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What if Mitt Romney wins on 6 November?

How will it affect the rest of us?

The actress Shirley MacLaine once said, “It’s useless to hold a person to anything he says while he’s in love, drunk or running for office.” Mitt Romney has certainly said everything to throw voters off the trail. Reactionary Romney, the self-proclaimed “severe conservative” of the primaries, overnight became Moderate Mitt, an ultra-reasonable guy who says there is little difference between him and Barack Obama except competence.

If Romney’s rebranding tricks the people and he wins on 6 November, he will soon discover what it is like to be Obama, a president hemmed in by hostile forces. Since angry Tea Party activists consumed the Republican Party in 2009- 2010, candidates and congressmen have lined up to sign pledges promising that, if elected, they will not compromise on introducing tax cuts, public spending caps and a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget, and will agree to outlaw abortion, ban pornography and keep women in uniform off the front line.

Grover Norquist, leader of the anti-tax group Americans for Tax Reform, has gone further. If he has his way, Romney, who is neither liked nor trusted by Tea Party true believers, will have little say over what happens in a Romney administration. Norquist has championed what amounts to a parliamentary revolution. “The leadership now for the modern conservative movement for the next 20 years will be coming out of the House and the Senate,” he told a conservative conference this year. “We don’t need a president to tell us in what direction to go. We just need a president to sign this stuff . . . Pick a Republican with enough working digits to handle a pen.”

Chinese roulette

Romney the human windsock does not appear too worried about becoming Romney the rubber stamp. He is prepared to say and do anything, so long as he and his family are allowed to live in the White House. So what do Republican radicals have in store in the event of victory? And how will it affect the rest of the world?

Romney has assembled a transition team, grandly called “the Readiness Project”, to transform America from what many conservatives believe has become a Europe-style social democracy into a free-market nation fit for businessmen and entrepreneurs. First, Republicans in Congress will pass a law to avoid the “fiscal cliff”, the automatic deep cuts to public spending and lapse of the Bush tax cuts that was the price of keeping the federal government solvent in the summer of 2011.

The grand bargain will reduce income taxes to 20-25 per cent across the board and take a cleaver to entitlements for the poor, the elderly, the disabled and the disadvantaged. Romney has already signed up to his running mate Paul Ryan’s budget plan, which, according to estimates, would give 37 per cent of tax cuts to those earning more than $1m and cut benefits for the poor by 62 per cent. Ryan suggests cutting Medicaid – medical care for those who cannot afford health insurance – by 75 per cent. Meanwhile, taxes on dividends will be abolished, business regulations minimised and environmental restrictions and employment laws eased. If America is to compete with China, Romney suggests, US labour costs and employee protections must match those in China. Welcome to the 19th century.

Romney says he cannot specify how the tax cuts will be paid for but he will overhaul the tax code and cut deductibles. He may put a ceiling – $25,000 has been mentioned – on all personal tax breaks. The government will shrink in size. State-funded programmes in line for a haircut include public education, public safety measures, public transport, used largely by the less well-off, and scientific research. Romney also wants to end federal grants to public television, though it would save only $223m annually, and privatise Amtrak, the state-owned rail network.

Romney’s gamble follows David Cameron’s and George Osborne’s lead. He believes – it is an act of faith, not economics – that cutting government, taxes and regulations will spur Americans to become more entrepreneurial and thereby create jobs. Yet slashing government spending would likely tip the economy into a double-dip recession, just as it did in the UK and Italy. So far, with the eurozone and austerity Britain in the doldrums, the world economy is being kept afloat by slender US growth. Even if, as promised, Romney eventually spends $2trn more on defence to pursue a more aggressive neoconservative foreign policy, the sudden removal of trillions of federal dollars from US GDP will drive the whole world into a slump. That is what is at stake on 6 November.

Judge dread

There is more. Republicans wish to impose their reactionary social agenda on the half of the US they disagree with. Romney has said he would be happy to sign a law making all abortion illegal in all circumstances, including cases of rape and incest and when the procedure is necessary to protect a mother’s health. If that were to happen, Mexico and Canada (perhaps the UK, too) would become medical refugee destinations for those who can afford the air fare. American women who travel abroad to abort can expect to be arrested for murder on their return.

Reactionary Supreme Court rulings can be expected, including judgments reversing landmark civil rights, gender equality and sexual orientation legislation, if Romney replaces retiring justices with conservatives. Four are in their seventies, including the liberal Ruth Bader Ginsburg, aged 79, who has wanted to stand down since having part of her spleen and pancreas removed in cancer surgery in 2009.
The court is already finely balanced, with an old, moderate Republican, Anthony Kennedy, aged 76, usually tipping the balance in favour of liberal decisions.

That is just the start. If the Senate becomes Republican, both houses of Congress, the court and the presidency will all be in the hands of conservatives and there will be no check on what they enact. So much for the division of powers envisaged by the Founding Fathers. That is the precipice over which Americans are peering in fear this election.

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 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.