan entails a slashing of programs for the poor and the middle-class all the while giving tax breaks to the wealthy. Where youth and the middle-class are under siege and the poor increasingly left behind, policies promoted by Mr. Romney and Rep. Ryan would make lives worse for these people.

Economic policy: Pragmatism vs Ideology

The fundamental choice is not merely left or right, but of pragmatic and common sense policies by the Democrats based on the facts and realities of the American economy, versus a Republican economic policy bounded by ideological blinders. The Republicans are a party where scientific realities like climate change are denied, where the benefits of moving to the green economy are ignored, and where the benefits of government intervention are neglected.

There needs to be recognition of the important roles of the different components of the economy – the important role played by the federal government and federal economic intervention, as well as the importance of state and municipal initiatives along with the role of entrepreneurial innovation. Where conservative Republicans want to deny the benefit of virtually any (non-military) government intervention Democrats under President Obama recognize the importance of all of these components.

In a state like Vermont, the promotion and protection of local small businesses ensures that more money stays in the state, that there are greater avenues of upward mobility as more people can aspire to own their own businesses. There is an emphasis on sustainable urban planning, for example, in the city of Burlington – exemplified by the downtown Church Street which is open only to pedestrian activities – after a couple of successful experiments closing off the street to traffic in the early 1970s – and is located adjacent to a mall which emphasizes pedestrian level activity rather than being solely car-oriented, and which blends into the downtown streetscape.

This has contributed to a vibrant downtown – with street performers and local businesses that promote local culture – and a downtown that is busy and vibrant to the point of making Burlington seem like a much bigger city than its 200,000 metropolitan population. This is a draw for tourists, young professionals and innovative entrepreneurs.

Vermont is one of the most strongly Democratic voting states in the United States, and Burlington is a hotbed of progressive politics – Vermont’s socialist senator Bernie Sanders earlier in his political career was mayor of Burlington. Local initiatives and entrepreneurship, however, are hardly stifled.

Elections matter.

Contrary to Republican claims, progressive Democratic policies do not entail a takeover by the federal government, and they do not stifle state and local governments or entrepreneurship, but rather allow them to flourish. Conservatives cannot claim the mantle of sound economic and fiscal management as they have abdicated this in favour of a blinding neo-conservative ideology. Hopefully, pragmatic policies rather than ideology will win the day.

Ryan will make or break Romney’s chances

Guest post: Hassan Arif

One can say that Mitt Romney’s pick of Wisconsin member of Congress Paul Ryan as the vice presidential candidate gave the Republican ticket authenticity. Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives, have accused Mitt Romney of being phoney, of having no core convictions and of taking positions simply based on political expediency and opinion polls.

Mitt Romney was a moderate – even progressive – politician in his earlier incarnation in Massachusetts politics: first as a candidate for Senate in the 1990s, and then as Governor. However, in 2008 – during his first run for the presidency – he ran to the right of John McCain in an attempt to appeal to conservative Republicans. Mr. Romney has also run to the right in 2012, though he has placed more emphasis on economic management. Mr. Romney has also re-written history describing himself as a “severely conservative” Governor of Massachusetts.

Mr. Romney has shamelessly reneged on earlier positions as well. For example, on health care, Mr. Romney has been calling for the repeal of Barack Obama’s health care reforms (“Obamacare”) even though these reforms are based on the health care model implemented in Massachusetts when Mr. Romney himself was Governor. During his presidential run, Mr. Romney has had to run away from his own record as Massachusetts Governor, almost in essence running against himself.

This seeming lack of authenticity has led to muted enthusiasm for Mr. Romney among the conservative Republican base. During the Republican nomination, candidates from Rick Perry to Newt Gingrich to Rick Santorum to Herman Cain frequently took turns as front-runner in opinion polls as Republicans sought an “authentic” conservative.

In the end, one can argue that Mr. Romney secured the nomination because of a weak field of candidates, and because of the millions he spent on negative advertising.

Paul Ryan, by contrast, is seen as a true believer in conservative ideology. He is a self-professed fan of conservative thinker Ayn Rand, making her work required reading for his staff. Mr. Ryan spearheaded a proposed Congressional budget which radically guts a range of social programs. Under Mr. Ryan’s plan, America’s system of public health care for seniors – medicare – is reduced to a voucher system with vouchers that are not even designed to keep up with inflation rates in the medical sector.

Other programs gutted under Mr. Ryan’s budget include Medicaid, slashed funding grants for post-secondary students, an erosion of environmental and banking regulations and the erosion and elimination various other programs for the poor and middle-class, all under the guise of deficit reduction.

Meanwhile, the Ryan budget doles out huge tax cuts for the wealthy while tax breaks on items such as mortgages which help the middle class would be eliminated.

With recession, a middle-class under siege and youth facing mounting student debts and a difficult job market, the Ryan budget would make life worse for many. Rather than offering relief from the recession, it would make the suffering from it even worse. In Britain, the austerity budgets of David Cameron’s government have plunged that country into a double-dip recession.

The Ryan budget would spell economic ruin for the majority of Americans – including even the rich who may find less market for their goods with an eviscerated middle-class.

All this contributes to an excellent rallying cry for Obama Democrats in 2012. They can rightly present themselves as the party which prioritizes jobs, which presented a stimulus package aimed at putting Americans back to work and which saved the automobile industry. This would be a favourable contrast to the Ryan budget which shamelessly slashes programs for the poor and middle-class while throwing out huge tax breaks to the rich.

However, the Mitt Romney campaign is likely to have taken this all into account before the Ryan pick. The budget document is popular with many small government conservatives. The Ryan pick potentially increases enthusiasm among the conservative Republican base for the presidential ticket, something that is important in signing up volunteers and spurring voter turnout.

The Romney campaign likely sees their route to victory as coming through a close election, like those in 2000 and 2004, which broke down along ideological “blue” and “red” state lines with deeply entrenched divisions and turnout among the base being key.

The choice of Paul Ryan as vice president is a bold and risky one as compared to safer choices such as former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty who is seen as dull and unexciting. The Ryan pick both serves as a rallying cry to the Republican base, as well as a clear means for Democrats to go after the Republican ticket.

In terms of social policy, Mr. Ryan is a disaster with a budget that attacks the poor and middle-class. In terms of electoral politics, it is hard to tell how the Ryan pick will play out as it brings both distinct advantages and distinct disadvantages for the Romney campaign. Regardless, it was a clearly calculated move on the part of the Republican presidential campaign, not a decision taken lightly.

A brief history of health care

Guest Post: Hassan Arif

In addition to being a dear friend of mine, Hassan Arif is a columnist for the Telegraph-Journal in New Brunswick. He is also a Phd candidate at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, Canada.

The opening ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics was both spectacular and at times unusual. In all the ceremony, what was especially notable was a tribute to the National Health Service (NHS), Britain’s system of public and universal health care.

The NHS was established in 1948, a proud achievement of the government of Clement Attlee who led the first majority government of Britain’s Labour Party. The NHS was a major step forward in its time, even Sweden would not have a public and universal health care system until more than a decade later. The NHS would serve as an inspiration for other countries, including for our medicare system here in Canada.

The post-war Labour government of Clement Attlee was crucial in setting up the modern British welfare state – a welfare state which, including the National Health Service, largely followed the blue-print of Lord William Beveridge, a Liberal, from his 1942 Beveridge Report. Prime Minister Attlee was more low-key than his bombastic predecessor as Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, but his accomplishments were no less remarkable for it.

Given this history, it was surprising how in the 1990s Tony Blair and “New” Labour sought, in many ways, to distance the party from its past. Of course, the 1980s and 1990s brought new realities that forced a re-think of progressive politics – a global economy with greater capital mobility, the rise of the high-tech sector, the decline in Britain of the manufacturing working-class and the rise of a professional middle-class.

These new realities called for the adoption of a new progressive politics for the late 20th/early 21st century.

Enter Tony Blair and “New” Labour. After Labour’s fourth consecutive electoral defeat in 1992, there was a feeling among some that “modernization” had not gone far enough. However, in the process, accelerated upon Tony Blair’s ascension to the Labour Party leadership in 1994, seemed to go too far, running away from the party’s history, trying to hide any semblance of being a progressive party and being afraid to (assertively) contrast themselves with Thatcherite Conservatives. Tony Blair emphasized pledges to not increase taxes, to focus on deficit reduction and courted the conservative press. Labour faced accusations of focusing more on image and spin than on substance. The Blair government included some very progressive initiatives – a comprehensive poverty-reduction program and a strong focus on environmental sustainability. However, these progressive initiatives were often downplayed.

It was ultimately foreign policy that would overshadow much of the record of Tony Blair’s government, which solidified an image of him as betraying Labour’s progressive values; in particular, lining up with George W. Bush on the Iraq War. Cynicism increased and party membership plummeted. Labour managed to win re-election in 2005, but bled support to the Liberal Democrats and smaller parties such as the Greens. Idealism seemed lost.

The aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse has opened up greater space for progressive politics, as the abuses of the financial sector became too evident and demands for government intervention to help the unemployed increased. The emphasis of the Cameron government on austerity instead of job-creation has plunged Britain into a double-dip recession, increasing calls for a strong progressive alternative.

This is a call being heard in the post-Blair Labour Party with former leadership contender David Miliband taking up the cause of youth unemployment, establishing a progressive politics that seeks substantive policy solutions to real problems faced by the population. Current Labour leader Ed Miliband has attempted to broaden the party’s progressive base, drawing in social activist groups beyond the traditional base of labour union support.

Are there any lessons in this for Canada? While the Labour Party is the sister party of the NDP, many of the lessons are applicable to the broad spectrum of progressive parties including the Liberals. As Labour regularly forms government, it faces the pressures of governing similar to those traditionally faced by the federal Liberals and the provincial Liberals here in New Brunswick who are currently official opposition.

The Liberal Party has frequently faced accusations of being weak on principles and ideals. In New Brunswick, the last Liberal government lurched to the right on issues like taxation – advocating a flattening of tax-rates – ending up to the right of the Tories. Given the 2010 results, this “Out-Torying” of the Tories did not work out well.

We need a progressive politics that recognizes economic and demographic realities – that emphasizes jobs and entrepreneurship along with social justice, poverty-reduction and environmental sustainability, seeking to deal with the issues of the day, such as a Millennial generation faced with mounting student debts and an uncertain job market.

We need a politics where those who care about social and economic issues feel included and engaged. We need a politics that combines pragmatism and idealism – seeking substantive policy solutions. The NHS is a clear example of that in promoting accessible and guaranteed health care for all regardless of income or walk of life, making it a worthy accomplishment to be celebrated as an integral part of British history and society at the Olympic opening ceremonies.