Beltway Briefing: Top stories from the US today

What do Mick Jagger and US voters have in common? | Are tax increases the answer? | Bachmann's boom

What do Mick Jagger and 84 per cent of Americans have in common? An absence of satisfaction. According to the latest Gallup poll, only 16 per cent of Americans were satisfied with the way things were going in the US. This is a huge drop from the heady days of Summer 2009, as the Obama administration found its feet and a whopping 36 per cent of Americans were happy with the way the US was going. Those days, however, seem a long time ago, while the 2012 Election is getting ever closer.

The US is in trouble financially. Many have been quick to blame the deficit on bailouts, wars and general government profligacy. The main cause, however, is something more simple: falling tax receipts. As Ezra Klein points out:

Revenues right now are less than 15 percent of GDP -- a 50-year low, and well below the 19+% that historically accompanies balanced budgets.

The good news is that US citizens are "open" to tax increases. The bad news (from the Democratic point of view) is that most voters would prefer to see spending cuts first, according to the below Gallup poll. 32 per cent want to see a mixture of spending cuts and tax rises; 30 per cent want mostly spending cuts to solve the deficit, and 20 per cent want spending cuts alone.

Gallup

Bachmann's support may be slightly soft according to a Beltway Briefing earlier this week, but it is still on the up-swing, according to a new poll in the Des Moines Register. Politico spotted it:

Among likely Iowa GOP caucus-goers, the poll found Bachmann had 32 percent support, holding a statistically insignificant lead over Romney at 29 percent.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty had 7 percent; former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum had 6 percent; U.S. Rep. Ron Paul had 3 percent; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich had 2 percent; retired Georgia businessman Herman Cain had 1 percent, while former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman had zero percent, the same as former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson.

The big mo is currently all Bachmann's.

The campaign group Right Wing Watch have created a video splicing clips of potential presidential candidate, the Texan Governor Rick Perry speaking to the nation in amongst various homophobic, anti-abortion, right-wing clips from Confederate groups he has ties with.

Perry's broadcast asks his viewers to join their fellow Americans at a prayer rally because "things spiritual in nature" are needed more than ever in a world where people are "adrift in a sea of moral relativism". News comes today that Perry is being sued by a group of atheists and agnostics for what they view as a violation of the constitutional principle separating church and state.

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Clinton and Trump: do presidential debates really matter?

The ability of the candiates to perform in front of the cameras is unlikely to impact the final result.

The upcoming televised presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are undoubtedly the most eagerly anticipated for many years. No doubt there are various surprises in store – this has been, after all, the most surprising of campaigns.

People will be particularly fascinated to see if Trump dials down his bombastic rhetoric and perhaps even adds some substance to the vague policy pronouncements he has made so far. To a lesser extent, many will also be interested in whether Clinton can add the necessary zest to what some consider her lacklustre style, and whether she can prove she’s made a sterling recovery from her recent bout with pneumonia.

It’s possible that some voters may in fact change their minds based on what they see in the two’s only on-camera encounters. And yet, barring a true disaster or devastating triumph, it’s unlikely that anything the candidates say or do will make much difference to the overall result.

This might not seem all that surprising for these two candidates in particular. Leaving aside how long they’ve both been in public life, social media and the 24-hour news cycle have put Clinton and Trump under incredible scrutiny ever since they announced their respective candidacies – and their every sentence and gesture has already been analysed in the greatest detail.

Trump in particular has received more free publicity from the networks and Twitter than even he could afford, and it’s highly unlikely that he will say anything that the US public hasn’t heard before. Similarly, voters’ impressions of Clinton are apparently so deeply entrenched that she probably won’t change many people’s minds.

Yet there are also broader reasons why presidential TV debates are less important than we might imagine.

Looking the part

Even before the media environment became as saturated as it is today, debates were rarely, if ever, decisive in presidential elections. The exception was possibly the very first TV debate in 1960, which pitted the then vice-president, Richard Nixon, against John F. Kennedy.

At the time, the election was so close that the young, relatively inexperienced but highly telegenic Kennedy was able to reap the benefits of putting his case directly to viewers. He was the underdog; a relative unknown in comparison to Nixon and so had more to gain from such national exposure. Nixon, as the establishment figure, had a lot to lose.

In the end, Kennedy’s narrow victory may well have been because of his debate performances. But his success also demonstrated another important feature of television debates: that viewers take more notice of what they see than what they hear.

Notoriously, television viewers responded very favourably to Kennedy’s film-star good looks, but were turned off by Nixon, who refused to wear make-up and looked sweaty and uncomfortable under the studio lights. In contrast, those who listened on the radio believed that Nixon had come out on top. It seems that viewers saw Kennedy as more “presidential” than Nixon, especially given his calmness under pressure. Kennedy did work hard to exploit some of Nixon’s weaknesses on policy, but in the end, that turned out not to be the point.

Kennedy’s success was one of the reasons that neither of his two successors, Lyndon B. Johnson and then a resurgent Nixon, participated in any such events when they were running for the presidency. Although some debates were held in the primaries, there were no face-to-face contests between presidential candidates in 1964, 1968 or 1972.

The next debates were held in 1976, another tight campaign. These yielded a notorious moment in the second encounter between Gerald R Ford and Jimmy Carter, when the incumbent Ford appeared to throw the election away with a poorly judged remark declaring that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. As myth has it, this gaffe stalled Ford’s polling surge; he ultimately lost the election.

Yet even this was not decisive. Although the comment did the president no favours, it’s highly debatable whether it in fact had an impact on the overall result; Ford actually closed the polling gap with Carter between the debates and the general election. People’s reactions to the debate had less to do with the substance of his remark and much more with the media’s constant replay and analysis of that moment, which continues to mar Ford’s reputation to this day.

Selective memory

This pattern has continued in the election cycles that have followed, as slips and awkward moments rather than substance provide the media with dominant themes. Many people recall vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle’s cack-handed attempt to compare himself to Kennedy in 1988, or George Bush senior’s ill-judged glance at his watch when listening to a question in 1992; few probably remember much about what policies they discussed, or whether, if they won, they carried them out.

If anything, the shortcomings of the TV debate format have become more pronounced in the current cycle. Although neither of the main candidates in this year’s election wants for national exposure, the primary debates have tended to favour the underdog and those who claim to be outsiders.

On the Republican side, Trump’s various moderate competitors were one by one hobbled and engulfed; Clinton, for her part, spent months slugging it out with her remarkably successful left-wing rival Bernie Sanders, never quite landing a televised knockout punch and ultimately only defeating him properly after six months of primaries.

While credible policy proposals seem to matter less than ever, things that would have once been considered catastrophic gaffes have become par for the course. Indeed, one could argue that Trump’s success so far is because he has built his campaign on half-truths and outright lies without care for the consequences.

So despite all the anticipation, this year’s debates probably won’t tell us very much about what will happen after the president takes office next January; the analysis will almost certainly focus less on what the candidates have to say and more on how they say it. Voters will no doubt tune in in great, possibly record-breaking numbers, but they’ll come away with precious little sense of what’s in store for their country.

Equally, the spectacles we’re about to witness might be pyrotechnic enough, but they’re unlikely to decide the result in November. And in the unlikely event that they do, it won’t be for the right reasons.

Andrew Priest is a lecturer in Modern US History at the University of Essex

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.