It might seem like heresy to suggest there are similarities between the Grand Old Party of American politics, the Republicans, some of whom believe that Attila the Hun was a socialist, and the quasi-socialist invention of Britain’s trade unions, the Labour Party. But hear me out. They are poles apart ideologically, of course. The similarities I see are drawn from electoral maths and the challenge of building a coalition of interest amongst voters.
On paper, both parties should be benefiting from a weak economy and high unemployment. Being out of work, feeling financially stretched, or gloomy about the future is unlikely to make a voter ecstatic about the performance of the current government. However, neither Labour nor the Republicans have converted widespread discontent with governments into a mandate for change at the top. On the contrary, both parties now lack confidence in their own leadership. The analogy between the GOP and Labour has its limits. British political parties are hierarchical in a way that is anathema to the individualism that drives American parties. British parties elect their leader and, if they win, their leader becomes the nation’s leader. In contrast, American parties are fund-raising organizations that throw their support and money behind candidates on an election-by-election basis, most obviously in the case of their Presidential nominee. So Ed Miliband’s role as Labour Party leader entails more extensive influence than a Presidential nominee has over their party. But both are national leaders-in-waiting, and the popularity and success of both parties will orient around the popularity of their leaders-in-waiting. Recognizing this leads to the observation of a straightforward parallel between Labour and the Republicans. Both parties are far more popular than their leaders.
In national polls that ask American voters if they would prefer an unnamed Republican to Barack Obama, the unnamed Republican is consistently ahead. But comparisons between Obama and each individual Republican candidate, show that Obama is more popular than any of them. Romney comes closest to Obama, sometimes tying in terms of electoral popularity. Next closest to Obama, contrary to the beliefs expressed the exit polls at primaries, comes Ron Paul. Paul tends to be around 5 points behind Obama, though this match-up also generates the greatest proportion of undecided voters. According to current polls, neither Gingrich nor Santorum would stand a chance against Obama; both are typically ten points less popular than the incumbent. So, whichever Republican candidate is chosen (assuming no late wild cards enter the race) it seems the public prefers the general idea of Republican policies and leadership, more than they like the policies and leadership offered by any actual Republican. A similar pattern can be seen in the UK. Since the last General Election, most polls have put the Labour Party slightly ahead of the Conservatives, though the difference is too small to give Labour any confidence of victory. However, Labour Leader Ed Miliband has a much worse approval rating than the Tory Party Leader and Primeminister, David Cameron. As in the USA, the public has a lukewarm preference for the party in opposition, but very severe doubts about the man offered by the party as national leader.
When the public lacks confidence in prospective leaders, it tends to undermine the confidence of their party too. Likewise, a party that does not back a leader will send a signal to the wider public. One can debate which is the chicken, and which the egg, that leads to a vicious cycle of discontent, where both the party and the public feed off each other’s negativity. Whoever starts the cycle, it is hard to break once the wheel starts turning against a leader. Miliband must be all too aware of it. Every time the press brands one of his speeches or initiatives as a ‘relaunch’, it reiterates why he needs a relaunch – to boost his popularity and instill confidence in his leadership. The old saying is that it is darkest before the dawn, but not in party politics. In party politics you are most backed before you are sacked. Though Miliband has been leader for only a little over a year, in recent times there has been an outpouring of support for his leadership from senior party members. Even his brother, who came second to him in the leadership election, expressed his emphatic support just a few days after writing a lengthy article that seemed to question the party’s current direction. In contrast, nobody in the Tory party expresses support for Cameron, because nobody needs to. They know he is a popular leader, and that means none of the rank and file want a change of leader. Overt support for Miliband, in contrast, is proof of covert doubts amongst the Labour party members.
Similar patterns of nerviness can be seen in the Republican nomination race. A proportion of the party’s supporters are willing to give their backing to Mitt Romney. Many others seem to prefer anyone who is not Romney. The result has been a sequence of not-Romneys whose stars have rapidly risen to the top of the polls, only to see them burn out like cheap fireworks and come crashing straight back down to ground. The Republicans have long had the chance to think about Romney’s strengths and weaknesses. Romney came second to McCain in the 2008 nomination race; at that time, he was portrayed as the conservative opponent to McCain’s maverick moderation. Romney was the first to start rolling his 2012 bandwagon, and he did so well before most rivals had launched their respective committees to consider whether to put the wheels on their campaign carts. The GOP has long known that Romney would be a front-runner. And yet, familiarity has bred contempt. Even though Romney has won most delegates from the early states, he has usually won with a lower vote share than he attained in 2008.
Whilst Romney fails to gain critical mass, the not-Romneys have taken turns to blaze against him. With the exception of Ron Paul and Jon Hunstman, the Republican Party has given each not-Romney a shot at being their next great hope. Paul is not qualified to challenge Romney because he is the Republican equivalent of Huey Long, a politician who is pragmatic enough to fight within the two-party mainstream for policies that sit well outside their binary logic. Huntsman had even less chance of supplanting Romney because, in all respects, he was Romney’s mini-me. However, there were plenty of candidates vying for the title of ‘best conservative’. And each of them rose rapidly as contenders, only to quickly fall back again. First Bachmann stole the show and entered the spotlight, winning the Iowa straw poll and positioning herself as the Iron Lady of social conservatives. But when Iowans came to the real vote, in the opening salvo of the nomination war, they placed her dead last, and she was finished. When Perry announced he would run, he instantly topped party polls. A Texan governor with considerable financial backing, he looked a credible contender. Then, oops!, he started looking even dumber than a certain other Texan governor that the Republican Party rarely mentions in polite society. Perry bravely fought on in the hope of a revival in South Carolina, but huge amounts of TV money were unable to raise the corpse of his campaign. In the midst of promoting his book, Cain unexpectedly found his campaign was being taken seriously, and he bounded up to take Perry’s place as most-likely not-Romney. But then somebody interviewed a ‘tired’ Cain who, seemingly, was far more ignorant than any wide-awake President should ever be. Many others accused Cain of sexual harassment, and that was the end of the serious portion of his campaign, though he still persists in the form of a vaudevillian joke sponsored by comedian Stephen Colbert.
Perhaps in desperation, the Republicans then turned to Newt Gingrich. He was the first of not-Romneys to display some staying power. Unlike the other not-Romneys, Gingrich had a big profile, acquired whilst Speaker of the House and general of its radical Republican contingent. The party remembered how well he had started in that role, but later remembered how poorly he had ended in that role, and Gingrich slid again, not only conceding the top of the polls to Romney, but finishing poorly in both Iowa and New Hampshire. Rick Santorum was Iowa’s surprise winner, then not-winner, then winner-after-all, when all the recounting had been done. This propelled Santorum from being bottom-of-the-polls fodder into the second not-Romney with staying power. But the success of Santorum’s tireless efforts in Iowa only underlined the hollowness of the media myth of ‘momentum’, as he did poorly in a string of subsequent states. There is no good reason to believe a candidate who spends a lot of time on a street corner, shaking hands with those who favour his views, can convert that enthusiasm into distant appreciation from the rest of the nation. And so Romney got on to a roll after winning New Hampshire handsomely. And his train came off the tracks in the next state, as all Gingrich’s faults were temporarily forgiven by South Carolinians. Then Gingrich was once again sweating in the spotlight as Romney brought the heat and burned him in Florida. And yet, to further prove that momentum is the invention of political journalists trying to bridge the gulf between actual votes, Santorum bounced back with a clutch of victories in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri. And there can be no more avid and delighted spectator than Obama. Whilst the Republicans candidates destroy each other’s reputations, Obama and his aides can sit back, taking notes. Whoever is chosen as the Republican candidate, Obama will already have a very good idea of which lines of attack will prove most effective.
When parties struggle to pick their leading representatives, it is tempting to locate all fault with the would-be leaders. But the specific problem of settling on the best leader is sometimes a proxy for a more general party malaise. Every political party is a coalition born of compromised ideals in pursuit of real influence. Sometimes there is too little in common, leading to excessive competition over the party’s direction. The problem with a two-party system, as best exemplified by candidates like Ron Paul, John McCain and Joe Lieberman, is that there are more than two plausible answers to the questions posed by the real world. When a party struggles with its identity, beyond the minimalistic truth that it is not the ‘other’ party, we hear phrases like ‘fighting for the soul’ of the party, and see rivalries over who is most conservative, or who is the genuine progressive. Members of these struggling coalitions of interest can still back their side in general even though they cannot find a way to back a specific program of action, as instantiated by a single leader. The party can be imagined the way its supporters would want it to be. The individual, in contrast, is all too human, and his or her frailties are amplified by the attentions of modern media. Leaders embody hard choices. Factions within parties may undermine leaders simply because no leader is able to reconcile all the divisions amongst the party’s ranks. Labour faces that now, with division between two broad groupings. On one side are the Blairites, faithful to the market-oriented and reforming attitudes epitomized by former leader Tony Blair. On the other side are the last vestiges of socialism and old Labour, seeking to prove that the Blarites are an anomaly, not the party’s destiny. Miliband overly courted this wing during his first party conference after winning the leadership race, when he pointed out that he is not Tony Blair. A similar division flows through the campaigning veins of the Republican Party, with the freshwater insurgents of the Tea Party challenging what they characterize as the party’s oily establishment. But even this is a gross simplification of party discord, suggesting that choirs can only sing in one of two keys. In fact, the Tea Party is too decentralized to be less than a broad chorus of many voices, with equal numbers that favoured Paul as much as Bachmann, despite their utterly opposing views on defense and society. Differences within the Tea Party only highlight the extent of differences across the party as a whole. Nevertheless, some candidates and some media pundits try to simplify leadership decisions into a false dichotomy between Tea Party radicalism and more mainstream moderation. Per this simplified narrative, Romney is cast as the establishment man, whilst the not-Romneys emphasize their anti-establishment credentials in order to gain the favour of the Tea Party contingent.
Perhaps the real source of division is not ideological, but more pragmatic. Parties want to win. It is easy to compromise in order to support a winning leader. It is harder to compromise when being asked to support a leader that looks like a loser. Politicians have a very curious relationship with self-doubt. They seemingly never doubt themselves. Furthermore, they do never doubt that they can persuade others to support their opinions, even though they lose elections from time to time. And, in the oddest reflection of all, they know that their rivals feel the same way as they do. Every political leader believes they are right, and believes that they can and will persuade a majority to support them, even whilst acknowledging that their implacable foes feel exactly the same way. Electoral success lubricates political alliances. Electoral failure, on the other hand, is grating. The friction of defeat intensifies ideological fights over whose message really is most persuasive. Widespread disaffection is repackaged as a tactical failure to put the best messages in the shop window. Needless to say, each competing camp thinks their messages are most compelling, and have been under-utilized. But the truth is more subtle, and elusive. None of the camps within either the Republican Party or Labour Party have come up with ideas that have broad appeal. Partly this is because they have not come up with new ideas. Their current positions, undeveloped as energy is drawn away from innovation and into in-fighting, are stagnant. Their internal differences are being measured on one-dimensional scales, with each plotting themselves more or less to the right or left, whilst nobody (save Ron Paul) has made a determined attempt to shift the axis of debate. The Tea Party thinks of themselves as more to the right, but refuse to admit how some of their would-be champions have beliefs that scare other voters. After all, some women really do want to have abortions, and even more want contraception. Republican moderates fail to explain why the optimal approach is to do less than Democrats but more than Republican conservatives can seemingly stomach. In Labour, the Blairites are advocates of a pragmatic realism, but fail to tie it back to meaningful goals that enthuse people. The more traditional left have retained their vision of a better society, but blind themselves to any difficult choices. And so politics is reduced to a tug of war fought over familiar territory. Parties engage in trench warfare, with neither of the opposing camps having the speed or guile to outflank their opponents or launch a decisive surprise attack. This vacillation leads to apathy amongst voters. Moderation is uninspiring; radicalism is disconcerting.
Whilst internal divisions yawn open like unbridgeable canyons, the greatest problem faced by both Labour and the Republicans is that they have been unable to overcome their last failure. George W. Bush left office very unpopular, in the wake of an economic collapse which he had failed to prevent and could only ameliorate through a massive bailout. Labour were defeated through a mix of ennui and economic mismanagement, exaggerated by how little the public liked Gordon Brown. The majority of the British public refused to believe economic crisis was solely due to global factors outside of Labour’s control. Since their respective defeats, both Labour and the Republicans have struggled to decide what parts of their former programs were good, and worth keeping, and which parts were rotten, and need to be discarded. Failure haunts some politicians; those close to mistakes are the least likely to admit to them. Others in their party were only held back by success, and took defeat as a signal to finally break ranks and start saying what they really believed all along. Whilst dogged by the negative aspects of their respective track records, both the Republicans and Labour find unity only in their opposition to those currently in office. This makes them doubly negative, sour about the nation’s current leadership, and dour about what came before. Negativity can influence elections, but it does not inspire activists. Negativity can sway voters over a short period, but it does bind movements or give them purpose. The public knows what the Republicans and the Labour Party are against. They are against so much they are often against themselves. To succeed, both parties need to rediscover what they are for, and to settle on leaders that embody those values.