How the fighting talk fizzled from Mitt Romney's Republican Party

The GOP has allowed the Democrats to seize their ideological heartland - patriotism and defence.

Mitt Romney is in Ohio again, his fifteenth trip to this state this year. He pledged yesterday at a campaign rally in Mansfield, about three hours east of Hicksville, to protect the military from coming budgetary cuts to defence, known as the “sequestration”. He was undermined by the fact that a majority of congressional republicans – his running-mate Paul Ryan included – voted in favour of it.

This is the latest in a series of similar embarrassments for the Romney campaign. The Grand Old Party, as the Republicans are known, has been comprehensively outflanked and routed on the subject of the military, and are ceding vast swathes of territory on what just eight years ago was their home ground: patriotism and defence.

The evidence is clearest in the candidates' speeches to their national conventions. In his acceptance speech in 2004, George W Bush used the words “troops,” “Iraq,” “Afghanistan,” “battle,” “soldier,” “terror” and “safe,” and their derivatives (safety, terrorist, terrorism and so on) a total of 58 times – fifty-eight – to John Kerry's 11.

This pattern reversed in the 2008 election. John McCain used the above words just nine times in his acceptance speech, while Obama used them 29 times – though the effect of this was somewhat lightened by McCain's own war record, on which his campaign dwelt incessantly.

This reversal is even more dramatic in the conventions just past. While Obama did tone down the fighting talk, using those words above just 11 times, Mitt Romney did not use any of them. Not even once.

Remember that this is the presidential nominee from the party of George W Bush, the party that forged the neo-conservatism of Karl Rove and Dick Cheney; remember also that this is the party that coined the phrase “war on terror”.

Not once did this man who wants to be elected Commander-in-Chief of the world's most powerful military mention the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; not once did he mention terrorism, or war. Veterans and soldiers merited not one single solitary mention. Ryan, too, failed to hint at even the existence of any of these things in his speech.

John McCain was a war veteran; in fact he had a long and distinguished military career. Mitt Romney is not, and nor is this a deficit his running-mate fills; indeed, as mentioned before, Ryan voted in favour of sequestration of the military budget.

The Democrats are planting banners and occupying what used to be the Republicans' ideological heartland. Perhaps their party leadership simply got complacent, unable to conceive that the Democrats could steal a march on them in this way. Perhaps the rise in influence of the Tea Party on the far right, with their small-government and big-God ideals, has something to do with it. More likely is that, given the Romney-Ryan ticket's paucity of foreign policy heft, their campaign tacticians are scared of bringing up the subject and allowing the President to play his trump card: the killing of Osama Bin Laden in May 2011.

The Obama campaign has just brought out a new poster which says :“Sarah Palin said she could see Russia from Alaska; Mitt Romney talks like he's only seen Russia by watching Rocky IV”. They are also firing broadsides into Romney's pledges to protect military spending while reducing the deficit; this was the bullseye of Bill Clinton's barnstorming “arithmetic” line in his speech last week.

Yesterday in his Ohio rally, Romney ran to one of the few remaining Republican safe zones left – religion – pledging to keep God in the public sphere and in his party's platform - a thinly-veiled reference to the Democrats' omission of the word from theirs. But, in front of a military crowd, the blow failed to land.

Today is 9/11, the anniversary of the day that changed America – and American foreign policy – forever. Today will be a day of solemnity and remembrance for both campaigns, and for the nation. Romney is spending the day in Reno, Nevada, addressing the National Guard Association conference alongside a brace of generals. But it seems like too little, too late. Those horrific attacks, eleven years ago today, lit a fire deep in the belly of this country. It seems to have fizzled and died in the belly of the Republican Party.

Mitt Romney didn't use words like "soldier", "terror" or "safe" once in his convention speech. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.