x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

A moderate Romney returns as a hostage to the extremist right

With the election mere days away, the United States has never been as polarised as it is today

The radical face of America's Republican Party was on display last week. Some would say it is the party's true face.

The first case was when a Tea Party-backed Senate hopeful from Indiana, Richard Mourdock, said in a televised debate that if a woman became pregnant by rape, it was "something God intended to happen". The second was when presidential candidate Mitt Romney's most prominent aide, John Sununu, played the race card (for the first time in the campaign) and suggested on CNN that former Republican secretary of state Colin Powell had endorsed President Barack Obama because both men are black.

It was striking that while the Romney camp put out statements disagreeing with both views, the Republican nominee himself remained silent. He did not pull an ad in which he endorses Mr Mourdock, and he failed to rein in Mr Sununu, a former White House chief of staff with a record of thinly veiled racist comments about Mr Obama.

Since securing the Republican nomination after courting the social conservatives who dominate the party's grass roots, Mr Romney has moved back to markedly more centrist positions as demonstrated in the foreign-policy debate with Mr Obama. Their policy options were almost indistinguishable.

So last week's eruptions, and Mr Romney's lack of response, were a timely reminder that the candidate who not so long ago described himself as "severely conservative" will still have to answer to his party base if he wins on November 6.

Washington Post commentator Harold Meyerson predicted last week that in the event of a Romney victory, the Tea Party-backed radicals would stage a "blitzkrieg" on day one of his presidency. It's a perfectly plausible scenario: since the Republicans retook the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm elections, the Tea Party extremists have held the party hostage. Among their doubtful achievements is to have prevented agreement on raising the debt ceiling and curbing the $16 trillion (Dh59 trillion) federal deficit.

You can be sure that Paul Ryan, a Tea Party ideologue who is currently House budget chairman, would as vice president be tasked with ensuring the demolition of Mr Obama's healthcare reform. If the Senate passes to the Republicans, his job would be all the easier.

The Bush-era neocon hawks, who delivered the 2003 Iraq war on a false premise, would probably be back in the saddle. Now the refrain is: bomb Iran. On foreign policy, Mr Romney's advisers include former UN ambassador John Bolton, who may nurture hopes of becoming secretary of state, a post also coveted by Mr Sununu. Dan Senor, who once promoted President George W Bush's "Freedom Agenda", has an eye on the post of national security adviser. Other Romney associates include waterboarding apologist Cofer Black, hardline judicial adviser Robert Bork and immigration adviser Kris Kobach. There's not a moderate among them.

This is the company that Mr Romney keeps. Few have been taken in by his recent pivot to become "moderate Mitt". Even in Mormon Utah, the state's biggest paper, The Salt Lake City Tribune, expressed dismay at Mr Romney's "servile" courtship of the Tea Party. An editorial last week concluded that his "shameless" flip-flopping across the board means that the former saviour of the Salt Lake City Olympics cannot be trusted. The paper's endorsement therefore went to Mr Obama.

The influence of the Tea Party in the polarisation of political discourse in America cannot be underestimated. Even a staunch conservative analyst like Norman Ornstein blames the Republican Party for the unprecedented poison in the system that has left Congress gridlocked and at rock bottom in terms of public approval ratings. In a new book written with Brookings Institution expert Thomas Mann, It's Even Worse than it Looks, they describe the party as an "insurgent outlier".

Any pretence of bipartisanship vanished two years ago when Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell pledged that he would devote all his energy to the defeat of Mr Obama. Ornstein and Mann say the Republicans' loyalty now is clearly to party over country. They conclude that the partisan polarisation has passed a critical point, "leading to something more troubling that we have ever seen".

The result of the bitter point-scoring is that "the government seems incapable of taking and sustaining public decisions responsive to the existential challenges facing the country".

Nobody in Washington expects the gridlock to vanish after the election. The incivility of political discourse is here to stay. In the case of a narrow majority for either party in House and Senate, the trench warfare will worsen with Republicans and Democrats in permanent campaign mode.

According to the latest opinion poll by The Washington Post/ABC News, the 2012 campaign is the most racially charged since the 1988 contest between George H W Bush and Michael Dukakis. While Mr Obama can expect the black community to line up behind him, Mr Romney's candidacy attracts an overwhelming majority of white voters. Mr Obama no longer bridges the divide as he did in 2008.

In other words, America has never been as polarised as this in living memory.


Anne Penketh is a freelance journalist in Washington

On Twitter: @annepenketh