Democrats and Republicans have very different philosophies. On the big questions — taxes, health care, what the government ought to do and how it ought to do it — they sometimes appear to live on different planets.
When it comes to the game of politics, however, the things separating the parties are more emotional than philosophical.
Democrats believe that the vast majority of Americans share their view of the nation and the world, or, rather, that they would share it if people only opened their eyes. Many of them see the modern Republican Party as a small-minded, mean-spirited institution more focused on winning than with doing what is right for the country.
Republicans also believe that the vast majority of Americans share their view of the nation and the world, or, rather, that they will if the party only repeats this view often enough, with sufficient self-assurance. Democrats, in their view, are profligate simpletons. Not, perhaps, consciously traitorous, but obviously not people who can be trusted with power.
Democrats cannot believe that any right-thinking person does not see the world as they do. Republicans are certain vast majorities agree with them about everything, but — just in case — feel that the public needs to be reminded of this more or less constantly.
Both parties’ core beliefs have been on ample display during these closing days of the 2012 presidential campaign.
Readers in the Gulf, however, can be forgiven for wondering what really separates the candidates. In an election focused mainly on health care, taxes and the economy, the wider world has received little attention. When it was discussed, Democrats and Republicans often seemed to have starkly different views of America and its role in the world.
Last week, however, that appeared to change. After months of calling the Obama administration weak, incompetent and directionless, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney spent much of his foreign policy debate with US President Barack Obama highlighting the areas where, he claimed, the two men agree.
This was unfortunate on several levels. US voters and foreign observers alike were left to wonder which Romney was authentic: The belligerent conservative of the last two years or the advocate of conciliation and continuity who showed up for the final debate.
More importantly, Romney’s “me-too” approach to critical issues like Afghanistan, Iran and drone warfare meant that these policies — many of them more-or-less carried forward from George W. Bush’s administration — largely escaped critical scrutiny.
That was a shame, because on many of these issues, it isn’t so much the Obama/Bush administration policies that deserve debate and criticism as the bipartisan consensus that has settled in around them. With Romney claiming, however implausibly, to agree with Obama that discussion never took place.
In this, as in so many other areas of his campaign during these closing weeks, Romney’s conduct has raised more questions than it has answered. Would a President Romney pursue the hard-line policies on which he has, mostly, campaigned? Or would the continuity that the final debate seemed to promise carry the day once he moved into the White House?
There is, of course, no way to be certain, but one fact ought to give observers pause. Even if we accept that the moderate Romney of recent weeks is closer to Romney’s authentic self than the “severely conservative” (his phrase) Romney of the Republican primaries, one must remember that American presidents do not arrive in office alone and that presidents in their first term tend to be thinking about their reelection campaigns from Day One.
Whatever Romney’s true instincts may be, if elected, he will constantly be worrying about his Republican base. Ensuring that he faces no primary challenge from his right in 2016 will be a priority beginning the morning after Election Day. Combine this with the cast of Bush-era ideologues with whom he has surrounded himself and the foreign affairs omens are not good.
What if Obama wins reelection (as I write this, still the more likely outcome, though it remains a close-run thing)? Without really intending to do so, Americans will have validated the administration’s foreign policy without, thanks to Romney, subjecting it to much in the way of thoughtful criticism.
In an ideal world that prospect ought to matter to Americans as they head to the polls next week. In reality, it won’t. For the Middle East, this is an election of great consequence, but one in which the region — like the rest of the world — can only watch from the sidelines.
Gordon Robison, a longtime Middle East journalist and US political analyst, teaches political science at the University of Vermont.