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.

Photo: Getty
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Labour's woes in England won't be solved with an English Parliament

Labour has an English problem - but an English parliament isn't the solution, argues Tom Railton.

Who will speak for England? The front page of the Mail last Thursday may have been subjected to the kind of instant ridicule that makes Twitter worth enduring, but for some Labour MPs this is a question that deserves serious attention.

Since May, English identity politics has become something of a cause celebre in a parliamentary Labour Party which is increasingly anglicised. Partly this is a response to attempts by Labour north of the border to become more overtly Scottish in the face of an electorate with a sizeable nationalist element. Mainly though, it is a reaction to feedback from hundreds of doorstep conversations with voters who were convinced Ed Miliband was prepared to sell out England in a backroom deal with the SNP. 

Labour MPs are certainly right to be concerned. A perceived ambivalence towards English cultural identity is toxic in an electoral system where majorities are won and lost among older voters in the market towns of middle England. For many former Labour voters, the squeamish attitude of the left towards England is merely confirmation that politically correct cultural relativism has replaced common sense patriotism. The infamous incident of Emily Thornberry in Rochester only cut through with voters because they already believed that Labour felt uncomfortable with the flag of St George.

In response, a whole raft of answers have been proposed. At one end of the scale is Labour MP Toby Perkins’ campaign for a new English national anthem. This is an eminently sensible idea that is long overdue.

But some are convinced that more radical change is needed and have fixated on the idea of an English Parliament. This idea was floated again by Tristram Hunt in a speech to the grandly named Centre for English Identity and Politics, founded by former Labour MP and long-standing Englishness campaigner John Denham.

Calls for an English parliament have been echoing around the corridors of the palace of Westminster for decades and have been leant renewed vigour by the extension of devolution to other national assemblies. John Redwood and a small cabal of right wing Tories have obsessed about the perceived injustice of our asymmetric institutional arrangement at length, but there is little evidence that their ardour for a new English assembly has reached beyond the political classes. I heard English suspicion of the intentions of the SNP time and time again on doorsteps during the election, but not one person suggested to me that the problem would be solved by a new English parliament.

The fact is that the public simply do not care about constitutional injustice. This is a country where the majority of people are comfortable with an unelected monarch of German descent signing off all legislation. A country where even the modest campaign for the alternative vote was dismissed as irrelevant nonsense.

 Even Wales, which has more cause for grievance than England, only approved its own assembly by the barest majority. Now that a clumsy form of so-called English Votes for English Laws is in place it is impossible to even sustain the argument that the West Lothian Question in urgent need of an answer. It may be hard for political obsessives to grasp, but the public simply do not care. Like most campaigns for constitutional change, the crusade for an English parliament is an elite political project driven by a handful of bubble-dwellers. To put it simply, when people dress as crusaders at a cricket match people think it is funny, when they do so on a political campaign people think they are mad.

For Labour, it is hard to escape the conclusion that MPs are succumbing to a severe bout of “something must be done-ery”. Labour has an English problem. Something must be done to prove that Labour cares about England. An English Parliament is a thing. Therefore Labour should support an English Parliament. The post-traumatic stress of a general election and the powerless frustration of opposition can clearly have an interesting effect on people’s judgement.

None of this is to deny Labour’s problem with English identity, but it would make much more sense to channel energy into a better understanding of the symbols of national identity. A national anthem is a good idea. The flag of St George must be reclaimed from the far right in the same way the Union Jack has been wrestled out of the hands of the BNP. Politicians must become far more comfortable talking about Englishness, including talking about why so many first and second generation migrants have found Englishness such a hostile identity. That work is indeed urgent and it is encouraging that some Labour MPs are showing a willingness to act. But an English Parliament is a flamboyant distraction, not a solution. It is the answer to a question that the public are not asking. Labour MPs can already speak for England, they don’t need to build a new parliament to find their voices.