Watching the Circus: Don Watson, Eleanor Hall and George Negus on the US election

With the US presidential election just a week away, some of Australia’s savviest political writers and commentators gathered at the Wheeler Centre - with a packed and engaged crowd - to talk about how it’s playing out. Fifth Estate host Sally Warhaft was joined by seasoned journalist George Negus, the ABC’s Eleanor Hall and former speechwriter Don Watson.

Download the podcast: mp3

The race factor

George Negus was in the US for the election of Barack Obama four years ago. ‘The whole country felt like it had a hangover,’ he said. ‘But there was a backlash straight away.’

Eleanor Hall says that while we assumed the 2008 election was about Americans voting for a black president, she spoke to a prominent pollster who said that his race had in fact been a disadvantage – it had pulled him back ‘about three percentage points’.

While (of course) people don’t directly say that they wouldn’t vote for a black president, if you ask other questions, it becomes clear that many Americans would never vote for, or celebrate, having a black president.

Don Watson mentioned that this year’s Republican convention was ‘the whitest and most deliberately white Republican convention anywhere’. He described Mitt Romney as ‘very white’ and his wife as ‘even whiter’.

Debates: ‘Obama made them important’

‘The first debate really turned it around,’ said Eleanor Hall, who described Obama’s performance in that first debate, which he so spectacularly lost to Mitt Romney, as ‘very petulant’.

Obama spectuacularly lost to Romney in the first debate, and won the next two by narrow margins.

Obama spectuacularly lost to Romney in the first debate, and won the next two by narrow margins.

The smallest details can make a difference in these debates, she said. For example, Clinton used to colour his hair greyer for the foreign policy debate and browner for the domestic policy debate.

‘The debates weren’t meant to be important, but Obama made them important.’

‘Everyone thought Romney was wooden and hopeless, but he came out and did what Obama normally does – he started telling stories. He sounded like a warm human being.’

‘A good speech does need content’

Host Sally Warhaft said that the high point of the campaign speeches so far has been Bill Clinton’s speech at the Democratic convention.

‘The election has been content-free,’ said Don Watson. ‘Americans now revert so quickly to the grand narrative. There is something grand about American narrative, but a good speech does need content.’

‘If the candidates keep saying America is the greatest country in the world, the hollowing out of America is quickly forgotten, including by the hollowed out.’

He described being at one of the early Tea Party rallies, with people who ‘wouldn’t know a tea party from a tea bag’. Some of them, he said, had guns stuffed down their tracksuit pants.

‘People underestimate how hollow American society is in the middle. In all sorts of ways – educationally and nutritionally – America is way down the bottom.’

‘It’s a paradox from beginning to end,’ said George Negus. ‘The best of it is the best and the worst is unbelievable.’

‘Genuinely intelligent Republicans are being knocked off’

‘Americans have a funny idea of the middle class,’ said Don Watson. ‘They never use the term working class anymore.’

The Tea Party people are not middle-class, but what we’d call working-class people – people who have not done well in contemporary America, and have adopted a ferociously conservative view of the world in response.

‘If I was a middle-class American before 25 years ago, I would have voted Republican,’ he said. ‘The Republican Party is not what it used to be. It’s fallen into dangerous hands.’

‘If Mark Twain walked into the Republican Party now, he’d be thrown out.’

A Tea Party rally: '‘The Republican Party is not what it used to be. It’s fallen into dangerous hands.’

A Tea Party rally: '‘The Republican Party is not what it used to be. It’s fallen into dangerous hands.’

Eleanor Hall agrees with this idea. ‘Genuinely intelligent Republicans are being knocked off,’ she said. ‘Tea Party people like Paul Ryan rule the joint.’

While in the US recently, she asked an analyst which Romney we’ll see if he’s elected president: the relatively small ‘l’ liberal Massachusetts governor, or a Romney who reflects the platform of the contemporary Republican Party. (‘Netanyahu running foreign policy and the Tea Party running the economy.’)

‘We’re not going to get the Massachusetts governor,’ was the response.

The Sandy Effect

The panellists agreed that the hurricane and ongoing bad weather may affect voter turnout. Don Watson said this could be a problem for the Democrats. ‘If it’s bad weather, it’s the Democrats who don’t turn up.’

On the other hand, the fact that Obama is the incumbent during this time of crisis for so many Americans will work in his favour. ‘He can look presidential.’

Both candidates have called off campaigning for a few days.

‘This storm is massive,’ said Eleanor Hall. ‘It’s even going to affect Ohio.’

Who will win?

George Negus believes Obama will win another four years as president.

‘It’s strange they should even be considering someone as inappropriate as Romney,’ he said.

‘Romney unfortunately is not only the face of American politics, but of the world. We’ll be living in a western world where people won’t be doing much, they’ll just be doing deals. That’s all Romney knows about.’

Eleanor Hall thinks Obama will win, too. ‘He really only needs to win those key states and I think he’s poured enough money into Ohio and the car industry to win them. I don’t think Romney is charismatic enough to win them over.’

George Negus said that Barrie Cassidy, host of ABC1’s Insiders, recently shared his opinion that Obama will get 290 electoral college votes. He needs 270 to win.

Don Watson thinks Romney will win. ‘I might be trying to cover myself against despair,’ he said. ‘I didn’t think Bush could win in 2004 or 2000.’

He believes that the immense amount of money the Republicans have accessed for this campaign will make the difference. While last time, Obama outspent his Republican opponent John Cain by far, in this campaign that spending has been reversed.

‘The consequences will be pretty terrible for America and the world,’ he said. ‘More conservatives on the Supreme Court, the end of Rose versus Wade [meaning abortion would become criminalised], Iran, and foreign policy would go back to the Bush era.’

These paper dolls are really available, published by Dover Publications.

These paper dolls are really available, published by Dover Publications.

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