Tuesday’s televised prime-time debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney may accomplish much for either candidate — or both — in domestic terms, but it will probably do nothing to make India or the wider world fall in love with the US president’s Republican challenger.
Tradition decrees that it should not be this way. The New Delhi punditocracy has always thought Republican presidents suit India much better than Democratic ones, and George W Bush’s game-changing civil nuclear cooperation agreement is undoubtedly sound ballast for that belief. More to the point, Romney is a millionaire businessman who has personally profited from outsourcing and, unlike Obama, he does not droning on about “economic patriotism”. Word is out that Romney is also planning a permanent tax holiday on overseas income, which would make it cheaper for multinational companies to expand outside the US and carry on moving jobs overseas with the option of possible re-investment of their earnings in America. So, if India had a vote in the US presidential election, shouldn't it be casting it for Romney?
That depends on a relatively esoteric question. Is it better to be steamrollered or simply ignored? With a President Romney in the White House, both options will probably be on the table for India.
Consider this. In a recent major foreign policy speech, Romney made no reference whatsoever to India, though his rival has consistently described the US-India relationship as one of the defining partnerships of the 21st century even as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton calls India a “strategic bet” in Washington’s rebalancing pivot towards Asia. Romney has consistently talked tough on Iran and the general consensus is that a Romney administration would be less flexible than Obama’s about granting waivers to countries like India that persist in doing business with Tehran. But most disquieting of all is Romney’s starkly hegemonist worldview. It promises “another American century”, reaffirms “historic ties to Israel” and seeks, in a return to the Cold War era, to reinstate the US as globocop, albeit with a makeover that borrows heavily from some of the darker manifestations of Lord Voldemort.
Three weeks before the election, it is unclear if the world needs to be overly concerned about Romney’s 20th century foreign policy mindset. The race for the White House is perceptibly narrowing. Even though Romney’s top adviser Ed Gillespie insisted on Sunday that his man had “the wind on his back” and was being buffeted towards victory, the incumbent still leads the challenger by one point in the three key swing states — Virginia, Ohio and Florida. If Romney loses, his unreconstructed approach to foreign policy will cease to matter to much of the world.
But for America, there is a world of difference to negotiate between Obama and Romney’s respective visions of their country’s future. On television and radio phone-ins, there is a striking rise in the number of Americans identifying themselves as “part of the 47%”. It is a dispiriting reference to Romney’s secretly recorded remarks categorising 47% of Americans as die-hard Obama supporters because they are entitlement junkies afflicted by a pronounced victim syndrome. It is probably safe to say that Romney’s remarks have polarised the country almost as deeply as its racial realities. But there is still more to distinguish the two candidates’ projections for the future. Romney wants to slash income tax for everyone, with the rate falling from 35% to 28% for the richest Americans. Obama wants to repeal Bush’s tax cuts for all households earning more than $250,000. Obama wants to ensure access to some level of healthcare for all Americans but Romney prefers to let the market determine this. Obama wants to regulate Wall Street more severely but his rival regards this as unreasonable restraint on free-market forces.
The differences are especially stark because they can be spelt out so clearly at this late stage of the campaign. Most US presidential elections are marked by the candidates cannily moving to the centre-ground several weeks before election day. Though Romney has assumed more centrist positions in the last fortnight, his party’s stranglehold does not allow him to renege, even briefly, on some of the more retrogressive, core principles of the modern Republican belief system. As governor of liberal Massachussetts, Romney supported abortion, gun control, efforts to slow climate change, and radical legislation on healthcare for all, which became a model for Obama’s plan. Now, he opposes all of these, in an enforced bow to his party's socially conservative wing. That said, as Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party’s favourite president, once mused on the similarities between his day job and that of a prostitute: “Politics is supposed to be the second oldest profession. I have come to realise that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.”
It is a political truism that presidential candidates say on the stump what they do not mean to do in office. One such is Romney’s promise to declare China a currency manipulator the very first day he enters the Oval Office. The move would conflict badly with his formidable business instincts because it would set off a fearsome trade war with America's largest creditor and one of its largest trading partners. Clearly, the promise can be dismissed as an extreme attack of stump pugnaciousness.
But what then of Romney's radio silence on India? The answer to that lies in the esoteric question posed above, with one crucial add-on. Is it better to be steamrollered or simply ignored or might the best option for India and everyone else be four more years of Obama?
Rashmee Roshan Lall is a senior journalist based in the US. The views expressed by the author are personal.