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Endorsements from abroad

In considering who to declare our support in US presidential elections, even those of us who do not have a vote at all put ourselves in the position of a voter in the tipping point state, in this case calculated by Nate Silver to be Ohio. This is all-in-all quite a restrictive parlour game.

Like most others watching this election, I have a clear preference between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to start a presidential term on 20 January. But this preference should not mean that we approach the given candidate obsequiously, nor that I believe that therefore all Americans should vote for that candidate. Let us judge the candidates fairly, and consider this a time for a review of Obama’s term of office to date. As foreign observers, who are not Democrats or Republicans, we should the question of which candidate we prefer more disinterestedly than I think becomes the norm. Even in our own countries, we shouldn’t end up thinking about our support for political parties in the way of a sports fan following their team, but there is much less of a cultural excuse for it watching from afar.

I supported Barack Obama ahead of the vote four years ago. What has occurred since that could lead me to change my view of him?

My criticism of President Obama is based on his policies in the conduct of war and the protection of civil liberties. While this is something that I have paid attention to from a number of sources over the last year, such as Glenn Greenwald and Conor Friedersdorf, I recently read Gene Healy’s False Idol: Barack Obama and the Continuing Cult of the Presidency, which catalogues the increasing powers of the presidency under President Obama. As the name suggests, Healy is not an alarmist who believes that this is in any way unique to Obama, but rather that this is a continuation of a trend he explored in great detail in The Cult of the Presidency, written towards the end of President George W. Bush’s time in office. For example, on the question of healthcare, why should we be surprised that Obama sought to do what every Democratic president since Truman also did.

But on the question of civil liberties in particular, Obama has not governed as he campaigned. Most prominently, he has not closed Guantanamo Bay. But while that may be ascribed to the lack of Congressional support, this cannot be said in other areas. Healy quotes New Republic legal affairs editor Jeffrey Rosen as predicting in February 2008 that Obama would be the “first civil libertarian candidate”. Yet by 2010, policy analysts of contrasting perspectives were admitting how things had changed from that perspective. James Carafano, of the conservative Heritage Foundation, described Obama’s security programs as Bush clones, while Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Union for Civil Liberties, was quoted as being disgusted by Obama’s policies on civil liberties and national security issues.

George W. Bush was rightly and widely criticised for instituting indefinite detention in Guantanamo Bay. Yet the voices of criticism have been much softer since it was revealed earlier this year that Barack Obama had what has been dubbed a ‘kill list’, under which people identified as terrorist combatants, including American citizens, have been targeted for elimination by drones. This involved the death of a 16-year-old American citizen, which a spokesperson for the Obama administration defended. Of course a state must protect itself from attack, but not at the cost of the abandonment of jury trial after centuries of practice. And Obama has bended the constitutional requirement to require Congressional approval for war, aside from a direct attacks. ‘War’ has been redefined to exclude situations where no American soldiers are at risk, so that a foreign country can be bombed without the need for approval. He approved a National Defense Authorization Act, considered worse than infringements on civil liberties than under Bush.

Given this glimpse into these abuses of his power, I find the continuing fawning attitude towards Barak Obama a bit much, especially from those watching from outside the United States. There is no need to us to view their foreign policy in any way but critically, or to fret fearfully that such criticism would lead to a worse alternative in office. It really isn’t a good enough excuse to point out that Mitt Romney would be worse.

Because there is no reason to expect that Romney would not worse in many such respects. The saving grace from the point of view of conduct of war with the likely re-election of Obama is that Democratic-leaning civil libertarians will feel more comfortable being critical of him, and if his record does not improve, and that it could start a movement that is not based around an individual politician as was the case with Obama in 2007 and 2008, but around a set of ideal and principles.

As well as his likely policies on civil liberties and the conduct of war, Mitt Romney would win the presidency as the standard-bearer of a Republican Party that isn’t at all shy about showing its nasty party, and while some like to imagine that he would govern as a moderate, he has made it very difficult to allow himself to move away from hard-line positions on social questions. He has donated to the National Organization for Marriage, which campaigns against equal marriage across the United States, and the group have charted his record on this count favourably. In his time as Governor of Massachusetts, he had a poor track record on a range of LGBT issues, whether in education or with families of gay couples. It would be a marked shift for gay people from the first president to have declared his support for equal marriage in office; as would Paul Ryan be a shift from a vice president in Joe Biden who recently described transgender discrimination as the ‘civil right issue of our time’.

Those who dream of a ‘Moderate Mitt’ recall his time as governor of Massachusetts, where he co-operated with Democrats. But there he had to, given the scale of their majority, and he was not working with a Republican Party driven at a national level with a particular agenda. We should expect the Republicans to retain their majority in the House, and there is no reason to expect that Romney as president would in his own right moderate their actions, tho this may occur with a majority-Democratic Senate.

Romney seems a comfortable leader of a party that tacks to extremes, which ostracizes those such as Indiana Senator Richard Lugar for co-operating with Democrats on standard bills, in favour of a candidate in Richard Mourdock who went on to discuss a pregnancy from rape as part of God’s plan; as well as the most famous incident of Todd Akin, there is also Rick Berg, Senate candidate in North Dakota, who proposed a bill that would give a life sentence to women who avail of abortion, whatever the circumstances; Romney also supports the tenor of many of the most extreme policies against immigrants, even if partially moderated during the debates.

I do think these things matter, even for us here, because of the United States position as a within the western cultural world.

While the jibes at Romney’s wealth during the campaign might have been amusing, they were not relevant to his ability to govern. What is relevant is the contempt he showed for those below a certain income by saying that the bottom 47% saw themselves as victims.

Could Obama have done a lot better on the economy? Probably, but on the one hand I don’t trust the instincts of a man looking for a trade war with China, and on the other, while it was disappointing that Obama didn’t embrace the reforms proposed by the Simpson–Bowles Commission, I do think that could be a likely outcome to the deadlock of an Obama second term with a Republican House and a Democratic Senate.

So what am I hoping for with tonight’s result? I would like to see Obama re-elected as president. Yet his record in foreign policy, the war on terror and related matters are such that I would also like to see a strong vote for decent third-party candidates outside of swing states. Most Americans do not live in a state that the candidates consider worth spending time or resources, such that MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, who has lived in Massachusetts, New York and California, urged voters to support third-party candidates where it makes sense.

O’Donnell discusses here two issues which were covered in the debate between Dr Jill Stein of the Green Party, Gov. Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party, Mayor Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party and Virgil Goode of the Constitution Party, those of the drug war and indefinite detention of American citizens suspected of terrorism. On many such issues, the first three at least felt like they could have been comfortable in a debate between European political parties, and as a European observing the powers wielded by what is still the world’s most powerful country, I have no issue judging the election on such a standard, given that such voices do exist in the United States.

There are two of these minor candidates on the ballot in nearly every state, Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party and Jill Stein of the Green Party. Between those, I would favour Johnson. It is rare that a minor party candidate has significant relevant experience, and Gary Johnson served two successful terms as Governor of New Mexico, from 1995 to 2003. In economic terms, while I would not favour the extent of the swingeing cuts Johnson proposes, I would be happier to give a nod to that than to the skepticism to free trade of the US Green Party.

Were I an American, active in a Political Action Committee, this might be a hard stance to negotiate, to endorse Obama for president, but a vote for Johnson in most states. Not an impossible one, to be sure, but definitely one that it simpler from Ireland, as I’ll be watching results come in over the course of the night.

Other ballots and contests

And there will be other votes too. One of my earliest posts on this blog was about the 2009 vote on equal marriage in Maine, and what we can learn from it here. Maine is voting again tonight on the same question, and between it, Washington and Maryland, we are likely to see at least one state vote in favour of equal marriage. This will be highly significant, as they would be the first in the world to allow equal marriage by popular vote, and instructive for us here, as we are likely to have a campaign on it in the coming years.

Also from a gay point of view, I hope to see Tammy Baldwin elected as Democratic Senator for Wisconsin, defeating former Governor Tommy Thompson. She would be the first openly gay US Senator. There’s Richard Tisei, vying for a House seat in Massachusetts, who would be the first Republican openly gay on his election. And another Republican who I’d like to see in on similar grounds is Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in Florida, the only Republican member of the House to support the Respect for Marriage Bill.

In nearly all other cases, I’d imagine that I’d be rooting against the Republicans, tho I sure there are some honourably exceptions. I’m indifferent, for example, in the case of Linda McMahon, Republican Senate candidate in Connecticut. While not the best of them, I think the Republican caucus better for having some of the old Yankees within it. I might have classed Scott Brown in that mould before he named the reactionary Antonin Scalia as his model Supreme Court judge. And of course you’ll always find a smattering of races where the Democrat would be just clearly far worse, such as in Tennessee, where local Democratic party disowned their nominal candidate Mark Clayton, after his work with an anti-gay hate group came to light.

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