On Thursday evening, Griffin 3 filled to capacity to listen to a panel discussion on the issues and implications of the 2012 election. The panel featured three distinguished political scientists from outside institutions: Russell Muirhead, Robert Clements associate professor of democracy and politics at Dartmouth and a specialist in partisanship, elections and democratic theory; Cathie Jo Martin, professor of political science at Boston University, who focuses on comparative public policy; and Jeffry Tulis, associate professor of government at University of Texas-Austin, who works on American political development, constitutional theory and the American presidency.
The panel was part of the Class of ’71 Forum on Elections 2012, which has featured lectures by James Robinson, Michael Beschloss ’77 and Hedrick Smith ’55 this year. The final lecture in this series will be “Melissa Harris-Perry Reflects on Elections 2012” on Monday.
The panel was introduced by Sam Crane, chair and Fred Greene Third Century professor of political science at the College. The point of the panel, said Crane, was “not really talking about the horse race,” so much as the actual policies and governing philosophies at stake. College Council co-president Peter Skipper ’13 moderated the panel.
Tulis opened by saying “this is a highly significant election,” but not one of “critical realignment” in the mold of the New Deal or the Reagan Revolution, as there is not a new governing philosophy at stake. According to Tulis, the “Reagan Revolution lays on top of the New Deal, not in its place,” and new regimes usually come when the previous regime has succeeded, not when it has failed. The real question in this election is “whether the New Deal will be dismantled or completed,” Tulis said. Obama’s core concern is “finishing the New Deal project,” while Romney seeks to push the Reagan Revolution past its roots to “undo the New Deal.”
Muirhead spoke on “how parties relate to the way elections are conducted,” starting with how they have changed. When he was a student, “each of the parties covered every inch of the ideological spectrum” and political scientists criticized them for failing to offer a choice. Now, we “lament the choice,” as it makes compromise difficult.
Muirhead agreed with Tulis that the central question of the election is “to what extent we accept the New Deal.” The basis of the New Deal was “using the government to ameliorate poverty among the elderly, but we only two years ago fulfilled one part of the promise” with the Affordable Care Act, according to Muirhead. He contended that until Reagan’s election, the Republicans accepted the New Deal and wanted only to manage it “more efficiently and effectively.” Reagan’s belief that government was the problem, however, was the foundation of a Republican posture that is “much more destructive of government initiatives.” This is why the Republican platform is to “preserve Bush tax cuts … even if they make it impossible to maintain the New Deal project.”
The third panelist, Martin, spoke on the election in “the context of the global financial crisis, in which, worldwide, one presidency and prime ministership after another is falling,” she said, citing the recent defeats of France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi and the United Kingdom’s Gordon Brown. Despite this, “we can’t throw Obama out yet, because he’s challenging Romney on neoliberalism,” which Martin claimed was to blame for the recession because of its deregulation of financial systems.
Countries that have reversed that deregulation are doing best, Martin explained. “Scandinavian countries, with the largest public sectors, ran surpluses before the crisis … allowing them to stimulate their economies” when the recession hit. Obama “has tried to pursue similar programs” of restructuring, but “Republicans have been better able to represent their [alternative solutions].” She agreed with Tulis and Muirhead that this is a “fundamental battle over the future of the political economy in America.”
Skipper than asked the panelists how the Republicans have been “so successful promoting a program that would seem to act against their supporters’ interests.” The panelists agreed that this has been done by depicting Obama as a radical and depicting Republicans as moderate. Additionally, said Muirhead, the Republicans have traditionally presented the “seductive formula of tax cuts and spending increases at the same time,” and their modern position is merely a more consistent one by being anti-spending.
Next, the panelists were asked if American citizens have “unreasonable expectations of [their] candidates.” According to Martin, “Americans are furious with their economic situations,” so they blame the president, but the president does not have much to do with it. The presidency has come to represent American politics because “Congress has abdicated its responsibilities,” Tulis elaborated. “Supine Congress looks like an imperial presidency.”
The panelists then spoke about polarization in Congress. People may not welcome polarization, Tulis said. However, according to Muirhead, they must realize that they are choosing between contentious issues such as tax cuts proposed by the Republican party and additional spending proposed by the Democratic party. Therefore, Muirhead said that “polarization is not that unreasonable.”
Skipper then called on the audience for questions. One audience member disputed the importance of the New Deal, assigning importance instead to the Great Society’s achievements: livable Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Martin agreed that what is in question is “more equitable ways of dealing with the era of a shrinking pie while stimulating prosperity,” and all the panelists agreed that Americans have lost the popular belief during the New Deal that big government can be “honorable.”