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Mitt Romney’s big problem isn’t Trump or Obama, it’s Mitt Romney

Flip-flopping is deemed a mortal sin in American politics.

It is not easy to feel sorry for Mitt Romney. Like David Cameron and George Osborne, he looks too comfortably well off, his skin too shiny
and tanned, his hair too expensively cut, his jeans too well pressed. He estimates his personal wealth at somewhere between $210m and $250m. When you don’t know how rich you are to the nearest $40m, it must be hard to relate to people who know exactly how little there is in their pay packets.

The presidential race has entered the long, sleepy summer season in which nothing much gets done, which will end on Labor Day, 3 September. The nitty-gritty of the campaigns, such as Romney picking a running mate, will only be dealt with when everyone has shaken the sand out of their loafers.

Until then, the two sides are concentrating on setting the stage with a big theme, saving the full barrage of smaller skirmishes for the autumn. For Romney, that means priming voters to ask themselves whether they are better off than they were four years ago. For Obama, it means painting Romney as a fraud when it comes to claiming the ability to create jobs.

Obama’s people have already begun to sow seeds of doubt about Romney’s boast that because he made himself a fortune at the asset-strippers Bain Capital he understands how the US economy works. They have paraded people thrown out of work by Bain and companies that went bust after being burdened with too much debt by Bain.

Friendly fire

Obama has benefited from ammunition kindly provided by Romney’s Republican rivals. “The Bain model is to go in at a very low price, borrow an immense amount of money, pay Bain an immense amount of money and leave,” said Newt Gingrich in January. “I think that’s exploitation.” “There is something inherently wrong when getting rich off failure and sticking it to someone else is how you do your business,” said Rick Perry. “I happen to think that that is indefensible.”

But painting Romney as Gordon Gekko has proved costly to Obama, who relies for funds on friendly Wall Street types who take exception to being painted as unfeeling, self-serving crooks. Popular Democrats like Bill Clinton, Steve Rattner, the architect of the successful motor industry bailout, the former Tennessee congressman Harold Ford, Jr; and Cory Booker, the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, broke ranks, saying they couldn’t blanket condemn venture capitalists, who serve a purpose by refreshing companies in decline.

Romney, too, has problems with his supporters. It was bad enough that Donald Trump, with his absurd Arthur Scargill combover, hijacked his endorsement by maintaining the lie that Obama wasn’t born in the US. The persistence of the “birther” movement is undermining the claim that Romney leads a level-headed party. He faces similar embarrassment by depending on billionaire backers such as the Koch brothers, oil magnates who fund dodgy science about climate change. Mixing with deluded people can frighten off rational independent voters.

Because the super-PACs that the Kochs and others fund may not legally confer with Romney’s official campaign, they may do more harm than good. One group wants to revisit Obama’s friendship with the white-hating pastor Jeremiah Wright, but such race-baiting may end
up driving Obama’s jaded African-American supporters to the polls.

Yet Romney’s biggest problem is himself. He cannot keep his mouth zipped. So far this has led him to blurt, “I like being able to fire people”, “I’m not concerned about the very poor”, “Corporations are people”, and to confide that his wife, Ann, “drives a couple of Cadillacs, actually”. Then there was his $10,000 bet with Perry, which confirms that Mitt the poor little rich boy hasn’t a clue about the household bud­gets of ordinary folk.

The great unknown is whether Romney’s Mormon faith will prove a deal-breaker with the American people. Romney was a bishop in the male-dominated Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints when he advised a woman to put her illegitimate child up for adoption or leave the Church. Its peculiar rites, such as the sacred long johns that members wear, and its offensive beliefs about people of colour, have yet to be addressed by Romney, who says he has no intention of speaking about his religion.

Rowing back

The legend is that John Maynard Keynes said, “When circumstances change, I change my mind. And what do you do, sir?” But, as John Kerry found, flip-flopping is deemed a mortal sin in American politics, where soundbites do not allow any time to explain how you can be for the Iraq war one day and against it the next. Yet if Romney wants to attract moderate voters over the summer he is going to have to row slyly back from the extreme positions he adopted to trounce his Republican rivals.

To see off Perry, he became an anti-immigrant hardliner, a position that made him a hate figure among Hispanics, a demographic increasingly crucial to winning swing states. To fend off Gingrich he agreed to slash the federal bud­get, though Romney has since said he won’t agree to deep cuts until there is a recovery, which has elicited accusations from fiscal conservatives that he is a closet Keynesian.

To defeat Rick Santorum, he ended up opposing abortion, and even contraception, setting off what Democrats gleefully named “the war on women”. Above all, Romney has yet to find an answer to the question at the core of his campaign: why he thinks the health insurance mandate he introduced in Massachusetts was good when he says Obama’s identical programme, which his reforms inspired, will ruin America.

Even if Romney always intended to wipe the slate clean as if it were an Etch a Sketch, as a top aide so candidly acknowledged back in March, each U-turn will cost him dear, and not onlyin gibes from his enemies about flip-flops but among the ultra-conservatives he must keep sweet. Romney may be famously flexible, but he is going to have to perfect the triple back somersault to Olympic standard if he is to have a chance of winning in November.

Nicholas Wapshott’s “Keynes Hayek: the Clash That Defined Modern Economics” is published by W W Norton (£18.99)

Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: the Clash That Defined Modern Economics is published by W W Norton (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, A-Z of Iran

The Prime Minister still has questions to answer about his plans for Syria

Cameron needs a better plan for Syria than mere party-politicking, says Ian Lucas.

I was unfortunate enough to hear our Prime Minister discussing the vexed issue of military action in Syria on the Today programme yesterday. It was a shocking experience - David Cameron simply cannot resist trying to take party political advantage of an extremely serious crisis. It is quite clear that there are massive humanitarian, military and political issues at stake in Syria. A number of international and national powers including the United States and Russia are taking military action within Syria and David Cameron said in the broadest terms that he thought that the UK should do so too.

The questions then arise - what should we do, and why should we do it?

Let me make it clear that I do believe there are circumstances in which we should take military action - to assist in issues which either affect this country's national interest and defence, or which are so serious as to justify immediate action on humanitarian grounds. It is for the Prime Minister, if he believes that such circumstances are in place, to make the case.

The Prime Minister was severely shaken by the vote of the House of Commons to reject military action against President Assad in 2013. This was a military course which was decided upon in a very short time scale, in discussion with allies including France and the United States.

As we all know, Parliament, led by Ed Miliband’s Labour Opposition and supported by a significant number of Conservative MPs, voted against the Government’s proposals. David Cameron's reaction to that vote was one of immediate petulance. He ruled out military action, actually going beyond the position of most of his opponents. The proposed action against Assad action was stressed at the time by President Obama to be very limited in scope and directed specifically against the use of chemical weapons. It was not intended to lead to the political end of President Assad and no argument was made by the governments either in the United States or in the UK that this was an aim. What was proposed was short, sharp military action to deal specifically with the threat of chemical weapons. Following the vote in the House of Commons, there was an immediate reaction from both United States and France. I was an Opposition spokesman at the time, and at the beginning of the week, when the vote was taken, France was very strident in its support for military action. The House of Commons vote changed the position immediately and the language that was used by President Obama, by John Kerry and others .

The chemical weapons threat was the focus of negotiation and agreement, involving Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and his connections with Syria.  The result was that Assad agreed to dispense with chemical weapons on a consensual basis and no military action took place.

David Cameron felt humiliated by this outcome and loses no opportunity to suggest that the decision was wrong.  He is determined that he should revisit the issue of bombing in Syria, though now action there has elided to action against Islamic State. He has delegated Michael Fallon to prepare the ground for a vote on military action in Parliament. Fallon is the most political of Defence Secretaries - before he became a minister he was regularly presented by the Conservative party as its attack dog against Labour. He gives me the impression of putting the Conservative Party’s interest, at all times, above the national interest. Nothing in his tenure at Defence has changed my view of him.

I was therefore very sceptical what when, in September, Fallon suggested that there should be briefings of members of Parliament to inform us of the latest position on Syria. It turns out that I was right - at the Conservative party conference, Mr Fallon has been referring to these briefings as part of the process that is changing minds in the House of Commons towards taking military action in Syria. He is doubtless taking his orders from the Prime Minister, who is determined to have a vote on taking part in military action in Syria, this time against Islamic State.  

If the Prime Minister wishes to have the support of the House of Commons for military action he needs to answer the following questions: 

What is the nature of the action that he proposes?

What additional impact would action by the UK have, above and beyond that undertaken by the United States and France?

What is the difference in principle between military action in Syria by the UK and military action in Syria by Russia?

What would be the humanitarian impact of such action?

What political steps would follow action and what political strategy does the government have to resolve the Syrian crisis?

The reality is that the United States, UK, France and other western powers have been hamstrung on Syria by their insistence Assad should go. This situation has continued for four years now and there is no end in sight.

The Prime Minister and his Defence Secretary have yet to convince me that additional military action in Syria, this time by the United Kingdom, would help to end Syria's agony and stem the human tragedy that is the refugee crisis engulfing the region and beyond. If the Prime Minister wishes to have support from across the House of Commons, he should start behaving like the Prime Minister of a nation with responsibilities on the United Nations Security Council and stop behaving like a party politician who seeks to extract political advantage from the most serious of international situations.

Ian Lucas is the Labour MP for Wrexham.