THIS year's US presidential campaign, unlike the previous one
four years ago, is almost devoid of inspiration. In 2008, Barack
Obama's message of change and hope infused energy into a broad
coalition of liberals, young people, women, and ethnic minorities.
If Republicans could muster nothing comparable, they at least had a
bona-fide war hero as their candidate. And their vice-presidential
nominee, Sarah Palin, had her enthusiastic supporters, as well as a
range of appalled critics.
This time around, President Obama finds himself dragged down by
a struggling economy and unfulfilled promises. He can justly claim
to have kept the recession from becoming much worse, but the
economy is still not thriving. He succeeded in transforming our
defective system of medical insurance, but the new law has yet to
come into effect. It falls short of the single-payer plan that many
liberals were hoping for, and, at this point, seems to be creating
as much anxiety as confidence among the people that it is meant to
In international affairs, President Obama completed the
withdrawal from Iraq, but actually reversed his promised direction
in Afghanistan, initiating a large troop build-up that has
accomplished little. His commitment to end the legal morass of
indefinite detention for accused terrorists at Guantanamo has come
to nothing. He has also done little to ameliorate inequities in our
immigration policies. His one significant gesture to the Left has
been in the area of gay/lesbian rights, which also happen to enjoy
increasing support from the public at large.
In all these respects, his liberal supporters have found him
less than satisfactory. Part of his difficulty has been that he
tried to create a less partisan atmosphere in Washington. By
definition, this requires co-operation from both sides, and
Republican resistance, more entrenched than ever, has defeated him.
All told, President Obama's accomplishments have neither matched
his promise nor helped to solidify the coalition that elected
HIS Republican opponent may be in not too different a position.
Mitt Romney has won his party's nomination, but is dogged by a
wooden personality and a continuing suspicion that he does not
really stand for anything. This, to be sure, was the only kind of
candidate that the Republican Party could field, given its internal
incoherence. The main necessity was that the candidate should
pacify all elements, without really identifying with any.
The Republican Party is still, as it has been for generations,
the party of big business, as witness the immense amounts of
corporate money pouring into the campaign. But there is also a long
history of Republican libertarians - Senator Barry Goldwater was a
notable example - who primarily want to reduce government
"interference" in private life.
They would like to see a reduction in taxes and in social
entitlements, although many of them, paradoxically, insist on their
right to Social Security and Medicare in retirement. Many
libertarians also oppose legislation limiting access to abortion or
prohibiting same-sex marriage, which they see as unwarranted
government interference in private life.
THIS stance puts libertarians in conflict with another group of
Republicans, the "Christian Right", a significant element in the
party since the time of Ronald Reagan, which has succeeded in
making these issues important planks in the party platform. Its
central concern was an effort to reverse what it saw as a dilution
of American morals, exemplified in the increasing independence of
women, the legality of abortion, and the newly public presence of
gay men and lesbians.
Also, the most recent round of congressional elections, in 2010,
was the background to the rise of the "Tea Party", an amorphous
group that combined fiscal interests like those of the libertarians
with opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.
In the mean time, old-fashioned "moderate" Republicans have
largely disappeared. These were fiscal conservatives - advocates of
balanced budgets, and supporters of business. But they were not
doctrinaire. They were willing to negotiate with their opponents,
and they were not entirely hostile to the safety net of social
welfare which grew up during and after the 1930s.
Libertarians cannot manage much enthusiasm for a candidate who
embraces the principles of the Christian Right - and vice versa.
The Tea Party combines elements of both, but is too small to swing
the election by itself.
Business interests are uncomfortable with the radicalism, fiscal
and social, of more doctrinaire conservatives, although they still
hope to dominate the party themselves. Romney may be closer, at
heart, to the old "moderate" Republicans than to any other group.
But, since they have largely been forced offstage, he finds himself
appealing to other, conflicting perspectives.
DEMOCRATS, then, are left to vote in hope that a second Obama
administration will accomplish more than the first, while
Republicans will have to base their vote more on loyalty to a
deeply divided party than on any kind of inspiration coming from
the candidate. Meanwhile, the increasing number of voters who
decline to declare a party identification will be the deciding
factor. At this point, they seem likely to favour whichever side
they find less alarming.
Whatever happens this year, President Obama's election in 2008
created a new historic era. It replaced one great barrier in
American culture with fresh possibility. But this great event,
borne on a swell of popular inspiration, has yet to realise its
promise in the actual business of governing.
The Revd Dr Bill Countryman is Professor Emeritus of New
Testament at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley,