U.S. Presidential Elections 2012 International Symposium
The Paris Office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States organized on Thursday October 25th and Friday 26th, 2012, an international symposium titled “U.S. Presidential Elections 2012”, in partnership with the Centre d’études et de recherches internationales-Sciences Po, the Alliance Program, the U.S. Embassy, Le Monde and the Paris School of International Affairs of Sciences Po Paris.
The symposium was the opportunity to explore the issues that have influenced the campaign and that had a bearing on the November 6th vote. Set just a few days after the last presidential debate, the conference addressed the decisive issues brought up in the campaign, such as the social and economic issues that have arisen during the Obama presidency, the polarization of the American political life, the role of the Supreme Court, and the importance of the Congressional elections, but also a wide array of foreign policy issues, such as the future of the Iranian nuclear program, Afghanistan post-2014 and the future of the Atlantic Alliance, the redefinition of counter-terrorism policies post 9/11 and the use of military force, the rebalancing of American power towards the Asia-Pacific region, the implications of the Arab revolts for the U.S. and its regional allies, and the impact of the crisis of the Eurozone on the transatlantic relationship.
Divided into five panel discussions and one open debate, the symposium brought together renowned European and American experts and academics, in the field of U.S. domestic affairs and foreign policy.
Panel I - Winning Electoral Majority amid Social, Political and Demographic Divisions
· Bruce Cain, Stanford University
· Frédérick Douzet, maître de conférences à l’Université Paris 8, membre junior de l’IUF
· Denis Lacorne, CERI-Sciences Po
· Sen. Bob Bennett, Bennett Consulting Group
The first panel moderated by Vincent Michelot focused on the defining elements of the 2012 elections, showing the dynamics that have shaped and characterized this campaign.
The discussion first dealt with the role of minorities in the elections. Using maps and polling data, Frédérick Douzet provided a comprehensive overview of the key states and electorates for each candidate. She highlighted the significance of the Latino American and female voters for Obama, but also underlined the hardly predictable and tremendously important turnout in swing-states. Denis Lacorne underlined the small role and place of religion the 2012 campaign.
Senator Bob Bennett focused on the momentum created by the first debate in Mitt Romney’s campaign. He used his own experiences to point out the nature of this turning-point in the race for presidency, showing how the anti-Romney advertisements turned out to be counterproductive for the Democrats. He also interpreted the latest debate as a clear sign of Obama’s coming defeat, underlining the incumbent’s inability to ever get more than 50% in public polls.
Defining the “new normal” of US politics, Bruce Cain highlighted the main trends of the presidential campaign finance. Stating that public financing is already dead while the costs of the campaign continue to rise – especially due to the growing costs of communication and advertisement – he showed that the actual effects are far less apparent. The two campaigns, therefore, tend to cancel each other out, also due to fatigue and saturation within the population. Finally, Bruce Cain’s study of private donors gives an interesting insight into the real political agenda of the two candidates.
Panel II - Is the US Political System Broken?
· George C. Edwards III, Oxford University/Texas A&M
· James Kloppenberg, Harvard University
· Greg Wawro, Columbia University
· Morris Fiorina, Stanford University
The second panel moderated by Denis Lacorne addressed the current state of the American political system while using the presidential campaign to look into the inner mechanisms of US politics.
The key concept developed throughout the debate was the idea of polarization of the American political life. James Kloppenberg developed a long-term perspective of the issue, assessing the uniqueness of the 2012 campaign in American history. He showed that although the US political system has traditionally been polarized – a point shared by Greg Wawro who argued that the lack of polarization would be the abnormality – the country is facing today one of its most intense moments of divide. This phenomenon was best embodied by the personalities of the two candidates for vice-presidency. James Kloppenberg also pointed out the growing polarization inside political parties, the G.O.P being a perfect example today, its core values being torn between the different slogans “Government is the problem” and “We want to take our country back”.
This issue was also developed by George Edwards III when dealing with the polarization existing in the Congress and towards the figure of the president. He highlighted the increasing difficulties to find a consensus, not only on specific issues, but also regarding the nature of the issues that should be at the center of the political debate. The routine failures of the budget making-process are the best illustrations of the crisis of the Congress, as pointed out by Greg Wawro.
Wawro also underlined the importance of a sharp decrease of public trust in the various institutions (from the President to the judicial branch) in the current crisis. This idea was shared by Morris Fiorina, who showed that the American population is not becoming more ideological or more partisan in its beliefs (the case of abortion interestingly proved the limited polarization of the American public on such issues), but rather it faces a serious phase of confusion as false hopes and disappointments have diminished the trust in the American political system.
Panel III - The Legal and Socio-Economic Drivers of the Campaign
· Jennifer Merchant, Université Paris 2
· Bruce Stokes, Pew Research Center
· Jeffrey Rosen, The New Republic
· Vincent Michelot, Sciences Po Lyon
The third panel moderated by Francois Clemenceau, senior reporter for the Journal du Dimanche (JDD), focused on the importance of socio-economic issues and the legal system in the campaign.
The 2012 elections may have given a new meaning to gender issues in the American political scene. If strong discrepancies in terms of female vote were noticed in 2008, the weight of this electorate is particularly debated this year. According to Bruce Stokes, this may be the key for Obama’s reelection, as polls show that the central theme of the elections – the economy – has not played in his favor. Indeed, Obama needs to target this specific electorate – women having different priorities than men and a higher turnout rate – in order to overcome Romney’s advantage in economic matters. It is however unclear how the American female voters will make their choice, and to what extent the so-called “women issues” such as abortion and healthcare will influence their final decision. For Jennifer Merchant, the American society is facing a turning-point, as the gender gap is widening and the results of the elections might bear outstanding implications for women rights in the United States. The latest polls showing that the American public opinion is more pro-life than pro-choice illustrate her argument.
Regarding the legal drivers of the campaign, Jeffrey Rosen argued that “this election is really about the Supreme Court!” Mitt Romney’s victory would deeply change the balance of the Court towards a more conservative tendency, for the first time since the 1980s. This would notably affect the legal framework regarding abortion laws and gay rights. Although this assessment was generally shared by Vincent Michelot, he nuanced this last point. He stated that Romney was not likely to try to influence social issues through the Supreme Court and be more cautious on issues that were not at the heart of the campaign. He also underlined the possibility of a divide between a Republican president and a Democrat Senate (or the reverse) after the elections and the limited mandate of the new president that would result from such a situation.
Roundtable Discussion-Debate: The Domestic Drivers of U.S. Foreign Policy
· Lawrence Korb, Center for American Progress
· Kenneth Weinstein, Hudson Institute
· Bruce Cain, Stanford University
This debate, moderated by New York Times’ Paris bureau chief Steven Erlanger,enabled a more open discussion about the course of the campaign and what it reveals for American foreign policies.
A consensus emerged regarding the limited impact foreign policy issues would have on the results of the elections. All participants stressed the general feeling of wariness in the United States: if towards potential new wars, or concerning the US abilities to engage with the world the way it used to, as well as towards Romney’s ideological foundations on foreign policy. Lawrence Korb stated that today’s main security threat lies in the American deficit, and that all discussions on the future of the American leadership should first tackle the question of military cuts. Hence the blurriness of Romney’s position on this matter is, according to Bruce Cain, a sign of the tremendous pressures he faces from the different branches of his party. Indeed, the Republican candidate, who is likely to follow a pragmatic approach if he rises to presidency, is today influenced by advisers more ideologically driven. On the other hand, Barack Obama is today facing growing criticisms of his ability to act on the international stage, and Kenneth Weinstein showed how Obama has become an “increasingly shrinking president” and needs now to prove that he can be more proactive in his second term.
Panel IV - Foreign Policy in the Presidential Campaign: How Important a Factor?
· Mai’a Cross, University of Southern California
· Dan Drezner, Tufts University
· James Mann, SAIS-Johns Hopkins
Often considered as a secondary issue during presidential campaign, foreign policy and its role in the 2012 elections were the topics of the fourth panel moderated by Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer.
The discussion focused on the symbolic dimension of foreign policy during the campaign. Although not determinant for the final results, it can take a significant role in the candidates’ strategy to appear as a credible head of state. According to Dan Drezner, American voters keep in mind that they are electing a potential Army Chief of Staff, and the third debate should be understood as a “Commander in Chief” test. Similarly, James Mann stated that discourses on foreign policy during the campaign are about sending messages to the electorate, and not drawing an actual policy. This explains the importance of the Benghazi attack during the campaign as well as the confrontational tone during the third debate: beyond strong divergences in substance, foreign policy has been the way Romney and Obama could appear as President before the elections. This lack of substance was particularly highlighted by Mai’a Cross, who stressed the absence of any consistent strategy regarding the Eurozone crisis and the future of transatlantic relations.
Panel V - Anticipating U.S. Foreign Policy Changes After 2012
· Xenia Dormandy, Chatham House
· Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, German Marshall Fund of the United States & Sciences Po
· Jean-David Levitte, Sciences Po-PSIA
· William Burke-White, University of Pennsylvania Law School
The final panel moderated by Natalie Nougayrede, senior reporter for Le Monde, gave the participants the opportunity to discuss American foreign policy in the coming four years.
Although they all stressed the importance of international constraints and the little control the President will have over foreign policy issues, the participants tried to assess the potential divergences between the two candidates. William Burke-White argued that the differences between Obama and Romney should not be over-estimated, but that structural factors may drive them to engage differently with foreign policy as a whole. Indeed, Barack Obama – in his second and last mandate – may be keener on working on his legacy regarding foreign security matters (drawing here a parallel with Bill Clinton’s second mandate), whereas Mitt Romney would probably adopt a more cautious attitude. This general assessment was shared by Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer and Xenia Dormandy, who respectively highlighted the importance of the economic crisis, the budget restraints and of the role of the Congress on the shaping of the future President’s foreign policy. Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer particularly underlined the challenge posed by post-regime change political transitions to US diplomacy, as they are accompanied by a clear will of “autonomization” from the US influence, which explains that the next American president will have to engage a more pragmatic and strategic dialogue with the new political elites, especially in Egypt. They also stated that divergences could be noticeable regarding their handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the aftermaths of the Arab revolts. Using his experiences in foreign-policy making, Jean-David Levitte particularly insisted on the very limited time left for the new administration to deal with the nuclear Iran issue, which he considers to be the main challenge of the coming mandate. They also predicted a more inward-looking United States in the coming year, Xenia Dormandy fearing possible isolationist tendencies.