Two Cathedrals: the contrasting rhetoric of Obama and Romney

Nicky Woolf reports from two very different events in north-west Ohio

U2, inescapable at Democrat events, plays over the public address system at the basketball arena at Bowling Green State University, north Ohio. The crowd – there are more than five thousand people here – is young, diverse, and when Obama steps out, visibly starstruck. He is slighter than he appears on television, but when he speaks you find you already know the voice from a thousand newscasts and YouTube clips. He is at home here; he grows behind the podium, speaking with the cadence of a preacher, building rhetorical castles in the air, winding the audience up to a climax of fervour. They respond with adulation. “Try to bend your knees,” he says to those standing. “We've had some people faint before...”

Julian Gillilan, a music student at BGSU, is here because the President “is for college students, and minority groups. He's on our side.” His friend Tristan Saffron-Cottrell, who has a shock of blond-tipped hair, is studying graphic design. He is for Obama because “I believe in the same rights and beliefs, pro-gay marriage, pro-choice. I take these things strongly to heart. Lots of [us] students are more democratic, and because we're a younger crowd, we believe in rights.”

And Romney? “He's a dumbass. I think government should be more open to things he's not – like abortion rights, anti-gun policies...” he pauses, looks suddenly shy. “And I don't think the government has a right to tell anyone who they are allowed to love.”

Morgan Palmucci, studying Spanish language education here, is worried about her college loans. “[Obama]'s standing up for everyone's basic right to go to college. He's fighting to make it affordable, to give everyone a chance.”

But the crowd is not just composed of die-hard fans. Allan Rubenstein, a 19-year-old visual communications technology student, says he hasn't yet made his mind up. He has come here to see what the president has to say. I ask what he wants to hear. “I don't know. Answers. I have an open mind: I'll see what he has to offer.”

***

In a way, Obama and Romney are each preaching from the other's pulpit today. Bowling Green may have a large student population, but it is the county seat of a relatively rural county with a sizeable Catholic population. It may have voted for Obama in 2008, but almost all its county officials are now Republican. Toledo, where Romney is due to speak later that afternoon, is a big auto industry town, quite poor, and quite racially diverse. Union country. Democrat country. “Fuck Romney,” the cab driver taking me to the convention centre says with feeling when he learns who I am on my way to see.

Governor Romney's audience is considerably smaller than Obama's. It is much older, much whiter, and much more male-dominated too. Old men mutter in the background unselfconsciously over the people speaking, as if talking at a television set. A giant green digital debt-clock, twenty feet high, speeds upwards ominously. Country music plays. Like Paul Ryan two days ago, when Romney emerges he is played in by Kid Rock's 'Born Free'.

Campaigning is about repetition. The same message played over and over again by two of America's cleverest people, repeated with very slight amendments over and over again in town halls, sports arenas, car parks, factories and airfields around the country; planed and moulded but essentially the same each time. The game is about folding local events, local stories, into that message. In Lima on Monday, Paul Ryan brought the local tank factory seamlessly into his defence cuts narrative. The narrative itself will be the same everywhere, however: only the name of the plant changes.

In 2008, on the campaign trail in New Hampshire, I met then-vice-Presidential candidate Joe Biden. He shook my hand, leaned in close and told me, with a twinkle in his eye: “if I had your hair, I'd be President.”

I was more than a little deflated some while later, when I discovered that Biden says this to pretty much everyone he meets with hair. The same charming line, the same twinkle of the eye, over and over and over again. You see why they say politics is bad for the soul?

Endless repetition can trip some candidates up. Romney today, near the end of his speech, said: “you've been outside for a long time now, but I want to tell you one last thing.” A slight wince was very briefly visible on his face, as he realised he was speaking to an audience at an indoor arena. But with speeches and quips that are all learned by rote, such slips are occasionally inevitable.

***

This morning, the candidates will have read a New York Times poll that gives Obama a bracing ten-point lead in Ohio; enough to give the President plenty of breakfast cheer, and enough for Romney allow a single un-businesslike sob escape into his morning cappuccino; but if you had not seen them at breakfast and just watched them speak, you may well have thought the polls had been the opposite. Romney, for all his awkwardness, is light-hearted; he looks suspiciously like he's having fun.

Romney, though hoarse-voiced, talks more like a comedian, peppering his speech with a stand-up's patter. “China has been holding down its currency. What does that do? I'll tell you what that does...” You wouldn't catch such down-home familiarity in Obama's speaking style, and the audience in Toledo is charmed, banging their blue and white inflatable noise-sticks together with fervour.

Obama, on the other hand, speaks with grim, tight-lipped determination and a preacher's oratory inflection. Not even when the line “...and Osama Bin Laden is dead” produced applause so strong he is rocked backwards involuntarily on his heels from the force of it does he allow himself even the glimmer of a grin. He is a serious man.

The audiences are looking for different things, too. While many of Obama's audience tell me the economy is a concern - especially that part of it that pertains to student loans - they put social freedoms firmly above economic concerns. When I ask members of Romney's audience what issues are important to them, however, they are unequivocal. “The economy, the debt,” says Diane Ninke, sat with her husband next to me in the stands. “The economy. It's the economy,” agrees Joe Sipple; “the economy is head and shoulders over the rest.” Another supporter echoes Bill Clinton: “it's the economy, obviously.”

Romney's speech reflects this. He is a man who knows what his potential voters are concerned about: the price of gas, already mentioned three times in the speeches before him, gets another two checks in his first five minutes. “Gas prices have doubled” is the unofficial rallying-cry of the Romney-Ryan campaign.

And then there's that gigantic sinister debt-clock behind the stage. It would be unfair to call this a campaign of fear, despite slogans like “Ohio can't afford another four years like the last.” American politics has seen far worse, and the Obama campaign's ads (“Get Real, Mitt!”) aren't that far from the mud either. But Romney's is certainly a campaign of concentrated financial nervousness.

This would have turned Rubenstein off: the undecided first-time voter at Obama's rally did not like it when the president referred to his rival. “Obviously he's his opponent, so he has to bash him. It did put me off a little bit. But it's politics, isn't it.” He shrugs, and tells me he is still undecided: “I have to go away and do a lot of reading.”

Outside the Romney rally, the heavy afternoon rain has left great pools of standing water. A little girl of about seven or eight is being led between the puddles by her mother. A politician might describe this in terms of an economic metaphor, in which the puddles represent recession and the mother represents, perhaps, fiscal prudence. Unaware of her symbolism, the girl cries out in joy as she passes me, her arms jangling with badges as she skips. “That was super-exciting! I got lots of Romney stuff!”

Make of that what you will.

Obama speaks at Bowling Green State University. Photo: Getty

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

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses