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 reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide