Nixon revisited, as Obama and Romney go neck and neck

“No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.”

That quote has been attributed to one of my favourite writers, HL Mencken, and I used to think it was a harsh assessment.

Then Richard Nixon was re-elected as president of the United States in 1972 in a landslide against the liberal Senator George McGovern, who died this week at the age of 90.

And I just couldn’t believe so many Americans could vote for a crook, who ruined a generation of my compatriots, over a Senator who wanted to reform the Democrats and get the US out of a ridiculous war against Vietnam.

In fact, I told this to many of my friends in 1971 as I left for Australia, trying to get as far away from Richard Nixon and Vietnam as I could, with my best mate, Jim McCausland, who, fortunately, had managed to snare a working trip to Australia aboard an Israeli freighter, and took me along as his photographer (that’s another story).

Hunter S. Thompson, one of my heroes and the inspiration for this blog with his gonzo approach to journalism, had this to say in his wonderful book about the 1972 election: Fear and Loathing: on the Campaign Trail: “The tragedy of all this is that George McGovern, for all his mistakes and all his imprecise talk about ‘new politics’ and ‘honesty in government,’ is one of the few men who’ve run for President of the United States in this century who really understands what a fantastic monument to all the best instincts of the human race this country might have been, if we could have kept it out of the hands of greedy little hustlers like Richard Nixon.”

So why am I beginning my story about the third debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney with a rant against Richard Nixon, you may well ask? Well, it’s mainly because Mitt reminds me of Tricky Dick. Nixon promised one thing and delivered another, and lied to the American people in order to get elected, adding insult to injury by ordering a Watergate break-in to help him get re-elected. Well, Romney hasn’t come up with a Watergate yet, but he certainly knows how to prevaricate.

He managed to win the Republican nomination by pretending he was a conservative, and he’s now pretending he’s a moderate – except on Obamacare as he calls it – on just about everything he was embracing during the primaries.

The tactic worked for the first debate, when he caught a sleeping Obama off guard, and adopted many of the President’s policies, like tax cuts for the middle class, and more teachers in the classroom, both of which he had rejected. And he denied he was going to give a $5 trillion tax cut for the wealthy.

The second debate was similar, but the President had a big wakeup call after losing the first one, and challenged Romney on every point he made, as they circled around each other like two prize fighters. He described Romney’s characterisation of the security surrounding the assassination of the US ambassador to Libya as offensive, and had the best “gotcha” moment when challenged on his pension investments. Remember the line? “I don’t look at my pension. It’s not as big as yours so it doesn’t take as long.”

For this debate in Boca Raton, Florida, it was third time lucky, as moderator Bob Schieffer began the questioning with Libya and Romney let the president off the hook by not following up his criticism of US security during the assassination of the ambassador, congratulating Obama for killing Osama bin Laden, adding: “We can’t kill our way out of this mess.” The President responded: “I’m glad that you agree that we have been successful in going after Al Qaeda, but I have to tell you that, you know, your strategy previously has been one that has been all over the map and is not designed to keep Americans safe or to build on the opportunities that exist in the Middle East.”

Obama was as aggressive as Romney was in the first debate, telling his opponent several times he was all over the map, and the Republican was as subdued as the president the first time around, prompting Democratic strategist, James Carville, to comment on CNN: “It seems somebody gave Governor Romney the same drug they gave to the President before the first debate.” Of course, Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary for George W. Bush, disagreed, saying: “The first debate said it all. This debate won’t stop it. Mitt Romney’s got the momentum.”

Mitt Romney agreed with the President on Egypt and Mubarak and Syria, adding he didn’t want the US military involved in the Syrian crisis. Obama happily jumped in: “What you just heard Governor Romney said is he doesn’t have different ideas. And that’s because we’re doing exactly what we should be doing to try to promote a moderate Syrian leadership and a — an effective transition so that we get Assad out. That’s the kind of leadership we’ve shown. That’s the kind of leadership we’ll continue to show.”

And both candidates were unable to resist the opportunity to bring the debate on foreign policy back home, when Bob Schieffer asked: “What is America’s role in the world?” Romney promised to strengthen the economy and provide 12 million jobs for the unemployed while the President pledged to bring manufacturing jobs back from overseas and make sure the US has the best education system in the world.

OBAMA: WE HAVE FEWER HORSES AND BAYONETS NOW

The President had the best opening segue to his promises: “America remains the one indispensable nation. And the world needs a strong America, and it is stronger now than when I came into office.”

That could have led to a Romney retort about whether Americans feel better now than they did four years ago, but he let that one through to the keeper as well.

And the challenger’s response to Bob Schieffer’s question about where he was going to get the money for a bigger military and a bigger navy drew a zinger from the President. Romney said: “Our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917. The Navy said they needed 313 ships to carry out their mission. We’re now at under 285. We’re headed down to the low 200s if we go through a sequestration. That’s unacceptable to me.”

Obama replied: “You mentioned the Navy, for example, and that we have fewer ships than we did in 1916. Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers, where planes land on them. We have these ships that go underwater, nuclear submarines.”

The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, who writes The Fact Checker blog for the paper, confirmed the President was right: “We’ve looked at this claim by Romney before, and it’s almost as if Obama had read our column. The historical records of the Navy show that in 1916, the Navy had 245 ships. This was also the year that President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the Naval Act of 1916, which put the United States on a crash course to build a world-class Navy.” Here’s a link to Kessler’s fact-checking column on the third debate: http://wapo.st/WFK7yy

Kessler also confirms Obama’s claim that Romney was not telling the truth by calling the President’s trip to the Middle East at the beginning of his first term an “apology tour.” Obama slammed Romney in his response: “Nothing Governor Romney just said is true, starting with this notion of me apologising. This has been probably the biggest whopper that’s been told during the course of this campaign. And every fact checker and every reporter who’s looked at it, Governor, has said this is not true.” Kessler awarded Romney four Pinocchios (I’m sure you can guess what that is!) back in 2011 for his “apology tour” claim. http://wapo.st/ReEF2m

Okay, who won? The CNN-Opinion Research Corporation debate watchers’ poll taken right after the debate had Barack Obama on 48 per cent and Mitt Romney 40. Most of the early polls said the President had won, but most pundits also said it wasn’t a “game-changer.” (I wish they wouldn’t say that, as I hate that cliché, but they aren’t listening!)

The respected CNN senior political analyst, David Gergen, said: “President Obama dominated the debate, and I think he did emerge winning it. On debate points, I think he won … But I think Romney did something extremely important for his camp tonight, and that is, he passed the commander-in-chief test.”

And so it comes to this. After months of primaries and two conventions, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are deadlocked in the race for the presidency, with only 13 sleeps to election day. The winner will be determined in the battleground states of Florida, Colorado, Virginia, Wisconsin, Nevada, New Hampshire, Iowa and Ohio, with the last being first in significance. Ohio has picked the winner in the last 12 presidential elections, and it’s highly likely to do it again. The New York Times electoral map (http://nyti.ms/LFOtLM) has 237 votes for Obama and 206 for Romney, with 95 votes a toss-up. Two hundred and seventy electoral votes are needed to win.

The Electoral College determines the winner of the election, with each state getting a number of electors, based on the Senators and Representatives in the state. The electors vote for the president and vice-president, according to who won the most votes in the election. It was meant to protect the rights of smaller states, but it also means a president can win the popular vote and still lose the election.

It’s happened four times in 1824 (although the popular vote wasn’t counted nationally), 1876, 1888 and most recently, and tragically for Democrats, in 2000 when Al Gore won the popular vote, but lost the election to George W. Bush, who garnered 271 electoral votes, after a controversial ballot in Florida featuring “hanging chads.” The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against a lower court’s ruling requiring a statewide recount, handing the election to Bush on December 12.

I certainly hope history doesn’t repeat itself in this election as the agony of waiting for that ruling, and then having it go the way it did, prompted many Democrats to claim that George W. Bush had stolen the 2000 election.

Let’s hope the American people make the right decision this time. No prizes for guessing who I’m voting for.

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